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John Douglas Story (1869–1966)

by Georgina Story

This article was published:

John Douglas Story (1869-1966), public servant and university vice-chancellor, was born on 7 August 1869 at Jedburgh, Roxburghshire, Scotland, son of John Douglas Story, grocer, and his wife Frances, née Davidson. His parents migrated to Queensland, arriving in Brisbane on 15 September 1877 with their five children. John senior's article 'Voyage from Glasgow to Queensland (by a Jedburgh man)', later published in a Scottish newspaper, described his and the children's daily study of the birds and fish they saw and the lands they sailed past.

Beyond the birth of two more children, little is known of the family's early years in Brisbane. The father ran a grocer's shop (until becoming insolvent in 1892) while young John attended Brisbane Boys' Normal School which—under James Kerr—was a major pupil-teacher training establishment, renowned for its rote teaching which assured many pupils of scholarships to the state-endowed grammar schools then providing Queensland's only secondary education. In 1883 John won the right to three years at Brisbane Grammar School. Under the headmastership of Reginald Roe, the school provided discipline without resort to punishment and offered a classical yet practical education. In 1885 Roe recommended Story as the bright junior clerk requested by John Anderson, director of education; Story's application was subsequently minuted: 'Nice intelligent look—rather small and lean and does not look robust. Brain…stronger than body'. He began work on 23 March.

Quick and efficient, Story soon mastered the department's operations. He also continued to study with a private tutor and at Brisbane Technical College. His rise was rapid: assistant correspondence clerk (1886), record clerk (1888), acting chief clerk (1902), chief clerk and acting under secretary (1904) and, on Anderson's retirement, under secretary (1906). Anderson and David Ewart, the chief inspector, had been censured by the 1888-89 royal commission into the civil service for their failure to plan and initiate reforms. Education in Queensland had suffered from a centralized bureaucratic system, stultified curricula, poorly trained teachers, no state secondary schools and the lack of a university. Co-operating with ministers Andrew Barlow and (Sir) James Blair, and later with a Labor government eager for change, Story presided over a fruitful period in Queensland's education which paralleled developments in other States. He married Mary Lamont Campbell with Presbyterian forms on 9 September 1904 at Albion, Brisbane.

From 1909 he was supported by Roe as chief inspector. While Story was under secretary his department assumed full establishment costs for new schools, took over and expanded the technical colleges, opened the first State high schools in six towns without grammar schools (1912) and set up a teachers' college (1914). An apprenticeship scheme and rural schools were introduced, pupils received medical and dental treatment, the school leaving age was raised to 14, and opportunities for secondary education were dramatically widened by the extension of scholarships to all who passed the examination. Under the auspices of Story's department, the University of Queensland was founded (1910), with Roe as vice-chancellor and Story a government representative on the senate. He chaired the senate's vital administrative and financial committees, the management committee for a local Workers' Educational Association branch, and select committees on agricultural education (1917) and university organization and expansion (1919).

After public service unions had rejected a new classification scheme, on 19 September 1918 the Ryan Labor government made Story a royal commissioner to examine the classification of Queensland public service officers and the allowances payable to them. Between October 1918 and May 1919 the commission travelled 5500 miles (8851 km) and interviewed 273 witnesses. Story's approach was incisive yet humane, showing concern for employees' working conditions. His report, a classic of its type and influential beyond Queensland, recommended a new and fairer classification scheme which the government adopted. Story was appointed sole public service commissioner (1920-39), replacing a board whose members had known little of inner departmental workings.

Although he left public instruction reluctantly, Story reorganized the public service enthusiastically. A recognized procedure for advertising vacancies was instituted; public servants were permitted to challenge appointments through appeal boards, to reply to charges and to appeal against penalties; codes of conduct and discipline were formulated; their unions gained access to the State Industrial Commission on issues affecting salaries and conditions, and to the commissioner on grievances previously ignored. To increase efficiency, modern office methods and mechanization were introduced, and university staff gave advice on professional and technical procedures. The commissioner and departmental heads conferred regularly and there was frequent inspection of departments.

On the Public Service Superannuation Board (1913-42) Story advised ways to maximize benefits to contributors. As chief crown advocate before the Industrial Commission on public service matters, he was just and equitable. He acted firmly to ensure wage reductions during the Depression, but in 1938 was able to organize restoration of full-time employment at award rates for many previously on relief payments. As public service commissioner, Story had interests which encompassed wider aspects of Queensland's economic development. Having visited California, United States of America, he inspired the formation and became founding chairman of the Council of Agriculture (1922) which brought primary producers into closer touch with government. He was prominent in the establishment of organized marketing boards for primary products. Through his membership of the Bureau of Industry—established by the Moore government and continued by its Labor successor—Story assisted post-Depression job creation through large public works. He served on boards which constructed the new university at St Lucia, built Somerset Dam to assure Brisbane's water supply and reduce flooding, and erected a badly-needed bridge from Kangaroo Point to Fortitude Valley: the bridge was named in his honour in 1940.

As a public servant, Story smoothed the way for many new politicians. He was courteous, rising to greet visitors and to put them at ease: 'They go in pretty glum, but they all come out smiling', said one of his observers. He was straightforward, believing that most good ministers expected 'sound administrative advice and honest opinion … [not] opinion and advice to order'. His motives were not pecuniary: in his subsequent twenty-one years as vice-chancellor he received only his public service superannuation. Sharing his family's dislike of publicity, he refused a knighthood and honorary degrees, but treasured his I.S.O. (1923) as a proper reward.

A gifted administrator and a good judge of character, Story chose his subordinates well. 'More work, less argument' was a typical maxim. He thought logically and analytically with due attention to detail: considering anticipation as 'one of the main keys to successful administration', he was discerning and far-sighted. Outmanoeuvred by his planning, some saw him as authoritarian: at meetings to propound projects or review matters, he advised, 'go fully prepared and with something to suggest. The man with the scheme is usually the man who wins through'. He had a streak of canniness, and knew that initiative and daring were necessary in administration. He deplored 'petty meannesses', but demanded frugality, the best possible value for money. As senate finance committee chairman, he was proud that the university had 'neither overdraft nor loan; it owes not any man'. He set new standards of honesty and integrity. Story was apolitical and served both Labor and non-Labor governments diligently. He appreciated the conservative leanings of the Queensland Labor governments whose liberal reforms were more concerned with giving workers, small businessmen and farmers the means to survive through education, security and a basic standard of living than with destroying capitalism.

Story's retirement in 1939 was illusory. Having exerted considerable influence on the University of Queensland since 1910 and having been its elected part-time vice-chancellor in 1938, he now became honorary full-time vice-chancellor. His links with government, while criticized by some academics, had been crucial in gaining Premier William Forgan Smith's promise to build a permanent home for the university. Story presided over the building, albeit interrupted by the exigencies of war. He was involved in drafting the university Act amendment and national education co-ordination bills (1941), envisaging an integrated education system from kindergarten to university, a concept always dear to his heart. The bills which provided for a majority of government nominees on the senate, thereby strengthening links between the university and the education department, created suspicion in university circles; when enacted, however, they widened senate representation, led to a doubling of government endowment and instituted boards of adult education and post-primary studies.

The university weathered a post-war explosion of enrolments from 1400 (1938) to 10,000 (1960), while annual budgets climbed from £40,000 to £2 million. Despite the vice-chancellor's insistence on administrative efficiency and economy, and his efforts to elicit private benefactions by publicizing the university's role in the community, Commonwealth money became necessary. Story saw university centres established throughout Queensland for the benefit of external students and the beginnings of the University College of Townsville; with Professor Fred Schonell, he organized (1955) a conference of university administrators, academics and state and private school principals to discuss the relationship between secondary and tertiary education. Succeeded by Schonell as Queensland's first salaried vice-chancellor, Story retired in 1960, but remained on the senate until 1963. He was honoured by the naming of the new J. D. Story Administration Building.

Education was his greatest interest. He saw it as a democratic tool giving those with will and ability the chance to progress, and proudly wrote in his State Education in Queensland (1915): 'secondary education in Queensland is free to those who prove their fitness … it is just as possible for the son of the wharf-labourer, the sugar-worker or the shearer to enjoy a full course of secondary education as for the son of the shipowner, the sugar-planter or the station-owner'. Like Peter Board in New South Wales and Frank Tate in Victoria, he believed education was crucial: 'National efficiency is the concern of the State and as education is one of the main contributors towards national efficiency, the State is interested deeply in making every part of the education system as good as possible'. He supported vocational alongside academic education, in the practical Scottish tradition. Like many of his contemporaries in late-nineteenth-century Queensland, Story finished his full-time education at 15, but was a lifelong student.

In his youth J. D. Story was a keen debater and played in the department of public instruction's football team. He enjoyed weekly golf until his eighties, but his work remained his greatest interest, reading his chief relaxation. Photographs in his thirties reveal a keen expression, dark hair and moustache, while those of later years show a craggy and determined, even forbidding, face. He was called 'the old eagle' or 'J.D.' in public service and university circles. His personality appeared dour and unemotional, but his sense of humour was wry and lively. Typists and secretaries remembered his birthday years after they had left him. He treasured close friends: Reginald Roe, the university administrators Cecil Page-Hanify and Cyril Connell, James Blair, Archbishop Sir James Duhig, Inigo Jones, the long-range weather forecaster whom he visited at Crohamhurst Observatory and whose work he persuaded Professor Harry Priestley to examine, and William Forgan Smith with whom he shared a 'tough tongue at times' and the ability to recognize good work. A widower since 1944, Story died on 2 February 1966 at The Chateau, a convalescent home at New Farm, Brisbane, and was cremated. He was survived by two sons and a daughter; his estate was sworn for probate at $74,388; his portrait by William Dargie hangs in the University of Queensland's Darnell Art Gallery.

Select Bibliography

  • M. I. Thomis, A Place of Light & Learning (Brisb, 1985)
  • K. Wiltshire (ed), Administrative History in Queensland (Brisb, 1986)
  • University of Queensland Gazette, May 1960, p 2, Dec 1961, p 3
  • SCT/CA 168 no 999, 1982 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Story personal papers (privately held).

Citation details

Georgina Story, 'Story, John Douglas (1869–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Story, c.1925

John Story, c.1925

State Library of Queensland, 65748

Life Summary [details]


7 August, 1869
Jedburgh, Scottish Borders, Scotland


2 February, 1966 (aged 96)
New Farm, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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