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James Lister Cuthbertson

(8 May 1851 – 18 January 1910 / Glasgow, Scotland)

Biography of James Lister Cuthbertson

James Lister Cuthbertson, poet-schoolmaster, was born on 8 May 1851 in Glasgow, Scotland, the eldest son of William Gilmour Cuthbertson and his wife Jane Agnes Lister. He boarded at Trinity College, Glenalmond, Perthshire, in 1861-69 and in 1872 obtained a postmastership at Merton College, Oxford, as an Indian Civil Service probationer. But he failed in a periodical service examination and so could not proceed.

In 1874 his father was a bank manager in Adelaide, and Cuthbertson sailed for Australia. At the beginning of 1875, well recommended professionally from Tasmania, he became classical master at Geelong Church of England Grammar School, Victoria, under John Bracebridge Wilson. He held this post until December 1882, and resumed it in October 1885, but meanwhile returned to Oxford (B.A., 1885). When Wilson died in October 1895 Cuthbertson bridged a small gap between headmasters. He left the staff finally in December 1896, and joined his mother in England, but returned to Geelong in December 1897. At first resident locally, and later chiefly at Cheltenham, near Melbourne, he maintained the close contact with Geelong Grammar School which he had never lost. He became an occasional journalist, sometimes wintered in Queensland, and in summer usually fished in the Glenelg estuary on the South Australian border. Disappointing conditions there at the close of 1909 sent him on to Mount Gambier where, after more than three weeks of illness dogged by insomnia, he died of an overdose of veronal on 18 January 1910.

Cuthbertson remained a bachelor. Once prefect at a foundation designed to accustom Scotland to English public school methods, he devoted himself to establishing the same system and ideals in Australia. He was fortunate in his chief, and in their setting. Wilson supported him. The Gothic bluestone building which housed Geelong Grammar School from 1858 to 1914 soon acquired dignity and beauty, and commanded a convenient crest between bay and river, within easy reach of a varied countryside.

The university successes, both as students and oarsmen, of boys whom Cuthbertson trained give some indication of his professional competence. His founding editorship of the Grammar School Annual and Quarterly, the adoption of the prefect system, the organization of interschool competitions, and the acquisition of cricket ground and boatshed, all before 1880, show his general influence. His lively concern with all aspects of school life, and special interest in rowing, were never abandoned.

But Cuthbertson's magic lay in his harmony with boys, in his power to knit the Australian and British backgrounds, and clear the vision. He quoted Gladstone as saying, 'you must make up your minds to be good ancestors', and urged integrity, courage, persistent unselfish efforts, brotherhood and other Christian standards upon lads whose common sense, unwarped by sophistication, responded warmly. He touched their imaginations with rhymes which, as Grammar School Verses, appeared in collected form in 1879. Cuthbertson taught through the Quarterly, but never mawkishly. Successive leaders dealt with pocket money, scholarships, the prefect system, 'die biting' (by a boy), Glenalmond prefects, and reading: 'Of stories of school life our old friend Tom Brown stands peerless: there the boys are boys, and not young prigs'.

A slim Barwon Ballads was published in 1893. By that time Cuthbertson moved easily between verse and poetry. But nearly all his writing was inspired by his experiences at Geelong, by cheerful down-river days or contacts around the school or in the classroom. His last poem for the Quarterly appeared posthumously. His last prose contribution, printed only a month before he died, was a charming recollection of scholastic attitudes, in which he showed his concern for the average boy, and blamed himself for most of any difficulties: 'One has lost temper, or (unpardonable fault) been sarcastic, or in some way has been a fool and forgotten that the boys know you a great deal better than you know them'.

Cuthbertson certainly had an Achilles heel, but it bore no scar. He seemed unconscious of it and stood so naturally upright that it was seldom exposed. His weakness was constitutional and intermittent, and was concealed by his frank and genial manner. It prevented his succession to Wilson and caused his retirement. But whenever it crippled his genius he was shielded by boys and men who loved and honoured him.

A memorial edition of his poems, Barwon Ballads and School Verses, edited by E. T. Williams, who held his classical mastership, was published by Geelong Grammar School in 1912. Lawrence Adamson, headmaster of Wesley College, Melbourne, and chief compiler of the Wesley College Song Book, called it an undying treasure, the largest, most complete, and most exclusive collection of school verses published, with a normal level equal to that of 'Forty Years On'. The proceeds from this book were used to found school essay prizes. As a keen cricketer, Cuthbertson himself provided an annual fielding award. He left funds to establish a closed university scholarship. It was natural that a schoolhouse on the new site at Corio should bear his name. At word of his death, all who knew him felt as one of his earliest students, who sent from an Essex rectory both a Latin valete and verses which concluded:

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
In peace, dear master, may'st thou rest!
Thee we remember at thy best,
And leave with God; for God is just.

James Lister Cuthbertson's Works:

Barwon Ballads and School Verses (1910)

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