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Southee, Ethelbert Ambrook (1890–1968)

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

Ethelbert Ambrook Southee (1890-1968), college principal, was born on 6 August 1890 at Cootamundra, New South Wales, eleventh (and fourth surviving) child of Frederick Southee, a baker from England, and his native-born wife Catherine Charlotte, née McCutcheon. Educated at Cootamundra Superior Public School, Sydney Boys' High School and the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1912; B.Sc.Agr., 1919), Bert won a Rhodes scholarship in 1913 and proceeded to St John's College, Oxford (B.A., M.A., 1919). On 30 November 1914 he was commissioned in the (Royal) Army Service Corps. He served on the Western Front and in Italy, and rose to acting major; he was twice mentioned in dispatches, and appointed O.B.E. in 1919.

Senior athletic champion (1907) of his high school, Southee had won the Australian long-jump championship (1911), gained Blues for Rugby Union football and athletics at the universities of Sydney and Oxford, and become 100-metres champion of the allied forces in Italy (1919). At the University of Sydney he had been president of the Men's Christian Union, vice-president of the Athletic Club, a councillor of the Science Society, and a founder and first secretary-treasurer of the Agricultural Society; at St John's he was president of the Athletics' Club and a member of the advisory council. Lieutenant Colonel Neville Leese, his superior officer in World War I, said of him: 'He is one of the best organisers I have met in the Army or out of it'.

On 12 June 1918 Southee had married Charlotte Elizabeth Lappin (d.1944) at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney. In 1919 he was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London. That year he moved to Cornell University, Ithaca, New York State, but cut short his studies in plant-breeding to accept the principalship of Hawkesbury Agricultural College, Richmond, New South Wales. He took office in February 1921 at the age of 30.

Devoting his life to the college and its all-male students, Southee improved courses, introduced subjects such as agricultural geography and economics, and oversaw the construction of new buildings, notably a block of science laboratories. His encouragement of sport ensured that the college colours of maroon and gold ('blood and mustard') commanded respect, but his conservative, even autocratic, management raised hackles, especially when he resorted to cat-and-mouse tactics to apprehend students engaged in 'nocturnal escapades'. Many people idolized him; some tolerated him; others regarded him as arrogant and overbearing, as anti-intellectual and as a male chauvinist. About 2500 students graduated during his term as principal. He was especially supportive of the Old Boys' Union, of which he was president (1921-26) and later an honorary life member. He was also a founding member (1935) of the Australian Institute of Agricultural Science.

Southee retired in 1954 and moved to Eastwood, Sydney. He died on 27 December 1968 at Newport and was buried in Mona Vale cemetery with Anglican rites; his son and one of his two daughters survived him. A trust to fund scholarships for H.A.C.'s students was named after him, as was the Southee Horticultural Pavilion at the Sydney Showground, Homebush, in recognition of his long service as a councillor (1923-39) and a vice-president (1939-68) of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • R. N. Dart, Hawkesbury Agricultural College (Syd, 1941)
  • J. L. Boland, Hawkesbury Harvest (Syd, 1970)
  • B. M. Braithwaite, Challenge and Change (Syd, 1991)
  • Agricultural Gazette of New South Wales, Jan 1969, p 42
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Nov 1920, 18 Feb 1921.

Citation details

'Southee, Ethelbert Ambrook (1890–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/southee-ethelbert-ambrook-11736/text20983, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 October 2014.

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

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