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Kay Chauncy Masterman (1896–1981)

by R. St. C. Johnson

This article was published:

Kay Chauncy Masterman (1896-1981), schoolteacher and classical scholar, was born on 4 October 1896 at Northwood, Middlesex, England, eldest of six children of Charles Edward Masterman, civil engineer, and his wife Lilla, née Osmond. Nancen Chauncy was his sister. Educated at Charterhouse, Surrey, Kay migrated with his family to Tasmania in 1912 after a decline in his father’s fortunes. From 1914 the Mastermans developed an apple orchard at Bagdad, north of Hobart.

After studying the classics at the University of Tasmania (BA, 1917), Masterman enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 17 August 1917. He served in France in the 40th Battalion from 23 April to 31 August 1918. Debris from an exploding shell buried him alive; rescued by German soldiers, he was a prisoner of war for four months. Some people who knew him later ascribed his diffidence and nervous mannerisms to these experiences. On his release, he was first granted leave and then discharged from the AIF in May 1920 in England, in order to enter Brasenose College, Oxford (BA, 1921; MA, 1924). He pursued postgraduate study at King’s College, Cambridge, with the classical scholar (Sir) John Sheppard, and taught at Charterhouse. Returning to Australia, he was a master (1924-26) at the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide. In 1927 he was acting-head of classics at the University of Tasmania.

From 1929 to 1955 Masterman was Brice Mackinnon classics master at Geelong Church of England Grammar School. Housemaster of Perry House (1929-36), he was editor of the Corian (1940-49) and college librarian (1940-55). In 1931 he organised a pageant to celebrate the bimillennium of Virgil’s birth. As well as Latin and Greek, he also taught English and offered voluntary courses in Italian; he established a music program—a contribution that was ‘immediate and lasting’—and ran the Scout troop. On 15 January 1936 at St Paul’s Church of England, Canterbury, Melbourne, he married Margaret Ramsay Maxwell, a schoolteacher, and sister of Ian Maxwell. Strongly contributing to the cultural life of the school, the Mastermans hosted literary societies. He published Starting Latin Book II (1941), the frequently reprinted A Latin Word-List (1945) and The Power of Speech (1952). In 1949-50 he took leave to teach at Winchester College, England.

Invited in 1955 to establish the classics department at Canberra University College (from 1961 the Australian National University), Masterman was associate-professor (1956-61). He recruited lively and scholarly young lecturers. In 1962-71 he taught Latin, Greek and English part time at Canberra Grammar School. When ill health in 1970 forced him to reduce his workload, over a hundred former Geelong Grammar pupils donated money to relieve his poor financial situation, to enable him to make necessary alterations to his house and to revisit Greece, Italy and England. He sent a letter of thanks, with the request that it be published, to the editor of the Corian.

In 1962 Masterman helped to establish the Australian Capital Territory division of the Arts Council of Australia (president, 1963-67); he was federal president in 1968. He was also president of the Dante Alighieri Society in Canberra. Deputy-chairman of the Commonwealth Literary Censorship Board (1964-67), he was an inaugural member (1968) of the Australian Council for the Arts (deputy-chairman, 1969-72). He was appointed cavaliere of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy (1965) and CBE (1968), and was elected (1968) a fellow of the Australian College of Education.

Of medium height, Masterman was shy and modest, courteous and considerate. He was quiet and tweedy, often absent-minded, and he had a distinctive chuckle. Unconventional in the way he walked and talked, he was indifferent to public opinion. Michael Hodgman, the minister for the capital territory in 1981, remembered him as a ‘gentle and humorous philosopher’ who collected stamps and Orpington hens. A keen gardener, Masterman also enjoyed bushwalking and was well informed on native plants. In Canberra, as at Geelong Grammar, the Mastermans offered generous hospitality with good (often home-grown) food, company and conversation.

Survived by his wife and their daughter, Masterman died on 4 February 1981 in Canberra and was buried in Gungahlin cemetery. His son had died, aged 26, in a motor-vehicle accident in 1965. The long-serving headmaster of Geelong Grammar, Sir James Darling, described him as ‘cultured in the best sense, liberal in mind’, concerned for the oppressed and ‘fearless in the defence of the good’. A former pupil, Sir Robert Southey, wrote that, ‘as a schoolmaster and a scholar he earned at Geelong the gratitude, admiration, and affection’ of a generation of schoolboys.

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times, 5 June 1968, p 17, 7 Feb 1981, p 13, 18 Feb 1981, p 17
  • Corian, June 1972, p 423, Sept 1981, p 11
  • B2455, item MASTERMAN KAY CHAUCY (sic) (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

R. St. C. Johnson, 'Masterman, Kay Chauncy (1896–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 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]


4 October, 1896
Northwood, Middlesex, England


4 February, 1981 (aged 84)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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