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Merrilie D'Arcy Roberts (1915–1993)

by Gerri Nicholas

This article was published:

Merrilie D’Arcy Roberts (1915–1993), headmistress, was born on 6 November 1915 at Greenwich, Sydney, youngest of five children of locally born parents D’Arcy Falconer Roberts, clerk and later assistant manager at the Perpetual Trustee Co. Ltd, and his wife Joan Margaret, née Fitzhardinge. The Roberts children grew up next door to their grandfather Jeremiah Roberts, the first mayor of Lane Cove, whose four-acre (1.6 ha) estate had a tennis court, orchard, and beautiful garden. Educated at Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School (SCEGGS), North Sydney, and Abbotsleigh, Wahroonga, Merrilie won an exhibition to the University of Sydney, where she studied mathematics (BA, 1937). She taught briefly in Sydney before moving to a small Melbourne boarding school and studying at Melbourne Teachers’ College and the University of Melbourne (DipEd, 1941).

During World War II Roberts joined De Havilland Aircraft Co. Pty Ltd, Sydney, where she prepared mathematical calculations for Royal Australian Air Force propeller designs. This period was extremely challenging but it convinced her that she could earn a living outside teaching if necessary. As a woman employed in this work she experienced no discrimination, except in wages, and relished the close friendships she made with people from diverse backgrounds.

After the war, Roberts worked as a secretary in the mathematics department at the University of Sydney, before being appointed deputy headmistress at SCEGGS Moss Vale in April 1947. Here she found a renewed interest in teaching. Resigning in November 1949, she sailed for England and taught mathematics in London schools. Intrigued by a reference in the Times Educational Supplement, she enrolled in a short course at William Temple College, a theological institution near Chester. While at Abbotsleigh, she had developed an intense involvement with the Christian youth organisation the Crusader Union. She continued this commitment at university through the Evangelical Union’s daily meetings and as a student speaker. As a graduate she became women’s representative on the national committee.

The war had led Roberts to question her evangelical religious beliefs, prompting her to extend her stay at William Temple College. These years as a resident reader helped her not only to reaffirm her faith but also to abandon the constraints of evangelical doctrine and return to the liberal Christianity of her upbringing. While in England, she gained the Cambridge certificate of religious knowledge (1950) and completed a thesis through the University of Melbourne on the provision of boarding school education by the English public authorities (BEd, 1953).

In 1952 Roberts had returned to Australia to take up the position of headmistress of Newcastle Church of England Girls’ Grammar School. To expand the school’s standing in the community, she joined numerous local and professional committees, gave public addresses, and opened church fêtes. She raised academic standards and supervised building expansion. After seven years she resigned, exhausted, and sailed to England. En route she visited China, where she received official permission to visit several secondary schools, and India.

Following two years teaching in London, Roberts returned to Sydney in September 1961 as headmistress of Ascham School, an independent, non-denominational girls’ school at Edgecliff. She became a dedicated supporter of the Dalton plan, a self-directed method of study introduced to Ascham in 1922 by Margaret Bailey. Roberts wrote and spoke extensively on Ascham’s modified Dalton plan, on the social upheavals of the 1960s, and the increased educational opportunities for girls through the new six-year Wyndham scheme. She administered two major building programs and also gave lectures to university students. An active member of the Teachers’ Guild of New South Wales and the Association of Heads of Independent Girls’ Schools (president 1968), she became a fellow of the Australian College of Education (1970). Some former students remember her as relaxed and approachable, others as somewhat reserved. All recall her smoke-filled study and her warnings to avoid the nicotine habit.

Retiring to Greenwich in 1972, Roberts immersed herself in researching and writing local history, producing in 1982 Roads to the River: Prelude to a Municipality, 1884. She was also a member of the New South Wales Bursary Endowment Board. Although she scorned personal publicity, she contributed numerous newspaper articles on education and controversial social issues. Having moved to Lourdes Retirement Village, Killara, she died at Hornsby on 25 September 1993, and was cremated. At Ascham, Roberts’s era is commemorated by the gymnasium and swimming pool, named in her honour, and a portrait by Brian Dunlop.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Danziger, Rowena. ‘Obituary: Miss Merrilie Roberts B. A., B. Ed., F. A. C. E.’ Newsletter (Australian College of Education, New South Wales Chapter), no. 93–94 (December 1993): 27

  • Roberts, Merrilie D. Interview by Barbara Blackman, 1 November 1984. Transcript. National Library of Australia

  • Simpson, Caroline Fairfax, Annette Fielding-Jones Dupree, and Betty Winn Ferguson (eds). Ascham Remembered 18861986. Sydney: Fine Arts Press, 1986

  • Williams, Evan. ‘Excellent Work, Pamela!’ Sydney Morning Herald, 13 November 1969, 10, 13

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Citation details

Gerri Nicholas, 'Roberts, Merrilie D'Arcy (1915–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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