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Montgomery, Christina Smith (1870–1965)

by Gwyneth Dow

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Christina Smith Montgomery (1870-1965), headmistress, was born on 21 March 1870 at Kelso, Scotland, eldest child of William Montgomery, draper's assistant, and his wife Janet, née Smith. She attended Kelso Grammar School where she acquired a lifelong love of classical studies. After the family arrived in Melbourne in 1884, she and her younger sister Margaret (d.1917) attended Cambridge Street State School, Collingwood, and in September 1886 were appointed pupil-teachers there. In 1891 they both enrolled and became prizewinners at the new Melbourne Teachers' College. Matriculating in 1892, Christina attended the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1897; M.A., 1900), becoming one of the first women graduates employed in the State Department of Education.

Throughout, she taught full time at Ballarat and Drouin but her studies did not diminish her glowing inspectors' reports, which referred to her 'care and energy'. The first director of education, Frank Tate, noted that as a very young, 'undersized' junior teacher, by her mere presence she quelled classes that defeated men over six feet (183 cm) tall. Christina waited for promotion until she was 29, her progress impeded by her studies and the further handicaps imposed on women in the depression. In 1898 she took leave to become head of evening classes at Perth Central Girls' School, which confirmed her preference for teaching older students. She was promoted on returning in 1899.

When Melbourne Continuation School opened in 1905, Christina Montgomery was appointed Latin teacher. In 1923 she became headmistress, under the principal, Joseph Hocking; but in 1927, after the school had been condemned on health grounds, the boys moved to the new Melbourne High School at Forest Hill, while the girls remained in the renamed Melbourne Girls' High School. From this inauspicious beginning Miss Montgomery established the first girls' academic high school, eventually renamed MacRobertson Girls' High School.

Unashamedly flaunting her classical prowess, she named the houses after Greek nymphs, adopted 'Potens Sui' as the motto, and launched a students' paper, Pallas. Monty's raison d'être was to rival both the brother school and independent schools academically. Her girls were not to suffer the disabilities she had overcome. Moreover, World War I had convinced her that any hope for a sane future lay in women's hands. Her speech nights resounded with the glories of her girls' achievements. She established the school's enduring scholarly reputation, successfully resisting attempts to make its curriculum more 'domestic' and even to close it down. Her greatest triumph came when in 1931 it was moved from a 'penitentiary'-like slum to Government House. Determined that her girls would be at home with high culture and social graces, Monty continued an established weekly 'social hour'.

She had won parents' militant loyalty in the political battle to save the school in 1930. Between 1927 and 1932, the year of her retirement, enrolments rose from 340 to 805, despite the Depression and the £6 per term fees, but the demands imposed by the school's vulnerability drained her considerable energies. She felt she dare not err. Her feminism was characterized by a touchily nervous jealousy of the girls' reputation. Being embattled made her seemingly aloof, formidable and humourless to some pupils and teachers, yet she had a dry wit. Her imperious dignity counterbalanced her minuteness and possibly a fieriness that matched her flaming auburn hair. By her dowdiness and undemonstrative reserve this female dominie concealed a warmth and a suppressed sentimentality that escaped occasionally when she talked of travel or her mother, 'to whom I owe all'. Monty approved of the 'new education'; and while her teaching style was thorough and didactic, she admired good teachers who could unbend. But in battling for women's equality she was uncompromisingly meritocratic.

Like a shrewd champion sportswoman, Christina Montgomery gave up at her peak. School had been her whole world; but more than a third of her life was to be spent in retirement, during which she wrote a travel book, Recaptured in Tranquillity, and a detailed textual study, Shakespearean Afterglow (1942). The Montgomery family had prospered as Fitzroy retailers; Christina died, at Brighton on 27 August 1965, considerably more prosperous than she was born. She was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Dow and L. Scholes, ‘Christina Montgomery’, in R. J. W. Selleck and M. Sullivan (eds), Not So Eminent Victorians (Melb, 1984)
  • Board of Inquiry Regarding the Administration of the Education Department 1931: transcript of evidence (typescript, Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne)
  • Pallas, 1927-32
  • MacRobertson Girls' High School Archives
  • file 10249 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

Gwyneth Dow, 'Montgomery, Christina Smith (1870–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/montgomery-christina-smith-7628/text13335, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 19 March 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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