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Sir Brian William Hone (1907–1978)

by Weston Bate

This article was published:

Sir Brian William Hone (1907-1978), headmaster, was born on 1 July 1907 at Semaphore, Adelaide, son of South Australian-born parents Frank Sandland Hone, medical practitioner, and his wife Lucy, née Henderson. Brian was educated at Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, where he was senior prefect (1924) and captain of tennis and cricket. At the University of Adelaide (B.A. Hons, 1928) he was prominent in student life and won Blues in cricket, football and tennis. Despite a very large, almost lumbering, frame, Hone was quick on his feet and had remarkable ball sense. During the 1929-30 cricket season he opened the batting for South Australia, scoring a century against Victoria and averaging nearly 50. Solid in defence, he scored heavily off the back foot, punching the ball with powerful forearms. He was thought to merit Test selection.

In September 1930 Hone went to New College, Oxford (B.A., 1932; M.A., 1938), on a Rhodes scholarship that led to an important friendship with Sir Francis Wylie, warden of Rhodes House. He achieved honours in English—C. S. Lewis was his tutor—through well-organized hard work, and won Blues in cricket and tennis. Twice in three years his mature batting saved the Oxford XI from defeat by Cambridge, the highlight being an innings of 167 in 1932. Next year he was a shrewd and forceful team captain.

From 1933 to 1939 Hone taught at Marlborough College, Wiltshire. Influenced by its master George Turner, he became insatiable in pursuit of good educational ideas and techniques. He hosted discussions about them long into the night, especially when made head of the new department of English. The multifaceted life of a boarding school intrigued him, and the strength of Marlborough's music and art astonished him. His enduring love of fine printing led him to establish the Marlborough College Press in 1934. He enjoyed being in charge of things and was a meticulous games coach. Along formal English lines, but with a relaxed Australian tone and a schoolteacher's eye, he wrote Cricket Practice and Tactics (London, 1937). It was the height of his literary achievement.

The height of Hone’s ambition was to run his own school.  His father was a diligent agent in looking for openings for Brian’s talents.  One idea was the wardenship of the new Union House at the University of Melbourne; another, in 1936, was the headmastership of Melbourne Church of England Grammar School.  When consulted, George Turner suggested to Dr Hone that Brian needed more teaching experience before tackling a demanding post.  He still lacked confidence, Turner thought.  Brian’s letters in the early 1930s contained much doubt and self-deprecation—the obverse of his energy and drive.  It was an innate modesty, with which he had always to struggle, although his marriage on 1 August 1933 to Adelaide-born Althea Enid Boyce at the parish church, Peasmarsh, Sussex, provided an antidote; she was a marvellous blend of support and chiding, respecting his total commitment to a career in education but not afraid to challenge his perceptions and strategies.

Aged only 33, after several attempts at other posts, in 1940 Hone was appointed headmaster of Cranbrook School, Sydney.  Small, and in need of his vitality, it was a perfect testing-ground for his desire to apply to an Australian day-school the scholarship, house-system and cultural pursuits of a good English boarding-school.  He appointed the young painter Justin O’Brien to the art school and searched for energetic, highly qualified academic staff.  To instil new values, against much opposition, he debunked premierships and lowered the prestige of sporting heroes.

That blend of ideals, ideas and organisation was Hone’s hallmark.  Whereas (Sir) James Darling’s revolution among boarders at Geelong Church of England Grammar School in the 1930s could be based directly on English experience, Hone had to develop a day-school model.  Time had to be stolen for optional enrichment—and staff and boys encouraged to use it well.  In pursuit of skills and attitudes that would empower them as adults, he believed that boys must be ‘coerced into experience’.  Through concern for self-esteem, with a democratic Australian touch, he abolished streaming in all but the cumulative disciplines of languages and mathematics, and insisted that individuals be judged against their potential, not abstract standards.  Houses were to be used more for pastoral care than for competitive games, and a housemaster was to be a boy’s mentor throughout his time at school.

Eclectic in searching for ways to enliven and inform them, Hone almost imprisoned his staff in meetings, where they were deluged with reading material and his latest views and plans.  He was a determined, though genial, taskmaster, who led by example like a team captain on the field.  His own awareness of individuals was astonishing.  Hone made a name for the school and himself; he was secretary (1945-52) of the Headmasters’ Conference of Australia, president of the Sydney Orchestral Society in 1946 and was made a fellow of St Paul’s College, University of Sydney, in 1948.  His achievements were known to Bishop John McKie who told colleagues on the Melbourne Grammar School council when they were considering applications for a new headmaster in 1950 that the best man in Australia had not applied.

Although not seeking advancement, Hone accepted the challenge when offered the post.  Large, celebrated, and solid as its bluestone, Melbourne Grammar was conservative, proud of elite sportsmen and scholars, but neglectful of also-rans.  It was a cultural desert.  Older teachers challenged Hone’s philosophy, as did some senior boys and many—often powerful—former students.  His desire, in particular, to reduce the prestige of sportsmen seemed to insult the school’s tradition.

From February 1951 the new headmaster prepared the staff for major changes in 1952, along lines well tried at Cranbrook.  Houses were revitalized, the curriculum reorganized.  Overt discipline was relaxed, but routines were strengthened.  Boys were to be kept busy at what interested them whether through clubs and societies, or on cadet corps afternoons when they were given the added options of Boy Scouts, St John Ambulance Brigade and, later, qualifying for the Duke of Edinburgh awards.  In games the tyranny of cricket, football, rowing and athletics was softened by greater emphasis on tennis, swimming, hockey, Rugby Union and cross-country.  The status of first teams was reduced.  The uncoordinated were welcomed, just as game players were persuaded to perform in orchestras, choirs and plays.  Boys were given significant tasks in the tuckshop, library, bookroom and other areas.  They ran the school magazine, rejuvenated thanks to Hone’s interest in printing.

Enthused by his vision, the council began an extensive building programme.  Its members accepted the link between educational and financial priorities.  A new era of delegation and efficiency began.  Delegation was a channel for the special talents of staff, who were stretched for the benefit of the school.  Hone wanted to make the most of them—as of himself.  That was the meaning of life.  Several times he was reduced to a state of nervous exhaustion.  He recuperated with stimulating overseas visits; on a Carnegie grant in 1955, for instance, he visited sixty schools in Britain and America, made or renewed hundreds of contacts and arranged staff exchanges for years to come.

A major strategy was to attract good staff.  He appointed John Brack to the art school and Donald Britton as director of music.  To provide a new architectural vision he found Mockridge, Stahle & Mitchell, and involved staff in planning the buildings with special care for the laboratories, the library and a radically different common-room.  The superannuation scheme was upgraded, and outside ‘contract correctors’ increased the efficiency of learning in the humanities.  Even so, the school continued to produce many of the State’s best young mathematicians and scientists.  He was proud of it.

Eager for educational debate, Hone chaired (1954-57) the Headmasters’ Conference.  He was a founder and fellow of the Australian College of Education, and served on the councils of Monash University (deputy chancellor 1973-74) and the Australian National University, the Schools Board of the University of Melbourne and its successor, the Victorian Universities and Schools Education Board, and the council of Mercer House.  With Paul McKeown, he edited a series of essays, The Independent School (1967).

Outside education, but important for Melbourne Grammar in terms of his contacts, were memberships of the Melbourne Club, the Melbourne Beefsteak Club, the Boobooks, the Royal South Yarra Tennis, the Wallaby and the Melbourne Cricket clubs.  By sharing their political conservatism, he lived in a closed world, though he tolerated some radicals on his staff.  ‘Tiresome’, he would call them, with one of his belly laughs and a despairing shake of his large head.  His humanity was palpable, there was so much of him, bent over, perhaps, among the under-15 footballers he coached, finger pointing and arm sweeping to indicate a tactic.  His philosophy was ‘all care in organization; all trust in execution’, but he was so keen on good results that he would often short-circuit the process with concerned interference.

Appointed OBE in 1969, Hone was knighted in 1970, the year of his retirement.  He then joined the Commonwealth Secondary Schools Library Committee (chairman 1971-74).  Survived by his wife, daughter and three sons, Sir Brian died on 28 May 1978 while on holiday in Paris.  A portrait by (Sir) Ivor Hele is held by Melbourne Grammar.

Select Bibliography

  • Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, Liber Melburniensis (Melb, 1965)
  • J. W. Hogg, Our Proper Concerns (Syd, 1986)
  • C. E. Moorhouse, Challenge and Response (Melb, 1989)
  • Independence, 3 July 1978
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Aug 1950, 28 Feb 1969, 27 July 1978
  • newsclippings, letters and other papers (privately held).

Citation details

Weston Bate, 'Hone, Sir Brian William (1907–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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