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Henry Emmanuel (Harry) Roberts (1900–1984)

by Peter Hempenstall

This article was published:

Henry Emmanuel Roberts (1900-1984), headmaster and educational reformer, was born on 8 October 1900 in Brisbane, son of English-born Henry Emmanuel Roberts, general carrier, and his Welsh-born wife Emily Jane, née Pedler. Harry grew up at Highgate Hill and attended Dutton Park (Boys’) State School till moving to Brisbane Normal (Central) Boys’ School in the city in 1913 to sit for the Queensland scholarship examination. His secondary schooling was at Brisbane Grammar School, where he excelled academically, becoming dux in 1918.

Having won an open scholarship to the University of Queensland (BA, 1922; MA, 1925), Roberts studied classics, graduating with second-class honours. In 1922 he began teaching at Ipswich Grammar School, part of the small army of graduates who had to master pedagogy on their own in the Queensland teacher-training system of the 1920s. He spent part of 1925 in England, teaching Latin at Drax Grammar School, North Yorkshire. In 1927 he was, for a time, acting headmaster at Ipswich. There he met Hilda Georgina Vincent, a gifted pianist and music teacher, and they married on 19 December 1928 at the Central Congregational Church.

Early in 1928 Roberts had moved to Scots College, Sydney, where, as senior English master and master-in-charge of McIntyre House, he honed his skills as teacher and athletics coach. In 1935 he became headmaster of Toowoomba Grammar School. This job was very much a joint enterprise, for the Robertses were expected to purchase the furnishings and keep the boarding-house solvent from the fee income they received.

The founder and headmaster of Church of England Grammar School (‘Churchie’) in Brisbane, Canon W. P. F. Morris, wanted Roberts as his successor. With the approval of Archbishop (Sir) Reginald Halse but some resistance from the Diocesan Council because of Roberts’s Presbyterian churchmanship, Roberts was appointed headmaster of Churchie from the beginning of 1947.

Roberts had systematic ideas about the nature of curriculum, the practice of teaching and the conditions for learning, which he communicated to parents in speech-night addresses. He condemned an examination system that made teachers push for results through attention to narrow syllabus demands, wanting an education system that allowed more room and freedom to teach students how to think. Approaching retirement, he challenged the university to show more trust in schoolmasters to assess subjects internally. He praised technical institutes for placing fewer obstacles in the path of the practically minded, and laid out for his speech-night audiences the groundwork for a complete revision of educational curricula.

Roberts did not consider himself a ‘genuine originator’ when it came to educational experiment. But he was an innovator in the positive treatment of teachers and made it his mission to raise their stature in the eyes of the community. Roberts took a leading role among his colleagues as inaugural chairman of a committee advocating the registration of teachers in Queensland. As Churchie grew in the late 1950s into one of Queensland’s largest independent church schools, he worked to secure school council approval for above-award salaries for senior teachers, culminating in the decision in 1968 to pay them the equivalent of university lecturers; he also persuaded the council to appoint his successor at a professorial salary. Roberts’s improvements to the teachers’ superannuation system provided a model for other schools.

The educational innovations that Roberts introduced at Churchie included a broadening of the curriculum with training in manual skills, the beginnings of a serious music program and the teaching of art. He also instigated a series of social and religious enquiries, involving a prominent commentator discussing burning questions of the day and with other schools invited to participate.

Roberts’s administrative style, as he admitted, was generally minimalist. The work was done with the help of a bursar, two assistants and a telephonist, even as the school grew to more than one thousand students and financial affairs became more complex. This became a cause of inefficiency, which drew criticism. Remembered more affectionately were Roberts’s hapless impracticality when it came to driving and his gift for remembering students’ names and their records whenever he met them in later life.

His position at Churchie placed Roberts in the front rank of those seeking reform of Queensland’s school system. He was a member of the 1960 State committee that abolished the scholarship examination and revised secondary schooling. A member (1965-70) of the Board of Senior Secondary School Studies, in 1968 he convened a meeting to lobby the minister for education for changes that would construct a separate curriculum for senior pupils who were not going on to university. Roberts then helped to manoeuvre through the board a committee to report to the minister. His activism helped to persuade the government to review the system of public examinations for Queensland secondary schools, resulting in significant education reforms in the 1970s.

Roberts worked indefatigably for the Headmasters’ Association of Queensland. He was foundation chairman of the Association of Independent Schools of Queensland, chairman (1965-67) of the Headmasters’ Conference of the Independent Schools of Australia and chairman (1966-68) and fellow (1962) of the Queensland chapter of the Australian College of Education. A member of the Commonwealth Scholarships Board, he also served on Australian Broadcasting Commission advisory committees and on committees of various community organisations.

A lean, straight figure with a shock of hair and small glasses, Roberts was regarded with awe and trepidation by schoolboys caught disobeying school rules. He had a reputation for being preoccupied with winning scholarships and sporting premierships, though this was often overstated.

Roberts retired at the end of 1969. He had been appointed OBE in 1967. In 1969 he received an honorary D.Litt. from the University of Queensland, whose senate he served for fifteen years. The following year he was chosen as Queensland’s Father of the Year and in 1971 Toowoomba Grammar School named a classroom block in his honour. In retirement in suburban Brisbane, Roberts had more time for reading, gardening and family. He liked to meet colleagues and friends at the Queensland Club. Survived by his wife and their two sons, he died on 24 June 1984 at New Farm, Brisbane, and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • J. R. Cole, The Making of Men (1986)
  • J. K. Winn, Still Playing the Game (2000)
  • P. Hempenstall, Churchie: A Centenary Portrait (2011)
  • Archives of the Anglican Church Grammar School (Brisbane).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Hempenstall, 'Roberts, Henry Emmanuel (Harry) (1900–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 July 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

Henry Roberts, c1967

Henry Roberts, c1967

State Library of Victoria, H38849/​3817

Life Summary [details]


8 October, 1900
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


24 June, 1984 (aged 83)
New Farm, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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