mud, gas light and left-handers

Front row, left to right

Theodore Gurney, Archibald Liversidge, Robert Allwood, Charles Badham and John Smith

Back row

Third year students



The photo above was taken in 1881. John Smith, the University's first Professor of Chemistry, sits at the front, on the extreme right. His colleague Archibald Liversidge is second from the left. The others in the front row are (left to right) Theodore Gurney, Professor of Mathematics, the Vice-Chancellor Canon Robert Allwood and Classics Professor Charles Badham. At odds with the formal academic dress are their mud-stained shoes, a sign of the "deplorable condition" of the University grounds that Hermes was still complaining about 45 years later.

Behind the Professors are the third year students, all 11 of them. The number of first year students that year was 37, not many more than the number (24) that had enrolled right at the start, almost 30 years earlier. The year before, one-time Sydney merchant John Henry Challis had left the University the bulk of his vast estate, encouraging the Senate, in 1882, to establish three new Faculties (Medicine, Law and Science). And in 1881, the Senate moved to "admit women to all University privileges, and to place them in all respects as regards University matters on an equal footing with men". Some would say they're still working on that one.


Looking across the Quadrangle towards the Clock Tower, 1912


The first women students enrolled the following year, an event greeted in the Sydney University Review "with approval and optimism": "Let pessimists prophesying the deterioration of womanly characteristics in the pursuit of mental culture remember that Mary Somerville lost no fair womanly grace or gentle interest by her ability to write on the "Differential Calculus". … Charlotte Brontë could care that the potatoes were peeled to a nicety just as well as if she had never written Jane Eyre."

Step forward 30 years, to 1912, and in the photo above, you are looking across the Quadrangle towards the Clock Tower on the left and, at the back on the right, Fisher Library (now the MacLaurin Hall), opened three years earlier. Completing the buildings on all four sides of the Quadrangle would be "a work in progress" for the next 50 years.

Notice the blank panels on the Clock Tower where there are now clock faces. The Clock Tower originally had a single-faced clock, set on the outer, eastern side "where it was of limited use". It was replaced by one with four faces in 1928. Tennis courts were a feature of the Quadrangle in the early years; and near by, students sit having lunch − amid left-over wrappings. There is nothing new about littering. The small domed building behind them housed a telescope.

The photo below is another from the Harold Cazneaux Collection in the University Archives, of an exam taking place in the Great Hall in 1927. The venue may have been impressive but students made it clear they were often unhappy at exam time with the poor lighting. According to a 1926 editorial in Hermes, the magazine of the Undergraduates' Association: "When drifting clouds diminish the light which faintly struggles through coloured windows, or when evening shades have fallen, the Yeoman Bedell appears on the scene. A lighted wick at the end of a very long rod is applied to countless feeble gas jets set high on the walls. The procedure is slow − fearfully so − and the weak-eyed student, patiently waiting under the gallery in the north-east corner for light and inspiration, begins to despair." And also, some said, there were gas leaks.


From the Harold Cazneaux Collection of an exam taking place in the Great Hall in 1927


Gas lights had operated in the Great Hall since its opening in 1859 and were still in use in 1927, long after the rest of the University had gone electric. Electricity finally came to the Great Hall the following year.

Something else about this scene could easily escape your notice, although how interested you will be when I point it out may depend on whether or not you are a left-hander. Almost everyone is writing with the right hand. As far as I can see, everyone except the girl at the front. Yet 10% of people are left-handed, "in all societies and periods in history", which means that in a group this size there should be 7 or 8 left-handers. Perhaps there are but they are not writing left-handed. Most left-handers at that time and for decades to come were "encouraged", as children, to write with the right hand.

Teachers today know not to interfere in this way: "There should never be any attempt to force a left-handed child to write or draw right-handedly as once used to be the case." Admittedly, writing with the left hand poses technical problems, as the writer tries either to avoid or to come to terms with having to push the pen left to right across the page. Teachers are therefore advised that "left-handers may need special attention and care in learning to read, write and spell".

These quotes are from How Children Learn to Write (Latham, 2002) but in Fisher I've come across a much earlier book, Left Handed Writing (Gardner, 1936), that sounded a similar warning. It took a long time for the message to filter through.

Of course, in earlier times, left-handers often had it much tougher than this. You probably know − the word sinister meaning untrustworthy, threatening, villainous even, is the Latin for left-handed.

My thanks to Reference Archivist Julia Mant who provided the photos from the University Archives.


References were:

  1. "Australienne", The Results of the Higher Education for Women From a Woman's Point of View, Sydney University Review, No. 2 (April 1882), 138.
  2. Hermes editorials, Dust or Mud, 32 (1) (1926), 2; The Great Hall, 32 (3) (1926), 150.
  3. G.L. Fischer, The University of Sydney 1850-1975, University of Sydney (1975).
  4. A. Gamble and T. van Sommers, University of Sydney Sketchbook, Rigby (1977).
  5. D. Lawton and J. Steele, The Great Hall Guide, University of Sydney, 2nd edn. (1987).
  6. C. Turney, U. Bygott and P. Chippendale, Australia's First. A History of the University of Sydney, Vol. 1, 1850-1939, University of Sydney (1991).
  7. D. Latham, How Children Learn to Write, Paul Chapman Publishing (2002).


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