Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Herbert Stanley Dettmann (1875–1940)

by A. M. Mackerras

This article was published:

Herbert Stanley Dettmann (1875-1940), headmaster, was born on 25 October 1875 at Bathurst, New South Wales, eldest son of John Dettmann, native-born schoolteacher, and his English wife Elizabeth Love, née Catt. He was dux of Fort Street Public School at 13 and later of Sydney Boys' High School, and won a scholarship to the University of Sydney. As an undergraduate he won Professor (Sir) Mungo MacCallum's English prize three times and the (W. C.) Wentworth medal. He created a record by graduating B.A. in 1897 with first-class honours in four subjects—English, German, Latin and Greek—and as a graduate won the Wentworth medal twice.

Awarded the Woolley scholarship for travelling in 1899, Dettmann entered Balliol College, Oxford (B.A., 1902; B.C.L. and M.A., 1906). He made lifelong friendships (maintained by correspondence) with A. D. Lindsay, master of Balliol, and F. M. Powicke, the medieval historian. His father's fatal illness caused him to abandon hopes of a fellowship and to return to Australia in 1903. In 1903-08 he taught English at Sydney Grammar School under A. B. Weigall. He acted as professor of classics at the University of Adelaide and was awarded an honorary M.A. in 1906.

On 1 June 1908 at Balmain, Sydney, Dettmann married Nell Lodder with Presbyterian forms, and that year went to New Zealand as professor of classics at Auckland University College. He was chairman of the professorial board and a fellow of the Senate of the University of New Zealand and captained the university cricket team. He was also chairman of the Auckland Cricket Association and of the board of governors of King's College, Auckland.

In 1923 Dettmann became the first Australian-born headmaster of Sydney Grammar School. In response to requests from old Sydneians a boarding house run by the school was opened at Randwick with twenty-seven boys, including his two sons. Although the 1854 Act of parliament setting up the school explicitly stated its non-denominational character, Dettmann decided in 1927 to hold a religious assembly twice a term and set aside time for the study of the Bible as literature. In the early 1930s he had to contend with the effects of the Depression: the decline in enrolments from nearly 700 in 1930 to 511 in 1933 seriously affected the school's finances, especially as he was unwilling to retrench masters and thought it impossible to raise fees. Stringent economies had to be made and he kept Greek going by teaching boys himself. Enrolments gradually rose to 705 in 1940.

Dettmann taught by example. A distinguished scholar, he was noted for his unusual approach and ideas, common sense, moderation and, above all, his sense of humour. He was never too busy to talk to boys individually or to help or coach them. He believed in the benefit of sport and physical education and was a loyal supporter of the Athletic Association of the Great Public Schools of New South Wales. In 1936 he introduced a compulsory school uniform. A witty speaker, he made assemblies and speech days entertaining occasions.

Occasionally Dettmann wrote articles for the Sydney Morning Herald. He was a member of the Union and Old Sydneians clubs and enjoyed playing tennis and bridge, and reading 'detective yarns'. He died suddenly with coronary occlusion at his home at Gordon on 1 January 1940 and was cremated. He was survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Richardson, Fifty Years of Classics (Auckland, 1966)
  • Sydneian, 1957, centenary no
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Aug 1923, 22 Jan 1940
  • Sydney Grammar School Archives
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

A. M. Mackerras, 'Dettmann, Herbert Stanley (1875–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 16 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


25 October, 1875
Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia


1 January, 1940 (aged 64)
Gordon, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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