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Sir John Clifford Valentine Behan (1881–1957)

by A. G. L. Shaw

This article was published:

John Clifford Valentine Behan (1881-1957), by unknown photographer

John Clifford Valentine Behan (1881-1957), by unknown photographer

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1353

Sir John Clifford Valentine Behan (1881-1957), educationist, was born on 8 May 1881 at Footscray, Victoria, ninth child of William Behan, clerk, storekeeper and son of a schoolteacher, and his wife Phoebe Hannah, née Gundry. He was educated at Caulfield Grammar School, where he was dux in 1895, and at University High School in 1896. Winning a scholarship to the University of Melbourne, he enrolled in Trinity College. By 1904 he had won Wyselaskie and Hastie scholarships, and had graduated B.A., with first-class honours in logic and philosophy and in history and political economy; and also gained an LL.B. with first-class honours, winning the Supreme Court Prize. Later that year he was chosen to be Victoria's first Rhodes Scholar: his selection aroused considerable criticism, since to many his qualifications seemed too exclusively intellectual.

At Oxford he read law at Hertford College. In 1906 he took first-class honours in both his B.A. in jurisprudence and his B.C.L.—uniquely in the same year—and won both the Vinerian and Eldon law scholarships; he also gained first-class honours at the Middle Temple in his Bar finals, with more prizes which brought the total value of his awards to £3000. In 1907 he returned to Victoria to marry, on 30 July at Brighton, Violet Greta Caldwell. He was appointed lecturer in law at University College, Oxford, where two years later he won the Stowell Civil Law Fellowship; in 1914 he was appointed dean. In 1915-17 he served in the ministries of munitions, food, and national service, before returning to Melbourne to succeed Dr A. Leeper as warden of Trinity College.

Behan's ambition was to realize the aim stated by the college founders that Trinity should be an incorporated body, governed on the Oxford model by a provost and fellows, instead of by an external council. He perceived that, to achieve this, the college finances must be put in order and endowments for scholarships and stipends procured. Taking over in April 1918, he found the buildings dilapidated and the college in debt; he told the council that in £20,000 would have to be raised at once and £100,000 within ten years. His strenuous efforts raised £60,000 by the end of 1919 and a further £30,000 by 1925, but later he was handicapped by a quarrel with an important council-member F. P. Brett, who was anxious to reduce Anglican (as opposed to Protestant) and episcopal influence in college affairs, and who finally, in 1931, secured a further gift (of £20,000) conditional on the council removing the rights of all the bishops in Victoria to be ex officio members. Behan agreed that such a demand was inadmissible, but the issue had raised such clerical anxieties as to increase opposition to his own proposals for incorporation and internal government. To his intense disappointment, in December 1933 the council adjourned their consideration of this matter sine die.

The immediate cause of this vote was the open outbreak of a long-simmering dispute between Behan and the college students. On taking office, the warden had faced a body of servicemen, with whom his legal training, Oxford experience, high academic standards and reserved personality made him somewhat unfitted to deal, and he was further handicapped by a tradition of hostility to 'the Warden'. Although in the mid-1920s his difficulties seemed to be waning, trouble increased after 1930 when the students' club consistently opposed all disciplinary measures; then, although Behan had preserved the college buttery in order to encourage 'civilised drinking', in opposition to considerable prohibitionist sentiment, various incidents in 1933 induced him to close it, whereupon the club resolved to 'adopt a policy directed to procuring the removal of the Warden'. Although the council naturally supported dissolution of the club and refusal to allow members of its committee to return to college, the bishops, in deciding to vote to postpone incorporation, minuted that 'in view of recent events, we cannot agree to allow the College to commence a new epoch under the Wardenship of Dr. Behan'.

Despite these set-backs, Behan then commenced a much easier second half of his wardenship. Earlier in 1933 the council had approved the appointment of a dean, and the tutorial staff was strengthened. Removed from day to day contact with the students, Behan was able to assume the more benign image which soon earned him respect and affection. Tall and spare, always immaculately dressed, he introduced many of his students to the elegance and richness of their mother tongue, to good music (especially Beethoven) in days when this was rare, and set before them a formidable example of good manners, self-discipline and singleness of purpose. A magnificent stone building was opened and named after him; it was to be the first instalment of a master-plan adopted in 1920, but this proved too ambitious and had to be abandoned.

In February 1946 Behan made another attempt to achieve internal self-government, but failed again; however, when he resigned in June, he left a college immeasurably strengthened. He had, almost unaided, raised £140,000 in endowments. He had put its trusts in order, and procured the first Victorian Act (since often copied) allowing the pooling of trust funds for investments. He had arranged with the Royal Australian Air Force for the part-occupation of the university colleges in 1942-45, which relieved their wartime financial problems, and in 1943-44 he conducted, as in 1919, a successful appeal for funds for post-war renovations. He had made Trinity the nearest in Australia to the ideal of an Oxford or Cambridge college; and more than any other individual, he succeeded in preserving for this type of institution an important place in university development.

His achievements had been at the cost of his scholastic work, though he published in 1924 The Use of Land as Affected by Covenants … (London), which earned him the Melbourne degree of LL.D.; in 1921-52 he was secretary to the Rhodes Trust in Australia, and succeeded in improving the work of its selection committees. He retired to Olinda where he was an active church warden and completed a substantial manuscript on the early history of the college. In 1949 he was knighted. He died without issue on 30 September 1957 at Olinda.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Grant, Perspective of a Century (Melb, 1972)
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 8 Oct 1957, p 13
  • Archives of Rhodes Trust in Australia (University of Melbourne)
  • Trinity College Archives (Melbourne).

Citation details

A. G. L. Shaw, 'Behan, Sir John Clifford Valentine (1881–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Clifford Valentine Behan (1881-1957), by unknown photographer

John Clifford Valentine Behan (1881-1957), by unknown photographer

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1353

Life Summary [details]


8 May, 1881
Footscray, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


30 September, 1957 (aged 76)
Olinda, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.