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Sir James Ralph Darling (1899–1995)

by Peter Gronn

This article was published:

Sir James Darling, by Louis Kahan, 1960

Sir James Darling, by Louis Kahan, 1960

National Library of Australia, 4008264

Sir James Ralph Darling (1899–1995), headmaster, broadcasting administrator, government advisor, and columnist, was born on 18 June 1899 at Tonbridge, Kent, England, second of five surviving children and elder son of English-born Augustine (Austen) Major Darling, schoolmaster, and his Scottish wife Jane Baird, née Nimmo. James attended his father’s small preparatory establishment, the Castle School, Tonbridge, then boarded at Highfield School, Liphook, Hampshire (1912–13), and Repton School, Derbyshire (1913–17). Victor Gollancz (later a founder of the Left Book Club, 1936–48) taught Darling civics at Repton, a formative experience that shaped his liberalism.

Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery on 8 July 1918, Darling served briefly in France in World War I and was then part of the Allied occupation of Germany, before his demobilisation on 31 October 1919. At Oriel College, Oxford (BA, 1921), he read history as part of a shortened degree for ex-servicemen. He then taught at Merchant Taylors’ School, Liverpool (1921–24), and Charterhouse, Surrey (1924–29). As a youthful idealist, he joined the Labour Party, became a borough councillor, and was active in the League of Nations Union. In 1929 he led a schoolboy tour to New Zealand and Australia, which provided him with first-hand experience of the British Empire; as a result he began to rethink his previous attitude of imperial indifference. After his return home, he was encouraged to apply for the headship of Geelong Church of England Grammar School. He was appointed and arrived at Corio, near Geelong, in February 1930.

Geelong Grammar was part of the Associated Public Schools (APS) of Victoria and widely acknowledged as bestowing social cachet on its students. Its enrolments principally comprised boys from the Western District and from Melbourne business and professional families. Darling cut an authoritative and dashing figure: tall, gaunt, smiling, boyishly engaging, and pipe-smoking. His thirty-two-year incumbency until 1961 had a far-reaching impact: an isolated boarding school of about three hundred boys grew to more than one thousand on four sites. The council wanted it to be ‘the great public school of Australia’ (Gronn 2017, 140). To this end, Darling reorganised the timetable, revised the curriculum, and initiated a building program that included additional classrooms, a new boarding house, and a specialist art and music school. The improved facilities were intended to stimulate enrolment growth, although with few endowments such expansion was risky. He sought publicity for the school by cultivating a network of supporters among University of Melbourne professors, and encouraging national and international visitors. On 21 August 1935 at Toorak Presbyterian Church he married twenty-year-old Margaret Dunlop Campbell, whom he had met on a return voyage from England the previous year.

Darling was active beyond Geelong Grammar, especially in the cause of youth and as a tireless advocate of community centres. In 1932 he founded the Unemployed Boys’ Centre in Geelong, a charitable venture. Four years later he established the Fellowship of St John in Latrobe Street, Melbourne, a devotional centre for old boys and students. He was appointed to major educational policy bodies in Victoria, including the Schools Board (1932), the council of the University of Melbourne (1933–71), and the Council of Public Education (1939). In 1931 he co-founded the Headmasters’ Conference of Australia. With its support, he and his fellow heads helped persuade the Lyons government to facilitate graduate entry to the Commonwealth Public Service. He had limited success in curbing the intensity of APS inter-school sport tribalism.

In March 1939 Darling went to England on leave but, with the outbreak of World War II, dithered about his return. He was temporarily employed in the Ministry for Information, but was disappointed by the shelving of plans for a new British government-funded physical education training college that he was likely to head. Suspecting that the school council was undermining his Geelong Grammar reforms, he returned to Australia in early 1940. His glum mood was worsened by wartime stringency and the loss of masters to the armed forces.

Emigration had eroded Darling’s English Labour sympathies, but not his liberalism. Pragmatically, he cultivated United Australia Party politicians including Sir Henry Gullett, James Fairbairn, and, especially, R. G. (Baron) Casey, a lifelong friend; but he also built relations with Australian Labor Party politicians, in particular Arthur Calwell, Frank Crean, and John Dedman, the member for Corio. Occasionally, his liberal outlook was deemed suspect, notably in late 1942, when a student editorial in the school magazine criticised the contribution to the war effort of Australian public schools, dividing the school community. Two years earlier, Darling had employed a young master just returned from Oxford, Manning Clark, the extent of whose left-wing influence on students raised eyebrows among some conservative old boys. Temporarily wrong-footed by accusations that he was himself ‘pink,’ Darling stood his ground and retained Clark’s services.

A sense of wartime stagnation was relieved for Darling when Dedman, minister for war organisation of industry, appointed him (1942–51) to the new Universities Commission, chaired by Professor R. C. Mills. This was the first of several appointments to Federal agencies over the next three decades. In the changed postwar political climate for independent schooling, Darling convened a joint conference of independent and state headmasters, held at Corio in 1948. The next year he was one of two candidates for the post of director of education in Victoria but was not appointed. He then spearheaded a successful campaign for Federal income taxation concessions for tuition fees (1952) and gifts to schools (1954).

In the late 1940s Darling was considered for headmasterships at Stowe School, Buckinghamshire, and Shrewsbury School, Shropshire. With his hopes of a return to England having faded, he had a productive decade in the 1950s, with three educational achievements: Timbertop, the Australian College of Education, and the Marcus Oldham Farm Management College. The Timbertop venture built on the ideas of Kurt Hahn, an expatriate German educator, and Geelong Grammar’s own outdoor traditions. This new mountain school near Mansfield opened in 1953 as a self-supporting, democratically run community for Geelong Grammar boys in fourth form. The Australian College of Education, founded at Corio in May 1959 with Darling as its inaugural president (1959–63), expressed his dream of elevating public recognition of the teaching profession. The Marcus Oldham Farm Management College (established in 1962) was a private fee-paying college at Highton, near Geelong, that provided practical education and estate management for graziers’ sons. Darling continued to be active in such voluntary and community groups as the British Memorial Fund and the Geelong Community Chest.

With the election of successive Menzies-led coalition governments, Darling was appointed to a number of advisory roles. He was a member (1955–61) of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board, in which position he was active in public hearings for commercial television licences. Following the death of Sir Richard Boyer in 1961, he became chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, where he served two three-year terms. This role was his biggest challenge in public life and he likened it to putting his head into a hornet’s nest. Amid cultural upheaval in 1960s Australia, numerous ABC programming controversies provoked the ire of politicians and interest groups. Frequently, Darling defended programmers against press criticisms, and the complaints of viewers and listeners, gaining the approval of senior and junior officers.

Meanwhile, Darling was appointed to the Commonwealth Immigration Advisory Council (1953–68) and the Commonwealth Immigration Publicity Council (1962–71), which he chaired. These appointments coincided with the liberalising of long-standing restrictions on non-European immigration, a process which Darling supported. On the Advisory Council he was active in the annual citizenship conventions in Canberra. Darling was also chairman (1961–71) of the Australian Road Safety Council, a committee that advised State and Commonwealth transport ministers and whose responsibilities encompassed public education on road safety. It was replaced in 1970 by the Commonwealth Expert Group on Road Safety with Darling as the inaugural chairman (1970–71). Australia’s road toll peaked in 1970 and public education was one of the factors in its subsequent decrease. Darling served as chairman (1962–71) then president (1971–73) of the Australian Frontier Commission, an ecumenical initiative of the Australian Council of Churches, and was president (1973–81) of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. His last major public educational engagement (from 1972) was with the United World Colleges, a venture to create a global network of schools aimed at increasing international understanding, tolerance, and cooperation.

Darling was appointed OBE in 1953, CMG in 1958, and knighted in 1968. He received honorary degrees from Oxford (DCL, 1948), the University of Melbourne (MA, 1969; LLD, 1973), and Deakin University (DLitt, 1989), and was elected an honorary fellow (1987) by Oriel College. During the 1988 bicentenary, he was named as one of 200 Great Australians. An edited selection of Darling’s speeches, The Education of a Civilized Man, had been published in 1962. He also co-authored Timbertop: An Innovation in Australian Education (1967) and wrote an autobiography, Richly Rewarding (1978). From 1980 to 1994, he wrote columns for the Age newspaper on a variety of Christian religious and related themes. These were also republished in Reflections for the Age (1991) and Reflections for an Age (2006).

Known affectionately and variously as JRD, the boss, Dr Darling, Sir James, and Jim, and as JoJo to his grandchildren, Darling died on 1 November 1995 at Windsor, Melbourne, and was cremated. His wife and their three daughters and one son survived him. Geelong Grammar School holds a portrait of him by Hilda Rix Nicholas and in 1997 established a memorial oration and scholarship fund in his name. The Victorian branch of the Australian College of Educators instituted the annual Sir James Darling medal in 1993.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Darling, James. Richly Rewarding. Melbourne: Hill of Content, 1978
  • Darling Papers. Private collection
  • Geelong Grammar School archives
  • Gronn, Peter. Just as I Am: A Life of J. R. Darling. Richmond, Vic.: Hardie Grant Books, 2017
  • National Library of Australia. MS 7826, Papers of James R. Darling, 1947–1991

Additional Resources

Citation details

Peter Gronn, 'Darling, Sir James Ralph (1899–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Sir James Darling, by Louis Kahan, 1960

Sir James Darling, by Louis Kahan, 1960

National Library of Australia, 4008264

Life Summary [details]


18 June, 1899
Tonbridge, Kent, England


1 November, 1995 (aged 96)
Windsor, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

kidney disease

Cultural Heritage

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