The birth of a university

The three foundation professors in chemistry

The three foundation professors in chemistry

Sydney University started out at premises in College Street in the City that had originally been built for a private secondary school, Sydney College. This is where the University's inauguration ceremony was held, in October 1852, and where classes started a week or two later – the academic year here at first followed the British model and began in October. Part of the College Street building still stands and is occupied today, as it has been for over 150 years, by Sydney Grammar School.

A stumbling block for the infant University was the question of religious instruction. A Bill presented in 1849 to the NSW Legislative Council by William Charles Wentworth's Select Committee proposed a non-sectarian, non-residential teaching institution, clergy to be specifically excluded from the University's governing body, the Senate. Church leaders and others objected – as it stood, some said, it would be alright for ex-convicts to be appointed to the Senate but not clergymen – and the Bill was defeated. Wentworth re-introduced the Bill to Parliament the following year and saw it carried, with amendments. These included expansion of the Senate from 12 to 16 members, with the number of clergy to be limited to 4. Also foreshadowed was the establishment of affiliated residential colleges where religious teaching and tutorial assistance would be provided.

The photo below, taken in about 1857, is the earliest in the University Archives to show a group of students. It's an unusual photo for its time, isn't it? They look quite relaxed, nonchalant even, in spite of the academic dress. Some interesting people passed through the place as students in those years and none more so than David Scott Mitchell who was in the first intake.

A group of students, 1857

A group of students, 1857

As an undergraduate, Mitchell had been a source of some anxiety. On one occasion he was hauled before the Provost and Vice-Provost and formally censured for not studying hard enough. "Culpable and wilful negligence", the professors reported. Nevertheless he graduated with a BA in 1856 and with an MA three years later. He was called to the Bar after graduation but never practised. Of independent means, he spent his life collecting Australiana. Books, manuscripts, portraits, maps, coins, medals. Just about anything you can think of. When he died in 1907, he left his collection to the City, more than 60,000 items that formed the basis of Sydney's Mitchell Library.

The present-day Camperdown Campus occupies land granted to the University in 1855, in the area then known as Grose Farm on the western edge of Sydney (so-named after Major Francis Grose who leased a parcel of land there in the early years of the Colony). A Senate committee had urged the Government to look to the future: "It must not be forgotten that in establishing the University we are providing for the wants and acquirements not of this year, nay, it may be said not of this century, but probably of many generations yet unborn"; and the Government had responded generously.

In 1857, staff and students were able to move from College Street into the Main Building for the start of the new academic year. One cause for concern was the remoteness, after College Street, of the Grose Farm site. Although horse-drawn omnibuses on their way to Glebe stopped regularly at the foot of the hill, the fare was by no means trivial for students and most walked or rode from Town to the University. At Grose Farm, however, there was nowhere to stable horses. These had to be kept at hotels near by, a practice which the Principal found "very objectionable on many accounts". There were complaints, too, about poor lighting in the grounds at night and the state of the approach road in wet weather.

At the top of this page, the three foundation professors are seen looking over the site – Chemistry professor John Smith on the left, timing the exposure, and in trencher and gown Mathematics professor Morris Pell and Classics professor and the University's first Principal John Woolley. The buildings going up behind them were designed by Edmund Thomas Blacket who, in a long career, was responsible for this and many other Sydney landmarks. London-born Blacket was 25 when he arrived here in 1842. Setting up in practice, he steadily established himself as an accomplished architect, especially in the style known as Gothic Revival. He was appointed NSW Colonial Architect in 1849, a position he left 5 years later to take on the University commission.

In the photo below, Blacket and his daughter Edith stand outside the Great Hall during construction. To mark a visit to the site by his sister-in-law and a friend, he arranged for their initials (MM and MES) to be carved into the sandstone, a discrete piece of graffiti that survives to this day. His own initials (ETB) are to be found carved into a rosette of stone above the main entrance of the Hall.

Edmund Blacket and daughter Edith standing outside the Great Hall

Edmund Blacket and daughter Edith standing outside the Great Hall

Early on, a 2m-high stone figure, the Angel of Knowledge, stood on top of the eastern gable and it was still there in 1870 when the photo below was taken (circled in the inset). It was removed shortly after, perhaps because it looked top-heavy and at real risk of being blown down in wild weather.

The eastern gable used to have an angel at its tip.

The eastern gable used to have an angel at its tip.

In July 1859, the Annual Commemoration ceremony was held in the Great Hall for the first time. This occasion, accompanied by "a grand festival of music", was seen as a public opening of the buildings at Grose Farm and Sydneysiders rejoiced. Even the Sydney Morning Herald (13 July 1859), putting aside for the moment its reservations about the venture, proclaimed: "Altogether the institution promises to become, in every respect, an honour and a benefit worthy of a country, which, whilst preserving an affectionate regard for Great Britain and her institutions, is fast emerging from the position of a mere province, and bearing about it evidences of ultimate attainment to the dignity of an empire."

To be sure, constructing the Main Building and Great Hall – if it comes to that, establishing a university at all at that time – was brave. "An audacious act of Victorian optimism", someone has called it. Trevor Howells, in University of Sydney Architecture, puts it this way: "Blacket's great East Range … demonstrated an extraordinary sense of colonial self confidence, moral rectitude and absolute belief in the future, which we can only marvel at in our more uncertain, ambiguous – and dangerous – times."

Sources

  • University of Sydney archives
  • G.L. Fischer, The University of Sydney 1850-1975, University of Sydney (1975).
  • Ever Reaping Something New. A Science Centenary. Eds. D. Branagan and H.G. Holland, University of Sydney (1985).
  • D. Lawton and J. Steele, The Great Hall Guide, University of Sydney, 2nd edn. (1987).
  • 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).
  • T. Howells, University of Sydney Architecture, The Watermark Press (2007).