Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Keys, George Eric Maxwell (1904–1986)

by Jenny Gregory

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

George Eric Maxwell Keys (1904-1986), headmaster, was born on 30 January 1904 at Christchurch, New Zealand, son of James Herbert Keys, clerk, and his wife Annie Paton, née Maxwell, both born in New Zealand. James died in 1918, leaving the family, then living at Palmerston North, in straitened circumstances. That year Maxwell completed his schooling at the local high school and in 1919 became a pupil-teacher at Christchurch West District High School. Gaining a teaching diploma at Christchurch Training College in 1922, he studied part time from 1921 at Canterbury University College, University of New Zealand (BA, 1925; Dip.Ed., 1926; Dip.Soc.Sc., 1931; MA, 1936) while teaching at high schools and Cathedral Grammar School. In 1926 he transferred to the Christchurch Technical College and also established a vocational guidance department of the local Young Men’s Christian Association.

Five feet 9 ins (175 cm) and of rugged build, Keys was handsome, with dark hair and blue eyes. In 1927-28 he travelled in North America and Britain; he experienced tough periods of unemployment in Canada and a three-month stint with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. In the United States of America he made contacts in the vocational guidance field. A love of outdoor life, respect for disciplined male teamwork and skill as a poker player were legacies of this time.

Back at Christchurch, Keys married Eileen Constance Mitchell on 24 January 1929 at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Having studied in London, she was to become an accomplished potter. Keys rejoined the staff at the technical college as vocational guidance master. During the Depression he helped to set up counselling and placement services and later to introduce vocational guidance into New Zealand schools. In 1939, having gained a Carnegie Foundation of New York fellowship, he began studies at the Institute of Education, University of London, that were cut short by World War II. In 1941-46 he continued his teaching and youth work at Christchurch and served as a flight lieutenant in the Air Training Corps.

In January 1947 Keys succeeded Peter Anderson as headmaster of Scotch College, Perth. The school was in poor shape after years of penury during the Depression and World War II; Keys appointed new staff and encouraged the development of music, drama and art. He formed a pipe band and expanded cadet training through the introduction of Air Training and Sea Cadets corps. A new post-matriculation class assisted in the transition between school and work, and in 1958 he engaged the State’s first school counsellor. He instigated a major building program: a war memorial hall (1957), new junior school (1961), science block (1961), more boarding accommodation (1962-68) and a chapel (1968). Enrolments increased from 325 to 700.

In 1959 Keys gained a doctorate in education from the University of Toronto, Canada; travelling in North America he was appalled by the `blackboard jungle’ mentality that characterised many schools. He returned to Perth with a more conservative philosophy of education. Impressed by Geelong Church of England Grammar School’s Timbertop in Victoria, he made an ill-fated attempt to establish a similar program. He was more successful in implementing the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme at the school and introduced a service club modelled on Rotary.

Keys was not universally loved. A combination of rigidity and freedom marked his years at Scotch; young innovative masters taught alongside men whose teaching methods had stultified years earlier. His study was nicknamed `the lubritorium’; there he oiled the wheels and smoothed over difficult situations. He was active in professional organisations: in 1959 he hosted the eleventh triennial Headmasters’ Conference of the Independent Schools of Australia at Scotch. A founding member (1959) and a fellow (1967) of the Australian College of Education, he was chairman of the Western Australia chapter. In 1966 he served as president of the Association of Independent Schools of Western Australia.

Appointed OBE in 1968, Keys retired in December that year and moved to Roleystone. In 1969-73 he chaired the Youth Council of Western Australia. He was a keen sailor and a committed Rotarian. Survived by his wife and their son and two daughters, he died on 10 March 1986 at Roleystone and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Gregory, Building a Tradition (1996) and for bibliography
  • Reporter (Claremont), vol 79, 1986, p 2
  • Scotch College, Clan, Apr 1986, p 1.

Citation details

Jenny Gregory, 'Keys, George Eric Maxwell (1904–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/keys-george-eric-maxwell-12737/text22975, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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