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Sir John Dudley Gibbs (Jack) Medley (1891–1962)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

Sir John Dudley Gibbs Medley (1891-1962), vice-chancellor, was born on 19 April 1891 at Oxford, England, eldest of seven children of Dudley Julius Medley, a tutor at Keble College who became professor of history at the University of Glasgow, and his wife Isabel Alice, née Gibbs. His paternal grandfather had been a major general and engineer in the Indian Army. Many of his maternal ancestors had been merchants and bankers.

From the start his parents called him Jack. An exceptionally intelligent child, he was pushed inexorably towards an intellectual career. After attending four preparatory schools, he won a scholarship in 1904 to Winchester College. Presumably suffering from osteomyelitis, he underwent several operations and spent little time at Winchester in his first two years. At home he read voraciously and began to collect books, Kipling and Dickens especially. The following four years were triumphant: successive prizes in English and classics, acting in a Shakespearian group, editing the Wykehamist, joint school captain and a scholarship to New College, Oxford.

Medley's physical condition did not prevent him from playing tennis, cricket and golf. He took Literae Humaniores ('Greats'), and one of his tutors was Gilbert Murray. Jack frequented the Murray household, meeting eminent men, and was taken to Italy in a family party. 'I owe him more than I can ever express', Medley recalled. Here lay one major source of his critical, liberal outlook. In 1914 he took a B.A. with first-class honours (although the degree, and his M.A., were not conferred until 1938) and was awarded a research fellowship at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, which had to be postponed because of World War I.

Medley immediately enlisted in the British Army and was commissioned on 15 October 1914 in the 6th (Glamorgan) Battalion, Welch Regiment. His lameness became obvious and early in 1915 he was appointed a railway transport officer in France and Belgium. As a staff officer under Major General (Sir) Thomas Bridges, he witnessed the mass slaughter of the Somme offensive. He was a liaison officer at French headquarters from late 1917 and ended the war as a major. Medley treasured a booklet of verses he strung together to vent his frustration and contempt for the stupidity of senior base officers. Inevitably, most of his friends and acquaintances having been slain or maimed, he felt guilty as a survivor, and was tortured by doubts.

On 15 September 1916 at Southwark Cathedral, London, Medley married Emmeline Mary (Molly) (1891-1977), daughter of (Sir) Francis Newbolt and niece of the poet Sir Henry Newbolt; her mother Alice (Lady) Newbolt was an outstanding worker in baby welfare. In 1920 Medley joined the family firm of Antony Gibbs & Sons, London. Assuming an early return, he cheerfully accepted a move to the Australian branch, Gibbs, Bright & Co., and reached Melbourne in March 1920. From 1922 to 1925 he managed the small Adelaide branch until he was transferred to the Sydney head office. His standing was uncertain: he was apparently on approval for a junior partnership, but lacked the necessary capital and was plagued by ill health. He fell out with his colleagues and early in 1930 was dismissed on generous terms.

Attracted by the prospects of country life and of working together, the Medleys took over Tudor House, an Anglican preparatory school at Moss Vale, New South Wales, which catered principally for the sons of rural landowners. During the Depression the school reached the point of collapse. The Medleys opened in 1931 with nineteen pupils. Six years later there were seventy-five boarders and a long waiting-list, substantial building additions had been made, and Tudor House had become an establishment showplace. The Medleys enjoyed 'a cheerful hardy life' and governed with imagination and energy.

Early in 1938 the University of Melbourne sought a successor to (Sir) Raymond Priestley, its first full-time vice-chancellor. Most of the professorial board supported Professor (Sir) Douglas Copland, for a long conflict between professors and all-powerful council had come to a head. Council could not find a strong alternative candidate until (Sir) Russell Grimwade, Sir Alan Newton and (Sir) James Darling suggested Medley. He seemed an unlikely candidate, yet he moved freely in vice-regal, Anglican, United Australia Party and pastoral and business circles, belonged to the best clubs and was a sportsman. A first-class Oxford graduate, he had done his duty during the war and was a gentleman of style, wit and charm. The council's selection committee recommended Copland, but after an angry debate Medley was elected by one vote (of 29).

Neither side was adequately informed. Medley turned out to be not a bandbox aristocrat but a liberal, indeed a radical. Within a year he plotted successfully to have the interventionist chancellor Sir James Barrett replaced by Sir John Latham. Within three years, aided especially by Professors (Sir) Kenneth Bailey and (Sir) Samuel Wadham and by a new chancellor (Sir) Charles Lowe , he negotiated basic shifts of authority from council to professors.

Medley became a first-rate public speaker. Witty and self-deprecating, he soon had audiences 'in a simmer of chuckling appreciation'. He spoke fervently about high ideals and the sacred duties of teachers, explicitly expounding liberal principles. In 1940 Melbourne University Press published his Addresses 1939-40 and his Smyth lecture, 'Education for uncertainty' (Australian Educational Studies, second series).

World War II brought university development to a full stop. Student numbers dwindled; many senior staff undertook national tasks; teaching suffered; scientists massively contributed to the war effort; major building had to be abandoned. The Australian Broadcasting Commission called on Medley in mid-1940 to give a series of talks aimed at raising national morale. In later talks he was among the first to discuss postwar reconstruction, advocating a planned society based on co-operation.

Medley was already active in the Educational Reform Association, and in the Australian Council for Educational Research (president 1948-59) which in 1943 published his pamphlet, Education for Democracy. As chairman (from 1941) of the Australian Services Education Council, he was much more than a mere figurehead. In June 1942 he became a commissioner of the A.B.C. From 1940 he had been a trustee of the Public Library, museums and National Gallery of Victoria. He was also elected president of the Melbourne Club for 1942-43. Late in 1942 he broke down and took three months leave.

Determined to treat students as adults, Medley earned unusual affection and respect, as he did from most of the staff. John Foster, the able and gregarious registrar, was a close companion and guide. Medley grew in decisiveness, balancing strong leadership with sensitivity; his even-handedness and keeping of promises were recognized. He brought about 'newspaper chairs' in fine arts and architecture, and was an active talent-spotter for staff recruits.

For a decade Medley chaired the Vice-Chancellors' Committee. It met regularly in 1943-44 to consider the activities of the newly founded Universities Commission and the planning of the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. The committee made a fractious bullock-team. During the uncertainty about when the war would end, 1945 was a year of desperate planning in the knowledge that the Commonwealth inevitably had to finance emergency expansion. In 1946 Melbourne established its temporary branch at Mildura; in 1945 it had introduced the Ph.D. degree. Medley was a key adviser to prime ministers Ben Chifley and (Sir) Robert Menzies on national policy on universities. In 1946-51 he was deputy-chairman of the interim council of the Australian National University.

Medley at last was able to take long leave abroad in 1947. In 1948 he was knighted, made an honorary D.C.L. (University of Oxford) and elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. That year he led the Melbourne delegation to the Congress of the Universities of the British Empire, held at Oxford, and was prominent throughout. He had always lived on his nerves, was prone to go under when stressed, and increasingly suffered from lumbago and sciatica. His annual escape was to fly-fish in distant mountains. By 1950 he had to be helped up the stairs at home. Sir John arranged for his formal retirement in mid-1951, after six months leave. His colleagues paid heartfelt tributes, for he left a university high in morale and confidence. In April the university conferred on him an honorary LL.D.

In retirement the Medleys lived in Wickham, their pisé house at Harkaway, originally acquired as a weekend retreat. Jack moved the toast to the University of Melbourne at its centenary banquet. He remained an A.B.C. commissioner until 1960, working with chairman Sir Richard Boyer to insist on intellectual and cultural quality. He chaired the National Gallery Trust in 1952-57 and resigned in 1958 from what he had once unguardedly referred to as 'an inferno of unbridled passion'. He remained active in the A.C.E.R., the Australian Red Cross Society, the Good Neighbour Council and other bodies. His occasional verse was privately published as Stolne and Surreptitious Verses (1952), followed by An Australian Alphabet (1953). In his last years he enjoyed making colloquial translations of Horace and Catullus. His most astounding activity was to write for the Saturday Age nearly 500 weekly essays, about anything and everything, which won a devoted public. He constantly defended the young and was determined not to become an angry old man.

Survived by his wife, son and daughter, Jack Medley died suddenly on 26 September 1962 at Harkaway and was cremated. His portrait by Max Meldrum is held by the university. Molly Medley had been entirely supportive of her husband. A skilled hostess and president (for ten years) of the Lady Huntingfield Free Kindergarten, she read poetry well, and occasionally contributed to the Age. They were precisely of that generation which suffered to the full from two world wars and were deeply saddened, after their golden youth, by the terrible damage Britain had sustained. They had wondered why they had several times decided to remain in Australia. Molly concluded that there was 'some innate kinship with the people which we could not do without'.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Serle, Sir John Medley (Melb, 1993)
  • Medley papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Medley, Sir John Dudley Gibbs (Jack) (1891–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 April, 1891
Oxford, Oxfordshire, England


26 September, 1962 (aged 71)
Harkaway, Victoria, Australia

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