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Travers, Basil Holmes (Jika) (1919–1998)

by G. E. Sherington

This article was published online in 2022

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Basil Travers, 1984

Basil Travers, 1984

courtesy of Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) Archives

Basil Holmes Travers (1919–1998), headmaster, was born on 7 July 1919 at Bondi, Sydney, younger son of New South Wales-born parents Reginald John Albert Travers, public servant and former lieutenant colonel in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), and his wife Dorothy Mabel, née Holmes, daughter of Major General William Holmes, AIF. At an early age, Basil was given the name ‘Jika’ after an Aboriginal girl portrayed in a poem. In 1928 he and his elder brother, Bill, were enrolled at the Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore), where Len Robson, their mother’s cousin, was head. The ethic of service to the state and the military was ingrained in the Holmes-Travers family. Jika would later write the Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on his maternal grandfather, celebrating his administrative skills and courage.

The Travers brothers became prominent in the life of Shore as scholars, sportsmen, and senior prefects. Jika was senior prefect in 1937, captain of football and of cricket in 1936 and 1937, and cadet lieutenant in 1936 and 1937. He completed the Leaving certificate three times between 1935 and 1937, with improving results culminating in his being awarded first-class honours in French, and second-class honours in history, English, and Latin. Awarded the Brian Pockley memorial, War Memorial, Charlton, J. S. Wilson, and Old Boys’ Union history prizes in 1937, he won a public exhibition to study at the University of Sydney (BA, 1946). There he began studies in history, French, and Latin, and gained Blues in rugby union and cricket.

Having completed his second undergraduate year when World War II broke out, Travers was commissioned as a lieutenant in the AIF on 13 November 1939 and posted to the 2/2nd Battalion, which arrived in the Middle East in February 1940. Between November 1940 and June 1941 he was detached from his unit as aide-de-camp to the 6th Division’s commander, Major General (Sir) Iven Mackay, accompanying him in the Libyan campaign (January–March 1941) and the disastrous retreat through Greece in April. Mackay, who had been a master at Shore before 1914 and then headmaster at Cranbrook School, Sydney, suggested that Travers should become a schoolmaster after the war. Promoted to temporary captain in August 1941 (substantive in October) and temporary major in May 1942 (substantive in June 1943), he returned to Australia and married Margaret Emily Marr at the Shore chapel on 14 September 1942. From March 1943 to May 1944, he served as brigade major with the 15th Brigade in Papua and New Guinea. He was appointed OBE in 1944 for outstanding staff work and bravery when in close contact with the enemy in the Salamaua campaign (June–September 1943), and he would later be mentioned in dispatches (1945). After a course at the Staff School (Australia), in October 1944 he became a general staff officer, 2nd grade, at II Corps headquarters, located first in New Guinea then on Bougainville. In February 1945 he was placed on the Reserve of Officers and released to complete his degree at the University of Sydney.

Travers had been awarded the 1940 Rhodes scholarship for New South Wales, which he took up after the war. He and his family arrived in Oxford in early 1946. At New College (BA, 1947; BLitt, 1950; MA, 1951) he studied history and played sport. For his bachelor of letters he completed a thesis on Lachlan Macquarie that was published in Australia as The Captain-General in 1953. His great triumphs at Oxford came on the sports field. He won Blues for cricket and rugby. Captain of the Oxford rugby team, he played for England from 1947 to 1949, in matches against Australia and France, as well as Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. On returning to Australia, he captained New South Wales in 1950 against the British Lions, before retiring. As a final legacy he wrote Let’s Talk Rugger (1950), describing rugby as akin to war, requiring a campaign strategy and skills to turn defence into attack.

After a year as an assistant master at Wellington College, Berkshire, in 1950 he was appointed to teach French and history at Cranbrook, Sydney. Three years later, he became headmaster of the Launceston Church Grammar School in Tasmania. Many were beginning to see him as Shore’s headmaster-in-waiting as Robson neared retirement. When appointed in 1959 he became only the fifth to occupy the position in seventy years. He assumed office at the beginning of a period of significant change in Australian education. In 1957 (Sir) Harold Wyndham, the director general of education in New South Wales, had produced a report proposing secondary education for all students through a curriculum of an initial four years leading to a school certificate, followed by a higher school certificate after two more years. On becoming head, Travers prepared a paper for the Shore council outlining what was now required. Essentially the new regulations would mean a larger school in terms of enrolment, as well as new buildings. A major building program began with financial support from old boys.

Himself a good teacher of history and French, Travers sought teachers of talent sometimes from diverse backgrounds. He also initiated the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme in Australia. Being an effective teacher of ‘games’ served his own love of sport, particularly rugby. Playing rugby as a winter sport soon became compulsory, seen by him as a way to keep boys fit while teaching the skills of attack and defence in a team game. A related passion was discipline, starting with a Shore boy being turned out in proper dress, including a boater hat. Allied to appropriate dress was appropriate behaviour. Travers did not respond well to the cultural changes of the 1960s, when many young people began to speak their minds. He later claimed, ‘You had this constant attack on authority’ (Taylor 1988, 225–26). Some attacks were also deemed personal, particularly during the debate over conscription for the Vietnam War. For him, military service was not just a duty, but almost part of his religious faith.

During the 1960s, Travers acted quickly to quell disquiet and reconfirm his and the council’s authority. Both the headmaster and the prefects could administer corporal punishment. On one occasion, he undertook his own mass caning of boys who had inscribed their initials into desks. The editor of the Shore Weekly Record left the school after he challenged the policy of the council to suppress free speech on such controversial issues as the war in Vietnam. The end of conscription and the withdrawal of troops by the end of 1972 defused the issue, and by the mid-1970s the atmosphere amongst the boys had begun to change. Attention turned more to sport, particularly after Travers coached the rugby firsts to back-to-back premierships in 1969 and 1970.

Schools such as Shore often claimed to create the future leaders of the nation. Travers’s view of leadership was influenced by the example of his grandfather, General Holmes. Aligned to this was his own view of manliness formed through his education at Shore and at university, as well as his experience of war. For him, manliness was grounded in contest and courage in war and sport. His educational principles promoted efficient administration and good order. He may have overreacted to student unrest, but he saw his response as preserving the core values of his beloved Shore that he had known for six decades. His great tragedy was that once he retired, he lost most of his purpose and fulfilment in life, being unable to complete a full biography of his maternal grandfather.

Appointed AM in 1983, Travers retired in 1984. Almost immediately he suffered a stroke. A man of courage and strength throughout his life, he now confronted a physical disability as well as the frailties of ageing. Apart from a few excursions to see Shore play rugby, including a famous draw with St Joseph’s College in 1994, he kept his distance from school affairs. He died on 18 December 1998 at Chatswood, survived by his wife and their three daughters, and was cremated; a memorial service was held in Shore chapel. A portrait by Graeme Inson (1973) is held at the school, and the B. H. Travers Shield for schoolboy rugby commemorates his name.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Armati, Tina. Personal communication
  • Carment, David. Interview by the author, 2022
  • Marr, David. ‘Jika.’ Shore Mitre Club, 26 June 2006. Copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX17
  • Sherington, Geoffrey. Shore: A History of Sydney Church of England Grammar School. North Sydney: George Allen & Unwin, 1983
  • Taylor, Peter. A Celebration of Shore. North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1988
  • Travers, Geoffrey. Personal communication

View the list of ADB entries written by Basil Holmes (Jika) Travers

Additional Resources

Citation details

G. E. Sherington, 'Travers, Basil Holmes (Jika) (1919–1998)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/travers-basil-holmes-jika-32431/text40223, published online 2022, accessed online 4 December 2022.

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