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Alastair MacLaurin Mackerras (1928–1999)

by John Vallance

This article was published online in 2024

Alastair Mackerras, no date

Alastair Mackerras, no date

Courtesy of Sydney Grammar School Archives

Alastair MacLaurin Mackerras (1928–1999), teacher and headmaster, was born on 16 October 1928 at Vaucluse, Sydney, second of seven children of Sydney-born parents Alan Patrick Mackerras, electrical engineer, and Catherine Brearcliffe MacLaurin, later a writer. In the early 1930s the family moved to Warrangi Street, Turramurra, on Sydney’s North Shore. Around the same time, Alastair’s mother converted to Catholicism. This was a striking move in the context of her family’s notable position in Sydney’s powerful Protestant establishment, and it set the scene for the family’s pursuit of the unconventional in conventional contexts. Despite Alan’s reservations, the children were brought up Catholic. He tried with limited success to interest them in more scientific pursuits such as navigation, astronomy, and sailing, but Catherine’s strong personality and her convictions around matters of taste, religion, and culture set the scene for what Mackerras described as a very happy childhood organised around music—but not popular music—and spirited conversation. Thanks to the international reputation of his brother Charles, the family name became associated with the musical arts.

As a boy, Mackerras first attended a local convent school then moved to St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point, in 1936. He found the school congenial, not least because the authorities shared his love of Gilbert and Sullivan. While there he encountered his first game of Rugby: shocked by its roughness, he maintained a passionate dislike of the sport for the rest of his life. Strong family connections brought him as a pupil to Sydney Grammar School in 1941.

In 1946 Mackerras enrolled at the University of Sydney to read arts, studying mathematics, Latin, Greek, ancient history, and physics in his first year (BA, 1949). Following his studies he taught mathematics part time at Trinity Grammar School, Sydney, in 1949, where he began a long-standing custom of inviting small groups of favoured pupils and colleagues to holiday with him on the New South Wales south coast. Encouraged by his mother, Mackerras went in 1950 to read classics at St John’s College, Cambridge (BA, 1952; MA, 1956). He was subsequently employed by Christ’s Hospital, Sussex, to teach mathematics (1952–53).

Returning to Sydney in December 1953, the following year Mackerras accepted headmaster Colin Healey’s offer of a job teaching mathematics and classics at his alma mater, Sydney Grammar School. He was appointed master of the lower school in 1961, a position second in seniority to that of headmaster. After a period of instability that led ultimately to the departure of the headmaster Peter Houldsworth, Mackerras took his place in 1969, first in an acting capacity and then formally from August.

Mackerras’s appointment as headmaster was not without controversy; some of the school’s trustees felt that he had been involved in undermining the authority of his predecessor and should not be rewarded. But he quickly established his own authority, underlining the importance of academic success in traditional school subjects such as mathematics, classics, and foreign languages. He also favoured music and drama as ‘civilising’ forces in the education of young men and denounced the brutalising effects of school sport.

Three principal aims guided Mackerras during his time as headmaster. The first was to care for the boys as well as teach them. The second was to provide an academic curriculum and exclude from the school those considered incapable of profiting from it. The third centred on the promotion of musical culture, an antidote to the ‘anti-intellectualism and philistinism in the Australian community’ (Mackerras 1998, 4).

Mackerras’s leadership of Sydney Grammar School was polarising in some respects. His dislike of rugby put him at odds with old boys who feared that admissions policies were being changed to exclude their athletic sons. In spite of his Cambridge education, he was clearly not a headmaster in the traditional English public school style, with its strong emphasis on amateur athleticism. Within the school itself, some thought that he favoured the academically successful pupils over others. Although he had a reputation for knowing the names of all his students (giving a chocolate frog as compensation to those he forgot), some thought that their own academic attainments or non-academic interests were beneath his notice. Critics thought that the almost cult-like status given to the boys who did well in exams led to a culture of arrogance for which the school became known in the wider community. In a notorious 1987 speech, Mackerras told a group of State school principals that he thought their schools were ‘mediocre’ because of their poor examination results. Boys at the school called him ‘Mango’—he liked to think it was Latin for a ‘dealer in slaves,’ but more likely it was an affectionate suggestion of his resemblance to a popular tropical delicacy of ample proportion.

In late 1969 Mackerras had married Susan Montgomery Edwards, née McCubbin, the widowed mother of four, including two boys at the school. The couple separated in 1977, and he did not remarry or have any children. He retired in 1989 and was appointed AO. Still passionate about his work, he continued to teach, first at Eton College, England, then at St Ignatius’ College, Riverview, and Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore).

A complex figure in the history of Australian education, Mackerras had an aversion to bureaucracy and pedagogical orthodoxy that made him a willing outsider in the world of school leaders. He was kind yet curiously distant, blunt yet deeply humane, demanding yet far from strict, with a tight focus on results and a light touch with administration. In an interview with the Bulletin in 1979 he described himself as—like his mother—a bit of a snob and rebel. In the same interview, he remarked that he was a consistent Liberal Party voter, never ‘the slightest bit tempted to vote Labor’ (O’Brien 1979, 47). In spite of his strong Anglophile tendencies, he was a solidly and authentically Australian figure.

Mackerras died at Darlinghurst, Sydney, on 6 January 1999. Following his funeral at St Mary’s Cathedral on 12 January 1999, he was buried in the family tomb at Waverley cemetery. A memorial service took place in the Big Schoolroom at Sydney Grammar School on 8 February 1999, where a portrait of him by Graeme Inson hangs. One of the school’s theatres and its chamber orchestra bear his name, serving as reminders of his important role in its history.

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • Knock, Rodney. ‘Vale, A.M.M.’ Sydneian, no. 399 (August 2000): 36–38
  • Mackerras, Alastair. ‘My Educational Credo—Forty Years On.’ Proceedings of the Teachers’ Guild of New South Wales (1987–1988): 63–80
  • Mackerras, Alastair McLaren. ‘Memoirs 1969–1989.’ Unpublished manuscript, 1995. Sydney Grammar School Archives
  • Mackerras, Alastair. ‘The Mackerras Memoirs I–V.’ Foundations, nos. 15–19 (June 1996–June 1998): 4–7, 12–15, 6–9, 4–7, 2–4
  • O’Brien, Denis. ‘The Mackerrases: From the Mikado to Mathematics.’ Bulletin (Sydney), 6 February 1979, 38–47
  • Personal knowledge of subject
  • Priest, Joan. Scholars and Gentlemen: A Biography of the Mackerras Family. Brisbane: Boolarong, 1986
  • Sheldon, J. S. ‘A Tribute by J.S. Sheldon: The Memorial Service for Alastair Mackerras.’ Sydneian, no. 399 (August 2000): 40–46
  • Susskind, Anne. ‘Public Schools? They’re All Mediocre.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 29 May 1987, 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Lover of Learning Loved for His Kindness.’ 8 January 1999, 6
  • Turney, Clifford. Grammar, A History of Sydney Grammar School 1819–1988. Sydney: Sydney Grammar School in association with Allen & Unwin, 1989

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Vallance, 'Mackerras, Alastair MacLaurin (1928–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mackerras-alastair-maclaurin-33820/text42353, published online 2024, accessed online 29 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Alastair Mackerras, no date

Alastair Mackerras, no date

Courtesy of Sydney Grammar School Archives

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