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Gordon, Colin Ernest Sutherland (1907–1960)

by Ian D. Brice

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Colin Ernest Sutherland Gordon (1907-1960), headmaster, was born on 24 December 1907 at Berbice, British Guiana, son of John Richard Colin Gordon, sugar-planter, and his wife Hilda, née Sloman. Colin was educated at Charterhouse, England, where he was made head of his house, captain of athletics and cricket, and a prefect; he was particularly influenced by the headmaster (Sir) Frank Fletcher and by a young teacher (Sir) James Darling. In 1926 Gordon entered Christ Church, Oxford (B.A., M.A., 1938). He was elected president (1930) of the university's athletics club, and represented Britain in the high jump at the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, and British Guiana at the 1930 British Empire Games at Hamilton, Canada. From 1930 to 1931 he taught at Trinity College School, Port Hope, Ontario.

In 1931 Darling brought Gordon to Victoria to teach Latin and English at Geelong Church of England Grammar School. Appointed a housemaster (1935), Gordon became one of his key allies in transforming the school, and a close friend. He was a popular and versatile master, and wrote a Latin textbook. At St John's Church, Toorak, on 4 January 1940 he married Patricia Hayward Newbigin. In that year he taught classics at The King's School, Parramatta, Sydney. Appointed lieutenant in the Citizen Military Forces in December, he was found to have chronic malaria and was transferred to the Unattached List in May 1941. On 20 January 1942 he was commissioned in the Administrative and Special Duties Branch of the Royal Australian Air Force. He rose to acting wing commander. As chief rehabilitation officer at Air Force Headquarters, Melbourne, he showed 'outstanding foresight' in formulating demobilization policy. His appointment terminated on 19 November 1945.

In that year he was selected to be headmaster of the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, the first layman to hold the position. When he took office in 1946 the school, of about seven hundred pupils, was somewhat run down and in need of vigorous leadership. Six ft 3 ins (191 cm) tall, austerely handsome and with an air of lithe energy, Gordon brought organizational talent, zest, penetrating insight and a forceful personality to the task. Improvements were made to the fabric of the school, but he gave first priority to the quality of the teachers. He progressively recruited a strong staff, whose professional development he fostered, and he made an innovative appointment of a full-time psychologist responsible for educational guidance. Assessment and reporting throughout the school were systematized. In addition to demanding excellence in both academic work and sport, Gordon tried to ensure that each boy, especially those not in the A forms or first teams, achieved his best.

Although demand for places grew intense, he withstood pressure to enlarge the school. Particularly at the outset, he had a tense relationship with the governors, who resisted change and expected deference to be shown towards members of Adelaide's establishment. A member (from 1948) of the Adelaide Club, Gordon had no time for the snobbery of a small provincial elite. He was sometimes brusque with parents and lectured them on speech days about upholding the moral standards which the school was endeavouring to instil. Bishop Robin supported him and became a spiritual mentor. Assisted by an outstanding chaplain T. B. Macdonald, Gordon strengthened the religious life of the school. His integrity, and occasional brutal honesty, won loyalty from staff and senior boys. His style was autocratic, but informal and consultative. Ideas from the staff were welcomed—at first invariably challenged, and, if persuasive, adopted with enthusiasm.

By 1951 Gordon had established a confident, competitive, Spartan tone that stressed effort and service—sensitivity or imagination were little valued. Next year in Britain he visited leading public schools, and broadened and mellowed his outlook. He returned determined to give the arts and social issues a greater place in the school's life, and convinced that the narrowing pressures of public examinations—especially the dominance of mathematics and science—must be overcome. He introduced a two-year Leaving Honours course which widened the range of subjects and devoted time to non-examination studies, including current affairs.

A member (from 1950) of the council of the University of Adelaide, Gordon helped to promote a chair of education. As chairman (1957-59) of the Headmasters' Conference of Australia, he countered political criticism of independent schools, and was a national advocate of their essential attributes and their right to exist in a democracy. In 1959 he was a founder of the Australian College of Education. By this time he was dying of cancer, but continued working. His speech day report in December was a veiled farewell. He welcomed pupils and parents to 'the last formal rites of the school year', expressing 'relief that a long and arduous course has been run'. He asked those leaving to 'treasure memories of close companionship, of understanding, trust and loyalty'.

Survived by his wife and two daughters, Gordon died at St Peter's College on 22 August 1960 and was cremated. In many ways he had exemplified the classic headmaster of an English public school, but, unlike his predecessors, he was a colonial with a tinge of egalitarianism who wholeheartedly adopted Australia as his home. While he could be relaxed and humorous with close colleagues, most boys admired him from a distance as a stern and awesome figure. A Stoic who concealed his emotions and did kindnesses by stealth, he was dedicated to his vocation and upright in character. He bequeathed to St Peter's a sense of standards and purpose which sustained it under less distinguished leadership. A portrait by Ivor Hele is held by the college.

Select Bibliography

  • J. W. Hogg, Our Proper Concerns (Syd, 1986)
  • W. Bate, Light Blue Down Under (Melb, 1990)
  • St Peter's College Magazine, 1945-60, especially Dec 1960
  • Current Affairs Bulletin, 2 Dec 1957, p 14
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 26 June 1945, 23 Aug 1960
  • K. Peake-Jones, A Memoir of C. E. S. Gordon (typescript, 1980, held in St Peter's College Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ian D. Brice, 'Gordon, Colin Ernest Sutherland (1907–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gordon-colin-ernest-sutherland-10331/text18287, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 20 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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