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William Perry (Will) Morris (1878–1960)

by John Cole

This article was published:

William Perry French Morris (1878-1960), Anglican clergyman and headmaster, was born on 21 October 1878 at Brighton, Melbourne, eldest son and third of eleven children of William Edward Morris, who came from England and was deputy-registrar (later registrar) of the Anglican diocese of Melbourne, and his wife Clara Elizabeth, née French, who was born in India. The godson of Bishop Perry, young Will was raised in the upper echelons of Melbourne society. In an uncommonly urbane household, the Morrises upheld the traditions of Church, Queen and Empire. Will's sisters Mary and Edith became co-principals of Merton Hall. (Major General) Basil Morris was his younger brother.

Entering (1886) Wadhurst Preparatory School, Morris soon proved to be a solid, all-round pupil. At Melbourne Church of England Grammar School he played (1895-96) Australian Rules football for the first XX and became a prefect. From Trinity College, University of Melbourne (B.A., 1900; M.A., 1915), he proceeded to Ridley Hall, Cambridge, where he read theology, and church and medieval history, and was influenced by the notion of 'muscular Christianity'.

Throughout his career Morris was to be an assertive and persuasive representative of the Victorian idea of equilibrium, evoking in his teachings the interrelationship of church and nation. Archbishop Rayner remembered him as 'a broad churchman whose religious understanding focused on the ''crises of humanity"'. Morris was suspicious of dogma and eschewed emotional displays of Christian belief. On 22 December 1901 he was made deacon in the Church of England.

He chose to serve as assistant-curate at Whitechapel, London, because, in his words, he had taken holy orders 'to do social work on a religious basis, instead of doing religious work on a social basis'. It was a moral approach and one which, with his disregard for institutional expressions of faith, would bring him occasionally into conflict with Church authorities. Ordained priest on 7 June 1903, he returned to Melbourne soon after. On 3 January 1905 at St John's Church, East Malvern, he married Ethel Ida Remfry, a graduate of the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1903; M.Sc., 1905; M.B., B.S., 1911) and a teacher at Merton Hall; they were to remain childless. As vicar of the parish of St Barnabas, South Melbourne, Morris suffered a blow to his ministering zeal when Archbishop H. L. Clarke refused to sanction special missions to wharf labourers and their families.

The young cleric found his real vocation in teaching, serving an 'apprenticeship' and earning headmasters' accolades as resident master and honorary chaplain at Geelong Church of England Grammar School (1907-08) and as assistant boarding master and chaplain at the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide (1909-11). He was soon advocating the value of small classes and the educational importance of a teacher focusing on the individual pupil.

Late in 1906 Ethel Morris had returned to Merton Hall and to her studies, beginning a separation from her husband that would endure, except for a few weeks in 1912, until her death in London in 1957. Their differences were aesthetic and fundamental. An ardent classicist, Morris viewed life from uncompromisingly romantic, heroic and idealistic perspectives. He abhorred socialism, for example, for its abnegation of the individual and the spirit. His personal requisites were Spartan, and he found intellectual enjoyment in reading literature and writing poetry. For recreation, he favoured outdoor pastimes and team sports such as rowing, Rugby Union football and cricket. By contrast, Ethel Remfry-Morris was a modernist and a feminist, who eventually turned to painting, finding her future in artistic circles in London.

On 8 February 1912, during their brief reunion, the Morrises established a small private school, St Magnus Hall, in a house called Ardencraig at Toowong, Brisbane. With the support of Archbishop Donaldson and leaders of the Anglican lay community, Morris was able to capitalize on the Church's wish to become more involved in education in Queensland. In 1913 synod decided to amalgamate St Magnus Hall with St John's Day School, under Morris's headmastership. Next year the school was established, adjacent to St John's Cathedral, as Brisbane Church of England Grammar School for Boys. In 1915 it acquired Bowen House Preparatory School. Wartime austerity restricted enrolments, but in his quest for a permanent site for the school, Morris won widespread support.

Governor Sir Hamilton Goold-Adams officially opened the Church of England Grammar School at its new location, Oaklands Parade, East Brisbane, on 10 June 1918. Within ten years it approached the front rank of the country's independent schools. Its spectacular rise owed much to the qualities of its founding headmaster. By the time he retired at the end of 1946, more than 3000 boys had passed through 'Churchie'.

Recognizing the importance of a stimulating environment in 'framing character', Morris transformed the school site into a rural sanctuary amid the bustle of the city, and into a place where country boys could feel at home and learn. 'Churchie' was a functioning farm which contributed savings to the school budget and reflected the headmaster's austere notions of self-sufficiency. Such frugality enabled the young school to weather the Depression and two world wars, keep fees at a low level, and attract pupils from country and city. Morris decried the creeping exclusiveness of some 'Great Public Schools'.

His appeal to parents derived from a passionate commitment to what he termed 'the purpose of education', namely, 'the training of character on the foundation of Christian faith as taught by the Church of England'. At once both visionary and autocratic, he frequently reminded parents that the Church of England Grammar School was established 'to teach, not to proselytise; our concern being especially with moral issues'. Speech nights were occasions to issue strictures against contemporary political, social and cultural trends, particularly declining moral purpose.

Despite the Depression, Morris completed his building programme by the late 1930s. It was in creating an educational ethos, however, that he was most outstanding. In the Morris school, scholasticism never usurped character formation as the essential product of education. Learning through experience and inspiration were critical tenets. He tried to induce in each boy a desire to strive and perform to his best. 'Finish hard, boy, finish hard', was the headmaster's salutary edict to students running distance races or rowing on the Brisbane River.

Known as the 'Boss' and true to the persona, Morris withstood any encroachment which reduced his authority or the autonomy of the school. The Church was no exception. He regarded intrusions by diocesan administrators and the synod in the same light as interference by the Industrial Court and trade unions. All were tactfully but fiercely resisted. Morris's appointment as an honorary canon on 1 September 1935 was tacit recognition by the diocese of the broad pastoral impact he made on hundreds of Queensland families. Not that the Church was ever pre-eminent in the 'Churchie' ethos during Morris's tenure. In a High-Church diocese, the school was conspicuous for its interdenominational constituency and its rejection of Anglo-Catholic forms of worship.

Seeking to inspire young minds, Morris gave his school a Biblical motto, Alis Aquilae ('On the Wings of an Eagle'), from a text in Isaiah. As he grew older, especially in World War II when he was stricken by infirmity and illness, and had to struggle with the privations of shortages, he would transcend the epical lessons of his beloved classics and became the hero himself. To his charges, he would always be the model of a man of formidable courage, exemplifying stoicism, self-sacrifice and service. He was what he taught.

In the 1930s Morris had stridently opposed pacifism and appeasement. Despite synod's objections, he insisted on maintaining the school cadet unit, not only because of its contribution to discipline and boyhood development, but also because he believed that 'Those who have the greatest advantages should be the readiest to serve'. And serve they did. Almost one thousand old boys fought in World War II; one in ten of them was killed in action or died of wounds.

After his retirement Morris lived quietly in Brisbane, writing his memoirs, Sons of Magnus (1948), and privately publishing a collection of poems, Havenhome and Other Verses. In 1955 he was appointed O.B.E. He died on 21 May 1960 in Brisbane and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. Cole, The Making of Men (Brisb, 1986)
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 23, 25 May 1960.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Cole, 'Morris, William Perry (Will) (1878–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 25 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]


21 October, 1878
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


21 May, 1960 (aged 81)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.