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Neil Harcourt MacNeil (1893–1946)

by Bruce E. Mansfield

This article was published:

Neil Harcourt MacNeil (1893-1946), headmaster, was born on 17 April 1893 at Sandringham, Victoria, fifth child and second son of Rev. John MacNeil, Scottish-born Presbyterian minister and evangelist, and his Victorian wife Hannah, née Thomas. He was educated at Scotch College where he was a member of the rowing eight and cricket team and dux in classics. He entered the University of Melbourne in 1912 with exhibitions in Greek and Latin and a scholarship to Ormond College, and was selected Victorian Rhodes Scholar for 1914.

In England on the outbreak of World War I, MacNeil was commissioned in the 12th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry, on 27 November. In France from July 1915, he was awarded the Military Cross for 'conspicuous gallantry' near Loos on 25 September and was severely wounded next day while rallying men of other units; he was also mentioned in dispatches. He returned to France in September next year and was promoted acting captain in December. Seconded to the Royal Flying Corps in October 1917, he was commissioned in No.16 Squadron, Royal Air Force, and served in France from April 1918.

From January 1919 MacNeil read modern history at Balliol College, Oxford (B.A., 1920; M.A., 1926). He rowed in the Oxford eight at Henley in 1919 and gained his 'blue' in 1920. His teachers included A. L. Smith and Kenneth Bell who reinforced his ideals of community service. From July to October 1920 he was in Poland with the Relief Services. Intended for the ministry from childhood, he studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh for a session in 1920-21 but turned to teaching. In 1921 he was awarded a teacher's diploma by the University of London and taught at Cheltenham College in 1922-23.

Late in 1923 MacNeil was appointed first headmaster of Knox Grammar School, Sydney, founded at Wahroonga by a group of Presbyterian ministers and laymen, including (Sir) Robert Gillespie and William McIlrath. The school opened in February 1924, the council promising a liberal education, Presbyterian religious instruction and encouragement in 'all manly sports'. MacNeil gathered a diverse and well-educated staff of whom half came from England. On 16 December 1924 at Scots Church, Melbourne, he married Jean Isobel Hamilton; they had no children.

The school grew steadily to 1930 when enrolments reached 320. The curriculum was classical and traditional. MacNeil used out-of-class activities—debating, singing, drill, sports—to develop the self-discipline and co-operative effort he valued. Despite a decline in enrolments and financial difficulties in the early 1930s, he established a technical branch. The Depression, he said, should teach us 'the dignity of work with our hands'. He took a public stand against the examination system, and dropped the Intermediate certificate at Knox: parents and employers were suspicious of the move. He was a founder and honorary secretary of the Fairbridge Farm Schools of New South Wales in 1936-38.

In March 1939 MacNeil accepted the invitation of the council of Wesley College, Melbourne, to become headmaster from January 1940. Convinced of laxness, he at once made changes and earned unpopularity in much of the school community. But his staunchness and optimism won admiration when—its buildings occupied by the army—the school spent two years in shared quarters at Scotch College (March 1942–February 1944). The council unanimously reappointed him at the end of 1944.

On an overseas visit in 1932 MacNeil had been seriously ill with rheumatic fever. At Wesley he remained active and coached the crew in 1941-45, but he was overstrained. On 1 August 1946 he collapsed and died from cardiovascular disease, and was cremated after a service in the school chapel. His wife survived him. MacNeil's bearing was erect, his manner severe and aloof, obscuring the humanity of his educational ideals and relations with individuals. He kept the piety of his parents but put the emphasis on practical religion.

Select Bibliography

  • Univ Melb, Record of Active Service (Melb, 1926)
  • G. Blainey et al, Wesley College. The First Hundred Years (Melb, 1967)
  • B. Mansfield and F. Richardson, Knox. A History of Knox Grammar School, 1924-1974 (Syd, 1974)
  • University of Melbourne, Calendar, 1912-15
  • London Gazette, 4 Nov 1915
  • Knox Grammarian, May 1939
  • Reveille (Sydney), 1 Aug 1939
  • untitled typescript by Mrs N. H. MacNeil (Knox Grammar School)
  • Knox Grammar School records.

Citation details

Bruce E. Mansfield, 'MacNeil, Neil Harcourt (1893–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 22 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


17 April, 1893
Sandringham, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


1 August, 1946 (aged 53)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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