The students 100 years ago
The young men in the photo below, taken around 1910, stand outside the Macleay Museum. The poses and the walking canes may be a bit over the top – tongue-in-cheek, I suspect – but their clothes are pretty much standard attire for University students a hundred years ago. Waistcoat and watch chain, high collar and tie, and a hat, usually a straw boater. Trouser cuffs were coming into vogue, worn, some said, "because it's raining in London".
The photo below, taken about the same time, shows the annual Commem Day procession approaching Railway Square on its way into Town. Arts students wearing trenchers and academic gowns walk beneath the banner (which reads Floreant Artes) and local kids run alongside the brass band.
Commemoration Day was originally the occasion of a ceremony in the Great Hall when degrees were conferred and the University's founders and benefactors were remembered. Students would march into the Hall carrying faculty banners. This practice evolved into processions like the one in the photo and, later on, into "a long cavalcade of topical and satirical floats that wound its rowdy way through Sydney streets". Occasionally, citizens, offended by University humour or caught up in flour fights, lodged complaints and the University Senate, from time to time, refused permission for the procession to move into Town or banned it altogether. Women, by the way, were not allowed to participate until the 1930s.
In 1910, a total of 1,074 undergraduates were enrolled at Sydney University. Of these, 134 (12.5%) were women, with the majority (84%) doing a BA. "Career opportunities" for a girl mostly meant in teaching. By then, there had been women students at Sydney for almost 30 years and they had faced what must have seemed a perplexing mix of strong support and fierce opposition.
All the University women in the early years were pioneers and none more so than the group in the photo below, taken in 1892. Seated in the centre is Louisa MacDonald, the first Principal of Women's College, and with her, the four students in residence at the start of that year, when the College opened. The Bulletin had opposed the concept of a Government-endowed college for women, an "elitist class", they said, "the daughters of the wealthy". But then, the Bulletin had been against tertiary education for women in the first place: "A girl who had received a higher education is generally a prig, or a poser".
However, if women graduates were confronted by many closed doors, some managed to make their presence felt. The girl sitting at the front of the Women's College group, for example, would make notable contributions in the field of education. Constance Harker graduated with a BA in 1895 and, after a time on the staff of Kambala and PLC Croydon, was appointed acting-headmistress of Brisbane High School for Girls. Later, she and another Sydney graduate combined to buy the school and together they turned it into Somerville House, Brisbane, one of the academically best-regarded girls' schools in Queensland.
Serious as the issues were, there was the occasional unexpected and satisfying episode. In 1914, when the Women's Union invited Adela Pankhurst to visit the University, a group of male students protested the presence of a "militant suffragette" by tossing stones and fireworks onto the roof of the Ladies' Common Room. The editor of Hermes commented: "No excuse can be offered for interrupting a meeting on the occasion of a visit of a distinguished politician, as Miss Pankhurst undoubtedly is." But, he added, "annoying as the interruption was, the accepted tradition of the dignified University girl is hardly compatible with the display of unreserved wrath accompanied with attempts at physical resistance". "Physical resistance"? I've read elsewhere – one of the girls took to them with a hockey stick.
Two young men who were students and Junior Demonstrators in Liversidge's laboratory in the early 1900s are worth a special mention. Thomas Laby and Douglas Mawson. From Sydney, Laby had gone to Cambridge on an 1851 Exhibition scholarship, his research there, largely in physical chemistry, leading to the Chair of Physics at the Victoria University College in NZ. In 1915, he was appointed to the Chair of Physics at Melbourne University, a position he occupied with distinction for the next 30 years.
Mawson soon moved full-time into geology; and his exploits in the Antarctic had earned him "folkhero" status before his appointment, in 1921, to the Chair of Geology at Adelaide University. Below, he is seen in Antarctic gear on our first $100 note.
Slang from the early 20th century
A book called Australian Etiquette, published in 1885, had this to say about slang: "All slang is vulgar. It lowers the tone of society and the standard of thought. It is a great mistake to suppose that slang is in any manner witty. Only the very young or the uncultivated so consider it." The trouble was, few took any notice.
Browse through copies of the Bulletin from its early years and, mixed in with breathtakingly sexist and racist articles and cartoons, you will find classic stories and ballads by C.J. Dennis, Henry Lawson, "Banjo" Paterson and others that place on record the spoken language of the day. Here are colloquial words and phrases that were widely used, and by students, not just by The Sentimental Bloke.
Much of the slang derived from the flash language of the London streets. Cockney rhyming slang, especially, was popular here at that time and had been for 50 years. "Take a butchers", they would say (a butchers, short for a butcher's hook, a look).
Other expressions were homegrown or, if imported, took on a local flavour. Something was bonzer or dinkum. Or it might be a fair cow. Nobody liked mug lairs or narks (like the one in the drawing below from the Bulletin). Clothes were duds or togs or clobber and hats, which everyone wore, were lids (hence, to dip your lid). They would take a squiz, put on swank, make goo-goo eyes and talk through their hats.
Money – boodle or gilt – needed a glossary of its own: threepence was a trey, sixpence was a zac, a shilling was a bob or a deener and a pound was a quid (hence, not the full quid). And unmistakably Australian was cooee, often heard as a call anywhere there was open space (or in such expressions as not within cooee). Although many words and phrases are long-gone, some survive. We still know what is meant by chasing a bit of skirt and having Buckley's.
- Hermes editorial, Militant Methods, 20 (2) (1914), 45.
- S.J. Baker, The Australian Language, Currawong Publishing (1966).
- G.L. Fischer, The University of Sydney 1850-1975, University of Sydney (1975).
- A. Gamble and T. van Sommers, University of Sydney Sketchbook, Rigby (1977).
- Ever Reaping Something New. A Science Centenary. Eds. D Branagan and H.G. Holland, University of Sydney (1985).
- U. Bygott and K.J. Cable, Pioneer Women Graduates of the University of Sydney 1881-1921, University of Sydney (1985).