In Bad Company, and other Stories/My School Days


It savours of the improbable to assert that the life-careers of my school-comrades have proved to be mainly in development of their boyish traits of character; yet in the majority of instances such has been the case.

Sir James Martin, late Chief Justice of New South Wales, was always facile princeps among us—in every class, in every subject. He may not have posed as a too industrious worker, but, whatever his method, he mastered every department of knowledge which he essayed with unvarying success. That he, in common with most of the 'old boys,' wrote with ease and effectiveness was due, perhaps, to the care bestowed upon the study of English composition. It was a speciality of the school. Hugh Ranclaud once produced an essay so polished and scholarly that suspicion of plagiarism was aroused. A subject was given to him, 'Marauders by land or sea,' to work out under supervision. He emerged triumphantly from the ordeal. The first numbers of Pickwick appearing about that time, in green covers, if I mistake not, Martin commenced a tale, embodying a similar style of incident. I forget the title now, but some numbers were printed. It was a boy's audacious imitation, but even at this distance of time I recall the undoubted ability of his performance. Part of the action was laid in London, a city, strangely enough (though he knew more of its history and topography than many a dweller within sound of Bow Bells), that he was never destined to behold.

William Forster was much the same kind of boy as he was a man: obstinately honest, uncompromising, detesting the expedient; clever at classics and mathematics, yet with a strong leaning to poetry. He left us to go to the King's School at Parramatta, then in charge of the Rev. Mr. Forrest, Hovenden. Hely, Whistler and Eustace Smith, Moule, the Rossi Brothers, Walter Lamb, and a large contingent of Stephens were contemporaries. Alfred of that ilk and I were great chums. He was a steady worker, as were most of that branch of his family. Consett (Connie) was then a handsome, clever boy, who could learn anything when he liked, but was not over-fond of work. Matthew Henry (now a Supreme Court judge), on the other hand, was an insatiable acquirer of knowledge, and bore off a bagful of prizes, so to speak, at every examination. Frank, his cousin, was not over-eager about draughts from the Pierian spring, which led to misunderstandings between him and our worthy master; but he was famous for tenacity of purpose and indomitable resolution, qualities which served him well in after-life. Among the boys who came comparatively late was George Rowley. He must have been fourteen, at least, and by no means forward. In two years he was not far from the head of the school. The Brennans—John, the late sheriff, and his brother Joseph—David Moore, a Minister of the Crown in Victoria in days to come, David Forbes, the present judge, and George Lord were the Spofforths, Bannermans, and Massies of that long-past day—old fashioned, perhaps, in a cricketing sense, but prophetic of triumphs to come.

There were fights now and then, and 'what for no?' But these necessary conflicts were conducted with all proper decorum at the bottom of the playground. Mr. Cape, very properly, did not discourage them as long as there was no unfairness. I reminded Mr. William Crane, stipendiary magistrate, years since, of an obstinate engagement between us, in which his superior science gained the victory. I 'knocked back' or put out a knuckle of my right hand (as our schoolboy phrase was) in that or some other desperate fray. Dr. Parsons, a medical friend whom I met in the street, reduced the swelling for me. The worthy stipendiary showed a similar displacement, attributable to the same cause, as we compared notes.

Ronald Cameron was one of our leading champions, being ready to fight anything or anybody at short notice. He challenged to the combat Cyrus Doyle, a long-limbed native, big enough to eat him, with the assurance of a gamecock defying an emu. He lost the fight, of course; but no other boy of his size in the school would have thought of commencing it. He had been at sea for a year, and was thereby enabled to tell us wonderful tales of his adventures among the South Sea Islands—much after the fashion of 'Jack Harkaway,' who, however, like gas in the time of Guy Fawkes, 'wasn't then inwented.' In after-years a report was current among us that he was lost at sea. Whether true or not I am unable to say. He certainly was, with the exception of Garden Collins, the most utterly fearless boy I ever saw.

Of course, with so large a school, under masters were required. These gentlemen were excellent teachers and conscientious disciplinarians. First came Mr. Murray, the English and arithmetical master; then Mr. O'Brien, writing master and teacher of mathematics. He had a way of saying, when arrived at the Q.E.D. of a problem in Euclid, 'And the thing is done.' How well I remember his desk and the pen he was always mending! No steel pens in those days. We had to learn to mend our own quill pens and keep them in good order. If the pens were bad and the writing suffered thereby, we suffered in person. This led to the careful preparation of the obsolete goose-quill—now a figure of speech, a thing of the past.

The Rev. Mr. Woolls was for a year or more classical master. He afterwards went to Parramatta and established himself independently. A fair-haired, ruddy-faced, Kingsley-looking young Englishman was he when he first came to Sydney College. He was the ideal tutor, and most popular with us all: strict in school, but full of life and gaiety when lessons were over.

The late Reverend David Boyd, afterwards of East Maitland, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, succeeded him. He was an accomplished person if you like: a first-rate classical scholar, with a fair knowledge of French, German, and Italian—possibly Hebrew, for he knew pretty well everything, from astronomy to single-stick, fencing to comparative philology. He rode, drove, shot, fished, painted, was musical, mathematical—a mesmerist doubtless. 'Omnibus rebus et quibusdem aliis' ought to have been his motto. We boys looked upon him as a successor of the Admirable Crichton, and revered him accordingly. I was very glad when he 'followed the rush' to Port Phillip in 1842, and gave the Hammonds, Howards, myself, and a few other ex-Sydney College boys our last year's teaching. We ought to have made the most of it, for, as none of us got any more, we had to rely upon those early years of conscientious grounding for the foundation of any edifice of learning we should elect to place thereon. It has proved extremely useful to all of us, and it was no one's fault but our own if we did not imbibe every form of useful knowledge short of what university training alone could have supplied.

Besides these gentlemen we had drawing and French masters. Mr. Rodius was a German artist, a painter in water-colours and a limner of likenesses in crayon. Many of the early celebrities will owe whatever immortality they may secure, to his industrious pencil. Still linger in old colonial mansions a few portraits, not obtruded perhaps, but too life-like to be lost sight of, bearing the signature 'C. Rodius.' In our family scrap-album several water-colour sketches are to be seen, showing perhaps more than the portraits—which were necessary 'pot-boilers' in that material age—the true artistic touch. He used to scold us, his pupils, for our indifference and inattention: 'Ven I was yong I did rone a whole mile every day so as to be in dime vor my bainding lezzon; I belief you would all rone a mile do esgabe it.' I don't know that he succeeded in forming artists of that generation, but possibly we may have been rendered more appreciative of the paintings which most of us were to behold in the Galleries of Europe. Mr. Stanley, our French master, knew his Paris intimately, I doubt not. He had the Parisian accent, too, very different in quality from the provincial French which, when spoken fluently, enables so many professors of the language to pass muster. He was a man of distinguished bearing and 'club' form, resembling curiously in appearance, and in some other ways, a late fashionable celebrity. Why he had come to live in a colony and teach French at a boarding-school we might wonder, but had no means of ascertaining. His life, doubtless, contained one of the romances of which Australia was at that time full. He was generous to all his pupils. No unkind word was ever said regarding him. He imparted to us a thorough comprehension of the genius of the language; and if we never fully probed the subtle distinctions of irregular verbs, it was no fault of his. Long afterwards, when at the Grand Hôtel de Louvre, or the 'Trois Frères Provencaux,' I was able to make my wants known, surrounded by British and American capitalists, sitting mute as fishes, I recalled with gratitude Mr. Stanley's faithful monitions.

One of our school games was, of course, that of 'fives.' We played against one of the high gables of the college building, where the ground had been partially levelled; but it was rather rough still. A road-party was doing something to the present College Street when a master suggested that I should ask my friend Mr. Felton Mathew, then Surveyor-General and Chief Road-superintendent, to allow the men to complete our 'fives' court. Mr. Mathew was our neighbour at Enmore; he bought the ground from my father on which he built Penselwood. My request was granted, and a party of men under an overseer soon made another place of it.

A tragical incident connected with the game occurred about this time. Some of the boys were playing in Sydney against a high wall in a court built for the purpose. It was not properly supported, for it fell suddenly, killing poor Billy Jones, who was one of the players. I don't think I remember any other accident. There was an epidemic of influenza, precisely like the 'fog fever' of recent years in symptom, cause, and effect. It was universal, severe, and troublesome, but we all recovered in due time. Even 'fog fever,' therefore, is no new thing. A certain school of weather prophets is convinced that, as they state their proposition, 'the seasons have changed; since the old colonial days they have become drier or cooler, even hotter, sometimes.' After a pretty clear recollection of most of the seasons since the 'three years' drought' of 1836-7-8, I am opposed to that belief. What has been will be again. People were justified in surmising about the time of last autumn that it had forgotten how to rain in New South Wales and part of Queensland. In this year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and eighty-seven that theory may be said to have exploded.

What was a really exceptional, even phenomenal, form of weather, however, did take place in and near Sydney in one of the dry years mentioned, which was a fall of snow. We made snowballs at Enmore and enjoyed the usual schoolboy amusements connected therewith. It must have been nearly as cold a day as last Monday week. There was snow on all the hills around Albury, but I did not hear of any snowballing quite so near Sydney as I refer to. If the Messrs. Chaffey Brothers succeed in their irrigation scheme, and make the Mildura salt-bush wilderness to bloom as the rose, we may attain partial security from droughts at least. Nevertheless let us pray to be delivered from the legendary visitations which grey-headed aboriginals have described to pioneer settlers. Such an one, unbroken for seven years, is now laying waste Queensland.

The sons of Sir Thomas Mitchell—Livingstone, Roderick, and Murray—were among the denizens of that old enclosure of learning, where, as Hood so truly sings—

Ay! there's the playground—there's the lime,
Beneath whose shade in summer's prime
So wildly I have read!
Who sits there now and skims the cream
Of young romance and weaves a dream
Of love and cottage bread?

Who, indeed! and how few are left of all that joyous crew that ran and leaped, shouted and whooped with the delight of abounding animal spirits? Besides the Mitchells were the sons of Colonel Snodgrass; the Bowlings, the present worthy judge and his brother Vincent; the Ritchies; the Nortons, James and John; George Wigram Allen; the Mannings, Arthur and Henry. These with others might be considered the aristocratic section, but there were no divisions founded upon social inequalities. We learned and fed, played and lived generally, in generous and hearty fellowship.

William Wentworth the younger, who afterwards distinguished himself at Cambridge, but died early, was intellectually a loss to his native land of no trifling extent.

John Lang, whose name to this day is well remembered in the Madras Presidency, was a Sydney College boy. Known to be clever, no one was surprised to hear that he distinguished himself at Cambridge, and passed as a barrister with credit. He made a short visit to Sydney afterwards, where, politically, he followed the banner of Mr. Wentworth. But he preferred to quit Australia for the exciting life and larger fees with which Indian barristers are credited. There, thanks to an unusual facility for acquiring languages, he acquired legal celebrity and a brilliant forensic reputation. He gained the historic case of Jootie Persaud, a native contractor, against the Government, which involved half a million of money. His fee, it was said, paid by the grateful plaintiff, was the royal one of a lakh of rupees (£10,000). A brilliant companion, a more than popular society man, whose promising career was cut short by an early death, he found time to write several Anglo-Indian and an Australian novelette or two. Will He Marry Her? The Forger's Wife, York; you're wanted, are still in constant demand, judging from the number of cheap editions issued. But to my mind Wanderings in India is one of the best of the lighter descriptions of Eastern life ever published. The mingled realism and pathos of the style have been rarely excelled.

Our worthy master was fully aware that moral suasion was by no means wholly to be relied upon for the steady stimulation of his troop along the high-road of knowledge. Yet did he make from time to time appeals to the higher nature, attributed to boys in improving works of fiction.

'Bear in mind,' he would say on these occasions, 'that you are to be the future leaders and guides of society in this new country, which is destined to develop into such a great and important one. Out of your ranks, from among those who stand before me in this hall this day, will be chosen the judges, the magistrates of the land, the clergymen, the lawyers, the legislators and civil servants. These high positions and responsible offices must be filled by you, or boys of like age and training, when grown to be men. Should you not, therefore, strive earnestly, resolutely, to fit yourselves to discharge the duties to which in the course of nature you are to be called, intelligently, efficiently, honourably? And is there any probability that such will be the case unless you apply yourselves lovingly, perseveringly, to the tasks set you by me, your teacher and your friend, for which purpose and no other you are placed here by your worthy parents? Master Jones will now commence the Latin lesson of the day—the second ode of Horace, if I mistake not, etc.'

Portions of this wise, thoughtful advice were probably retained mechanically, as an exercise of memory, though not seriously reflected upon. Much passed 'in at one ear and out of the other,' unheeded and soon forgotten, with the incredible heedlessness of early youth. Yet how strangely accurate has been the fulfilment of these long-past warnings. Among us then stood in embryo a Chief Justice, since eminent among high legal authorities, dying in proved possession of a massive intellect, a wide-reaching grasp of principles, a rapid faculty of generalisation which will ever cause his memory to be revered and his decisions to be quoted; three puisne judges, all of whom have earned the respect of men for legal attainment and unswerving impartiality; a Right Honourable Privy Councillor of our Gracious Sovereign, whose Jubilee (now that half a century has rolled by since Hugh Ranclaud and I, arms crony-like about each other's necks, heard the Proclamation of her majority read under the oaks of Macquarie Place) received a world-wide celebration. A Privy Councillor, moreover, whose privilege it was, by one act of statesmanlike inspiration, to nationalise Australia and to immortalise himself.

Alfred Stephen became a clergyman, always a hard-working, conscientious parish priest, beloved by his parishioners. He died in harness. Poor Connie, when I saw him many a year after his schoolboy days, was no longer handsome and careless, but as an eminent solicitor, and thus chained to the Bench, a galley-slave of the law, comparatively war-worn of visage. And pray what are we all in middle life but the bond-slaves, scarcely disguised, of some form of ownership which we dignify with the name of Circumstance? He and his brother Matthew Henry were in the House of Assembly at one time, thus justifying the prophecy as to the school being the nursery of future legislators.

Sir James Martin was Her Majesty's Attorney-General, and afterwards Chief-Justice William Forster was in more than one Ministry. Allan Macpherson was for many years regularly returned to Parliament. Sir George Wigram Allen, the steadiest of workers at school, again kept close to Hood's humorous declaration—

Each little boy at Enfield School
Became an 'Enfield's Speaker.'

He, with the Honourable James Norton, his neighbour and class-fellow, but continued unchanged the steadfastness and success of his school record. With one's schoolfellows the physical proportion seems to alter strangely and, in a sense, unnaturally in the aftertime. The big boys, the eldsters of one's early days, when met with in other years, appear unaccountably shrunken; while the 'little boys' of the same period seem to have developed abnormally and assumed the gigantic. For instance, a small orphan creature was brought to the school very young. He seemed unable to face the strangeness of his surroundings. When, years afterwards, I met at the race-ground of another colony an athletic six-foot manager of a cattle-station, mounted on a fiery steed, and by repute the show stock-rider of the district, I could not reconcile it to credibility that he should be the 'Bluey' (such was his sobriquet) of our school days. He was, nevertheless.

The Broughtons of Tumut, Archer and Robert—now no more—were among the elders of the Sydney College. During the last two years I have visited their homes in that romantic corner of New South Wales. All this time I had a curiosity to explore their ancient town of Tumut under the shadow of the Australian Alps, with its rushing river, green valleys, and romantic scenery. I shall always feel thankful that my desire has been gratified.

We were not permitted to go boating in the harbour unless in charge of relatives. And very properly. But we were allowed to bathe in the summer afternoons, after applying for formal leave.

Our greatest treat was, on the Saturday half-holiday, the picnic to Double Bay. We chose this as being a quasi-romantic spot. Some one had commenced a mansion there and had not completed it. There was a deserted vineyard, which looked like an amphitheatre; an artificial fish-pond too—an object of deep interest. In those golden summer eves we gathered bagfuls of the native currant—a small fruit capable of being converted into jam in spite of a startling acidity of flavour—and having eaten our lunch, 'sub Jove,' used to fish, bathe, and scamper about the beach till it was time to return. Still runs the tiny creek into which we used to dash 'like troutlets in a pool'; still ebb and flow the tides of the little bay; but the neighbourhood is crowded with buildings, incongruous to the scene, and the glory of youthful adventure, which then pervaded all things, like the genius loci, has, with the long-past years, fled for ever.