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Sir Francis William (Frank) Rolland (1878–1965)

by B. R. Keith

This article was published:

Sir Francis William (Frank) Rolland (1878-1965), clergyman and educationist, was born on 12 June 1878 at Geelong, Victoria, second son of Rev. William Stothert Rolland, Presbyterian clergyman, and his wife Margaret Louisa, daughter of Rev. A. J. Campbell. He was educated at Toorak College and at Scotch College, East Melbourne. Tall, slim and springy of step, he was a serious student, good at all sports and an outstanding tennis player. At Ormond College, University of Melbourne, he completed arts and theology (B.A., 1899; M.A. in logic and philosophy, 1903) before proceeding to Edinburgh for a postgraduate year of divinity.

Returning to Melbourne Rolland became assistant minister at Scots Church, but in 1905 accepted a position as agent of the Smith of Dunesk Mission based on Beltana in South Australia's desert north, to oversee, alone, an enormous area of country notorious for extreme heat and aridity and the roughest of male subcultures. Here he drove by horse and buggy where tracks were few and confused, and facilities non-existent, to carry his ministry to mining and railway construction camps, shearing sheds and bore-sinking parties, 'where depravity and alcoholic excess were rampant'. He took risks to visit remote out-stations, and was deeply moved by the plight of the few women and children in his territory.

Like mission agents before and after him, Rolland suffered in health and eyesight from the climate, isolation and poor diet, and was forced to withdraw in 1908, but he had made his diagnosis and, backed by his parents, planned a nursing and hospital service for the inland. Before leaving, he installed Sister Alice Main at Oodnadatta; in 1911 the Rolland Home, a hospital named after the family, was built and opened there. Next year Rev. John Flynn asked Rolland for help, and in September 1912 the two men led the public launching in Melbourne of the Australian Inland Mission, which inherited the Rolland Home, ready-made and staffed, the first of its many hospitals.

Rolland was then serving at Noorat, Victoria, but even this, the only normal parish appointment of his life, had been interrupted by secondment in 1911 to Broome, Western Australia, to report on a breakdown of Presbyterian activity there. After a year living close to townspeople, pearlers and cattlemen, he had restored the Church's standing.

In 1915 Rolland resigned the Noorat charge to become chaplain with the Australian Imperial Force, and after postings in Egypt and England was appointed chaplain-captain with the 14th Battalion on the Somme. To the dismay of senior officers he had original ideas of chaplaincy, insisting on taking his ministrations into the forward trenches. His morale-building through creature comforts earned him the affectionate title of 'Cocoa King'. He went 'over the top' in one attack, armed with a bag of splints, to set up an aid post. He was promoted major in 1917 and lieutenant-colonel in 1919. Behind the lines he developed study courses which, with the support of General Sir William Birdwood and Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash, grew into the army scheme of education for post-war living. His courage and devotion led to mention in dispatches, award of the Military Cross, and the undying admiration of the men for their 'Old Padre'.

At Trinity Church, Marylebone, London, on 19 March 1919, Rolland married Enid Aline (d.1964), daughter of the English surgeon Sir Charles Ballance; he had met her at Noorat. Intelligent, cultured, with a strong personality, she gave the needed support when her husband hesitated through natural shyness and a nervousness due in part to war experiences. There were no children.

While in England Rolland received a call from the council of the ailing Geelong College to be principal from 1920. He had never been a schoolmaster, and there was professional hostility to the appointment, while his unconventionality, especially in matters of discipline, was not always appreciated by his staff. He demanded a building programme on British public school lines to match his ideals of dignity and beauty and engaged specialist teachers in music, arts and crafts, physical education and holiday adventure. In 1937-38 Rolland was moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, and in 1936-39 chairman of the Headmasters' Conference of Australia. Early in World War II he undertook two unofficial missions, to the United States of America and the Netherlands East Indies, to press the British cause.

Rolland retired from Geelong in 1945, having given the college a new stability. It seemed his work was done, but soon his voice was heard again in Church matters related to education. He reorganized the training of Presbyterian deaconesses in Victoria, sought to improve religious instruction in state schools, and worked with others for the acceptance of Bible studies as a subject of public examination.

In 1954 Rolland was elected moderator-general of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, a position held by his father forty years before. Although appointed for three years, he carried on the task for nearly six because of the illness of his successor, and travelled widely, visiting remote congregations.

Appointed O.B.E. in 1953 and C.M.G. in 1955, in 1958 Rolland received a knighthood, the first conferred on an Australian minister of religion. A special distinction came in 1956, when he preached before a gathering of national leaders at the opening of the John Flynn Memorial Church in Alice Springs. In 1960 the University of Edinburgh granted him an honorary doctorate of divinity.

On release from moderatorial duties, and despite weakening eyesight and poor general health, Rolland made a last determined bid for religious instruction in state schools to be taken as a regular class subject by regular teachers—who overwhelmingly rejected the proposition. However, as a member of the Council for Christian Education in Schools, he had the compensatory satisfaction of seeing the first full-time chaplains installed in state schools.

Physically and mentally tough, Rolland was an obstinate fighter for his causes, and it was a serious error to take his gentle style and soft, slightly stammering speech as signs of weakness. He throve on challenges. With his boyish sense of humour, a penchant for punning, a reputation for absent-mindedness, something of a prophetic charisma, and the ability to beat almost anyone at tennis, he aroused every degree of emotion from exasperation to near awe. His concern was for people, with a special compassion for the ignorant, the wilful and the disadvantaged, for the private soldier, the settler's wife, the schoolboy not academically gifted. In his personal religion he was both believer and inquirer. In his work he looked beyond traditional frontiers so that all his seemingly disparate careers reveal the common factor of extension and redefinition.

Rolland died in Melbourne on 22 January 1965 and was cremated. The Geelong College has as its memorial the Rolland Physical Education Centre; there is also a portrait by Charles Wheeler. A portrait by William Dargie is at the Assembly Hall, Melbourne.

One of his brothers, Henry Maitland Rolland (1882-1972), O.B.E., was architect (1912), works director (1921) and chief architect (1925-27) of the Federal Capital Commission. Several of his watercolours of the Canberra district are held by the National Library of Australia. In 1941-47 he was director of architecture for the Commonwealth Department of Works and Housing.

Select Bibliography

  • B. R. Keith, The Lives of Frank Rolland (Adel, 1977), and for bibliography
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 Jan 1965
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Jan 1965.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

B. R. Keith, 'Rolland, Sir Francis William (Frank) (1878–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 June, 1878
Geelong, Victoria, Australia


22 January, 1965 (aged 86)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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.