History Matters: College’s fight to stay open

Booloominbah, army convalescent hospital: In 1942, the army's desire to use the mansion in the same way could have closed the New England University College for good.
Booloominbah, army convalescent hospital: In 1942, the army's desire to use the mansion in the same way could have closed the New England University College for good.

Those who had fought so hard to establish the New England University College had always seen it as a first step towards the creation of a full university for the north. This view would be shared by the newly formed Advisory Council and staff.

The outbreak of war brought progress to a standstill. It seemed the college itself might close.

In 1942, the army sought to requisition Booloominbah as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers, a role it had played in World War I.

These were difficult hours. Despite opposition from college supporters, Sydney University VC Robert Wallace advised NEUC Warden Edgar Booth in May 1942 that the army requisition was mandatory.

Desperate, Booth visited Canberra to see Deputy Prime Minister Frank Forde to put the college’s case. Forde revoked the decision, saying it was “neither essential nor in the best interests of the Commonwealth”.

This was a real-payback for the earlier speed in establishing the college and the work of the first staff and students. Without it, the college could well have closed, perhaps never to re-open.

By the middle of 1943, the college felt sufficiently settled to again pursue the autonomy question.

In July 1943, the council submitted a memorandum to the Sydney University Senate suggesting that the time had come to prepare the college for independence. This was followed by a similar petition to NSW Premier William McKell in February 1944. In both cases, the appointment of full professors was seen as a central step.

Booth, as college warden, pursued the autonomy cause with vigour. In May 1945, the Sydney University Senate agreed the college should be prepared for autonomy and its subsidy should be increased to allow the appointment of professors.

Satisfied that autonomy was in sight, Booth resigned in July 1945. He had played a crucial role in the successful establishment of the college and in the creation of its character and ethos.

Jim Belshaw as deputy warden became acting warden, a position he would hold until February 1947 when Robert Madwick was appointed warden.

Belshaw continued to press the autonomy cause, but to no avail. In late 1946, he was forced to report to the Advisory Council that “the replies being received were still of the same nature – the matter was still under consideration and the government had not yet determined its final policy in relation to the decentralisation of university education”.

A long fight still lay ahead.

Jim Belshaw’s email is ndarala@optusnet.com.au. He blogs at newenglandaustralia.blogspot.com.au and newenglandhistory.blogspot.com.au