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Robson, Leonard Charles (Len) (1894–1964)

by G. E. Sherington

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Leonard Charles Robson (1894-1964), headmaster, was born on 17 October 1894 at Waverley, Sydney, third son of James Robson, a clerk from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), and his native-born wife Harriet Clarissa, sister of William Holmes. After attending Stanmore Superior Public School, in 1907 Len entered Sydney Grammar School where he proved a brilliant mathematician, a prizewinner and a consummate oarsman. At the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1915), he gained first-class honours in mathematics and formed a lasting friendship with Professor H. S. Carslaw.

On 20 September 1915 Robson enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Because of his poor eyesight, he was posted to a medical unit. In March 1916 he was transferred to the 18th Battalion, with which he served on the Western Front. He was commissioned in October, promoted lieutenant in January 1917 and mentioned in dispatches. For his work as adjutant during operations in Flanders in September-October, he was awarded the Military Cross. Robson resigned his A.I.F. appointment on 30 January 1920 in England. Having been elected Rhodes scholar for New South Wales in 1916, he read mathematics at New College, Oxford (B.A., 1920; M.A., 1925); he rowed in the college VIII and gained first-class honours. At St Stephen's parish church, Hampstead, London, on 29 November 1920 he married Marjorie Guelph Grindrod. He returned to Australia and took up an appointment as senior mathematics master at Geelong Church of England Grammar School, Victoria.

In 1922 Robson became the first Australian-born headmaster of Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore). He had some difficulty in establishing himself: he had to confront sceptical older masters—many of whose careers went back to the foundation of the school—and improve the school's recent sporting performance. Robson retired many of the longest-serving staff, made his own appointments, and satisfied the Shore Old Boys' Union when the school won all races at the Head of the River regatta in 1928. Shore was to be pre-eminent in schoolboy rowing in New South Wales over the next three decades; Robson himself coached many of the winning crews.

As headmaster, Robson was a conservative reformer who built upon the English public-school tradition. Although he deprecated the effect on school life of centralized, state-controlled examinations, he was aware of competition from the high schools and strove to raise Shore's standing. He taught mathematics to the senior classes and helped his students to achieve many distinguished results in the Leaving certificate. After the Depression, he sought to modernize Shore. Bernhardt Holtermann's villa and tower, the original boarding-quarters and headmaster's residence, were transformed into a brick collegiate building with modern dormitories. In 1938 Robson visited Europe and the United States of America, and came back convinced that Shore needed to improve its equipment. By 1940 the school had some of the most modern science laboratories of any Australian school. He encouraged drama and music, though he could never fully comprehend their educational purpose. His first school report at Sydney Grammar had noted that he was 'not strong on the imaginative side', and he quoted it against himself.

Robson stressed character formation and the importance of religious and spiritual education. From Albert Weigall, his headmaster at Sydney Grammar, he had developed a distaste for 'ostentatious vulgarity'. Shore boys were taught to show initiative and leadership, but to be self-effacing, and loyal to school, country and monarchy. From his wartime experience Robson drew on the lessons of service and sacrifice which he expected others to follow; in 1940 his insistence that young single masters should volunteer for military service led to James McAuley's resignation from the staff.

With Julian Bickersteth of the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, and (Sir) James Darling, of Geelong Grammar, Robson had been a founder (1931) of the Headmasters' Conference of Australia. Increasingly influential, he sat on the New South Wales committee (1933-36) to inquire into examinations and secondary school courses. It was chaired by (Sir) Robert Wallace, and recommended the establishment of the Board of Secondary School Studies, on which Robson served (1937-49). During World War II he became a leading representative of the 'independent schools' in Australia; in the postwar years he was a legendary figure within the school and among his fellow headmasters. In 1955 Robson was appointed C.B.E. To J. Wilson Hogg, he seemed 'almost Elizabethan' in combining his qualities as a schoolmaster and administrator with his intellectual and athletic achievements.

Tall and thin, Robson exuded nervous vitality. Striding about the school with his gown flowing behind him, he always seemed in a hurry. Even in later life, his hands moved constantly between coat pocket and lapel when addressing the school assembled. Shy, and serious almost to a fault, he held most parents at a distance. Many found his manner brusque. Boys' misdemeanours could bring forth outbursts of rage. His staff certainly knew that 'the chief' was never one with whom to pass the time of day in idle conversation. Beneath his severe exterior he was kind and compassionate to those who had tried and failed, and to those who had suffered grievous personal loss.

A heart attack in 1949 took its toll on Robson's energies and health, but he remained headmaster until 1958. He was a fellow (1958-64) of the Senate of the University of Sydney. In the late 1950s he chaired the advisory committee of the Industrial Fund for the Advancement of Scientific Education in Schools. His advice to the Menzies government in 1964 provided the basis for the scheme of Commonwealth aid for science laboratories in schools. He was foundation chairman of the Commonwealth Advisory Committee on Standards for Science Facilities in Independent Secondary Schools.

Robson died of cancer on 5 December 1964 in Canberra Community Hospital and was cremated; his wife and their son survived him. Although he had not formally accepted a knighthood, special arrangements allowed his wife to be known as Lady Robson. (Sir) William Dargie's portrait of L. C. Robson, which won the Archibald prize in 1947, is held at Shore.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Sherington, Shore (Syd, 1983)
  • G. Sherington, 'The Headmasters' in C. Turney (ed), Pioneers of Australian Education, vol 3 (Syd, 1983)
  • I. Palmer (ed), Melbourne Studies in Education 1984 (Melb, 1984)
  • Australian Teacher, June 1965, p 9
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Aug 1920, 5 Oct 1922, 1 Jan 1955, 12 Dec 1958, 6 Mar, 7 Dec 1964
  • Robson papers and information from Legends of Shore Project (Sydney Church of England Grammar School archives).

Citation details

G. E. Sherington, 'Robson, Leonard Charles (Len) (1894–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robson-leonard-charles-len-11550/text20609, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 20 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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