Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Newton-John, Brinley (Brin) (1914–1992)

by John Stowell and Jill Stowell

This article was published online in 2016

Brinley Newton-John (1914–1992), university administrator and professor of German literature, was born Brinley Newton John on 5 March 1914 in Cardiff, Wales, son of Welsh parents Oliver John, council schools manual instructor, and his wife Daisy, née Newton. Educated at Canton Municipal Secondary School, Cardiff, Brin won a scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge (BA, 1935; MA, 1939), where he achieved a double first in the modern and medieval languages tripos. After graduating, he became assistant master at Christ’s Hospital (193638), then at Stowe School (193840). On 5 April 1937 at the register office, Kensington, he had married Irene Helene Käthe Hedwig Born, daughter of the physicist Max Born.

Commissioned in the Royal Air Force on 30 September 1940, Newton-John (as he would come to write his name) was drafted into intelligence. He spent two years interrogating captured German pilots, using his language skills and familiarity with upper-class German society to gain their confidence and elicit information. He was involved in authenticating the identity of Rudolf Hess in May 1941. In 1942 he was seconded to the top-secret Ultra project at Bletchley Park, the intelligence unit that, among other things, broke the German Enigma codes, frequently giving the Allies advance knowledge of enemy plans. Located in Hut 3, he was engaged in interpreting and analysing the information decoded in Hut 6. He was part of the team that supplied General (Sir) Bernard (Viscount) Montgomery with crucial information about the disposition of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s forces and supply lines a week before the battle of El Alamein in October 1942. On 5 September 1945 he was promoted to war substantive flight lieutenant.

After demobilisation late in 1945, Newton-John returned to teaching as headmaster of Cambridgeshire High School for Boys. In 1954 he came to Australia with his family as master of Ormond College, University of Melbourne. He served Ormond College for five years. During his liberal regime, he initiated an extensive building program and contributed widely to the college, the university, and the general community through committees and activities as an actor, singer, and television host.

Following the breakdown of his marriage in 1958, Newton-John successfully applied for the position of associate professor of German and head of the department of arts at the youthful Newcastle University College, then part of the University of New South Wales. He married Valerie Ter Wee (née Cunningham), bookshop manager and pianist, and later clinical psychologist, on 28 June 1963 at the district registrar’s office, Hamilton. Remaining at the university until his retirement in 1974, he became in turn deputy warden of the college (1963), vice-principal of the new university (1965), and deputy vice-chancellor (1968). He frequently acted as vice-chancellor in place of J. J. Auchmuty, as the college achieved independence and then grew in stature as the University of Newcastle, rapidly expanding throughout the following decade.

In the early days when the vice-chancellor and his deputy were giving the university a profile in the Newcastle community, Newton-John’s easy social skills complemented the forthright drive of Auchmuty. At his farewell speech in 1973, using words borrowed from the Jesuit superior general Claudio Acquaviva, Newton-John said that he had developed a ‘habit ... of acting suaviter in modo to supplement the Vice-Chancellor’s fortiter in re.’ Eloquent and elegant, he brought a version of Oxbridge tradition to the fledgling institution, wrote its by-laws, and provided the university’s motto: ‘I look ahead.’ During the years of radical student protest in the late 1960s and 1970s he made a major contribution to good governance through the establishment of a staff-student consultative committee, opening the way for better channels of communication within the university. Provision of student accommodation was another long-time concern. A history of the first forty years of the university noted ‘the enormous amount of work’ he did for students, observing that ‘when he retired early in 1974, the students lost a real friend’ (Wright 1992, 118).

Although administrative duties, particularly in preparation for autonomy, claimed much of his attention, Newton-John continued to teach and was remembered by former students not only for the brilliance of his instruction but also for the sense that he took them seriously and treated them without condescension. When a chair of German was established in 1966, a personal chair of German literature was established for him. He had a special interest in student activities and welfare, establishing the first university choir, participating in productions by the Student Players, and encouraging student revues. There were public readings of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood by Newton-John and other members of staff, several of them like him proud of their Welsh heritage. This repeated the success of previous performances in Melbourne. An ambassador for the cultural value of higher education, he was popular in the wider community as an occasional speaker. In 1972 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. On his retirement, the university conferred on him the title of professor emeritus and convocation named an award for creativity and innovation in his honour.

During his retirement Newton-John was able to pursue more closely a long-standing involvement with classical music. His mother had been a singer in the Royal Welsh Ladies Choir and he played the violin during his school years. For a time he had considered a career as a professional singer. At Bletchley Park he sang in performances of opera, gave recitals of German lieder, and took part in revues. Throughout his career he lectured on music from Bach to Wagner, and after moving to Sydney in 1981 he served as a regular presenter on the fine music radio station 2 MBS–FM and was a member of its board. He was also a pioneer in television broadcasting in Australia, as moderator of the 1958 Australian Broadcasting Commission program Any Questions, and as deviser and presenter of a popular but short-lived program Forum for Newcastle TV station NBN 3 in 1962.

After divorcing his second wife, on 21 August 1983 at Manly, Sydney, Newton-John married Gay Mary Jean Holley (née McOmish), a journalist. As well as his love of classical music, he was a skilled photographer and keen squash player in younger days. Survived by his wife, the son and two daughters of his first marriage, and the daughter and son of his second marriage, he died on 3 July 1992 at Manly; he was cremated. His daughter Olivia, from his first marriage, became such a world-famous pop star that Brin attained fame as ‘the father of Olivia.’ A portrait painted by Bill Leak hangs in Ormond College, University of Melbourne.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Cairnes, Joan. ‘Professor Tells Secrets of Hut 3.’ Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 21 December 1974, 7
  • Ewbank, Tim. Olivia: The Biography of Olivia Newton-John. London: Piatkus Books, 2008
  • ‘Farewell, Vice-Principal.’ University News (University of Newcastle), no. 78 (28 February 1974), 13
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • University of Newcastle Archives. Newton-John, Brinley. Papers
  • Wright, Don, assisted by Rhonda Geale. Looking Back: A History of the University of Newcastle Callaghan, NSW: University of Newcastle, 1992

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Stowell and Jill Stowell, 'Newton-John, Brinley (Brin) (1914–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/newton-john-brinley-brin-18243/text29835, published online 2016, accessed online 12 December 2019.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019