Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Tolson Massey (1887–1981)

by Cecily Close

This article was published:

John Tolson Massey (1887-1981), Young Men’s Christian Association organiser, was born on 1 May 1887 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, eldest child of Victorian-born parents Herbert John Massey, draper, and his wife Fanny, née Tolson. Like his brother Claude, Jack was educated at Footscray College. In 1903 he joined the importing firm Paterson, Laing & Bruce Ltd. An active member of the Church of England, he soon became involved in youth work. He joined the Australian Natives’ Association, serving as president of its Elsternwick and Caulfield branch. His pacifism was overtaken by the outbreak of World War I, and after rejection for army service because of a leg injury, he embarked upon what would become both career and ministry by joining the YMCA as a field secretary with the Australian Imperial Force.

Attached to the 4th Division, Massey went to England in 1916 and then to France and Belgium, where he helped to provide comforts for the troops. Granted the honorary rank of captain in 1918, he remained in Belgium until January 1919 when he joined the International YMCA Hospitality League in London, caring for soldiers awaiting repatriation. In August 1919 he returned to Australia. Winning the Dallen prize as dux of the YMCA’s training school, he was appointed assistant general secretary of its Melbourne branch.

In February 1920 Massey was named general secretary of the YMCA in South Australia, but before taking up this position he funded his own travel to North America for further study. Once settled in Adelaide, he rebuilt and extended an organisation neglected during the war and expanded its activities, establishing himself as an effective speaker and organiser and a well-loved ‘chief’. He conducted difficult negotiations to buy the association’s building, undertook fund-raising, promoted staff training and superannuation and a staff journal, and played cricket and football for the ‘Y’. He travelled extensively to YMCA centres and conferences, touring overseas in 1925-26 (when he was an Australian delegate to the first conference of the Institute of Pacific Relations at Honolulu, Hawaii) and in 1936 to Japan, India and North Africa.

Massey wrote and spoke on youth affairs, served as chairman (1932-35) of the SA State council of the Australian Student Christian Movement and helped to establish several organisations, including Adelaide’s Legacy Club (1928). He provided recreational materials and advice for British boys arriving under an agricultural immigration scheme and, during the Depression, joined the State Unemployment Relief Committee. A justice of the peace, he assisted in establishing a court for juvenile offenders and served as an honorary magistrate of the South Australian Children’s Court.

In December 1937 Massey was appointed principal of Fairbridge Farm School for child migrants at Pinjarra, Western Australia. At Christ Church of England, North Adelaide, on 13 January 1938 he married his secretary, Jessie Pretoria Sarah Dunstone, an active Young Women’s Christian Association member and henceforth partner in his work. They left for London early in 1939 following Massey’s appointment as secretary to the English national council of YMCAs. His responsibilities soon included the provision of amenities for troops mobilised for World War II; in February 1940 he was posted to Cairo to oversee the needs of British and Commonwealth forces in the Middle East.

Returning to Melbourne in 1944 as the YMCA’s associate national secretary, Massey was elected national general secretary in November. He worked with prisoners of war interned in Australia, sought to assist Australian POWs abroad, and—after accompanying evacuated children back to England—lectured on demobilisation to soldiers in Germany and attended a conference in Geneva on POW and refugee re-settlement. In 1948 and 1949 he inspected YMCA services available to the Australian Occupation Force in Japan. He resigned as national secretary in 1956.

Seconded (1949-59) to be the Commonwealth co-ordinator of the Good Neighbour Movement, Massey organised the first and subsequent Australian Citizenship Conventions. In 1960-63, before retiring, he was back at the YMCA as director of staff training. Awarded the British Empire Medal (1920), he was appointed OBE in 1962. He wrote histories of the YMCA in Australia (1950) and of the British and Foreign Bible Society in Victoria (1967). Survived by his wife, he died on 18 July 1981 at Camberwell and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Sherington and C. Jeffery, Fairbridge, Empire and Child Migration (1998)
  • J. W. Daly, The Adelaide Y.M.C.A. (BA Hons thesis, Univ of Adelaide, 1972)
  • Massey papers (Australian War Memorial, National Library of Australia and State Library of Victoria)
  • YMCA papers (University of Melbourne archives).

Citation details

Cecily Close, 'Massey, John Tolson (1887–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


1 May, 1887
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


18 July, 1981 (aged 94)
Camberwell, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.