Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robson, Ernest Iliff (1861–1946)

by G. E. Sherington

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Ernest Iliff Robson (1861-1946), headmaster, was born on 5 June 1861 at Sunderland, Durham, England, eldest child of John Shield Robson, timber merchant, and his wife Caroline, née Iliff. In 1875-80 he attended Repton School, Derbyshire, and became head of his house. A good classical student, he won a scholarship to Christ's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1884), where he was president of the debating society, secretary of the boat club, and in 1883 won the 'coveted oar' at the Cambridge May races. A year later, (Sir) John MacFarland recruited him as inaugural classics teacher for Ormond College, University of Melbourne (M.A. ad eundem, 1888). He was a popular and successful tutor and coached the college crew to successive victories (1887-89).

In 1889 Robson became first headmaster of Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). In the early 1890s, with his eldest sister Gertrude (1865-1917) assisting him in domestic affairs, he succeeded in increasing enrolment despite the depression. He introduced music and carpentry, following the Repton example, and Shore soon developed a good academic reputation. Committed to character-building through games, he encouraged athleticism. Shore became a founding member of the Athletic Association of the Great Public Schools of New South Wales in 1892; under his coaching the school won six out of nine 'head of the river' races.

In 1895 Robson summed up his views on education when he gave evidence before the royal commission inquiring into the civil service. On 18 December that year at Scots Church, Melbourne, he married Kate Isabel (d.1904), daughter of Alexander Morrison, headmaster of Scotch College. Robson's reputation and that of the school began to decline in the later 1890s. He was quick to anger: 'Like some conjuror the chief would produce a cane out of thin air and one remembered the half-dozen across the shoulders for days after'. The school council questioned his use of corporal punishment and some of his curricular innovations. Some resented his close relationship with Morrison and Melbourne educational circles. His wife was unhappy in Sydney. Examination results and enrolments declined dramatically and relations with his staff deteriorated. After two difficult years of dispute he resigned in 1900.

Robson was appointed classics master at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School in 1901 and acting head in 1905. Next year he became vice-warden and classics tutor at Trinity College, University of Melbourne; he stressed the value of college life when he gave evidence to the South Australian royal commission on the University of Adelaide in 1911. Returning to England about 1914, he taught at Felsted School, Essex. On 17 February 1917 at Ealing, Middlesex he married Catherine Clara Lewers. Robson returned to Victoria in the early 1930s. Survived by his wife, he died at Mornington on 6 December 1946 and was cremated. He had no children.

Robson's family had followed him to Australia. His youngest brother Edgar Iliff (1871-1954) graduated with first-class honours in classics from Ormond College (B.A., 1892; M.A., 1894) and from Christ's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1895; M.A., 1906; B.D., 1915). He was ordained priest in 1898 in Adelaide, where he taught at the Collegiate School of St Peter. In 1900-02 he was rector at Prospect. Back in England as a teacher, he later wrote books on classical history, religion and travel. Gertrude, cultivated and charming, was beloved by the boys while at Shore. Leaving in 1895, she opened her own boys' preparatory school. Later she became a missionary in Papua, where her youngest sister Louise (1876-1954), a trained nurse, also served. Another sister Hilda (d.1936), a teacher, married (Sir) Robert Garran.

Select Bibliography

  • E. R. Holme, Shore (Syd, 1951)
  • R. R. Garran, Prosper the Commonwealth (Syd, 1958)
  • N. Adams, Family Fresco (Melb, 1966)
  • G. Sherington, Shore (Syd, 1983)
  • D. Chambers, A History of Ormond College 1881-1945 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1966).

Citation details

G. E. Sherington, 'Robson, Ernest Iliff (1861–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robson-ernest-iliff-8248/text14443, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 2 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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