The OSU History

The Old Sydneians’ Union (OSU) traces its origins back to the appointment of A. B. Weigall, the second and longest serving Headmaster of the School, who was to give forty-five years of dedicated service to Grammar until his death in 1912.

At the time of his appointment on 17 December 1866, Sydney Grammar was hardly a prestigious boys’ school. Weigall presided over a mere 39 boys at the commencement of the 1867 academic year, together with four assistant masters, plus some visiting masters for French, German and Drawing. Weigall’s initial impression of the physical condition of the School on his arrival was not an exhilarating one while at his first meeting with the Board of Trustees, he related later that they had advised him that ‘there was a strong possibility that the School would be closed and, that in any case, ‘I seemed too young a man to undertake its management’.

Weigall proceeded immediately to transform both the educational and structural development of Grammar. Public confidence in the School was so restored that, within a decade, Grammar had succeeded in attracting a near capacity enrolment of 400 boys, the staff had been expanded to nineteen and, according to one later contemporary observer, towards the end of the century Grammar had ‘won the reputation of being one of the best-conducted schools in Australia’.

As part of Weigall’s ideals the School maintained contact with its former pupils through the auspices of The Sydneian, which carried information and stories regarding Old Boys’ careers and achievements. Strengthening School links from former pupils was shown by the positive response from past pupils to one of Weigall’s early appeals for financial support in the late 1880s to erect a science laboratory and gymnasium. Such support was a reflection of the deep affection and appreciation held by many past pupils for their school days at Grammar. Part of this affection led to serious thoughts being given to forming an Old Boys’ Union, a feeling that was also being expressed by current pupils. Thus The Sydneian of 1892 published a contribution from a pupil that read: ‘I would like to suggest to the Old Boys of the School that they form a Union, such as the old High School boys have formed. The Union would serve to keep together boys who were friends at School and would prevent the severing of friendships which might be useful to them in later life. This Union would serve the School in many ways, such as the promotion of concerts.’

The Sydneian of August 1893 reported that several Old Boys of ‘influential character’ not only favoured but were enthusiastic towards establishing such a Union. After a group of Old Boys formed a committee to investigate this possibility on 22 September 1893, the Union was inaugurated at a meeting chaired by Weigall and attended by some 300 Old Boys. One Old Boy was accompanied by his small daughter who was heard to regret that she was of the wrong sex to qualify as an Old Boy in the future! A constitution was adopted that included a statement that the objective of the Sydney Grammar School Old Boys’ Union would be to strengthen the bonds between past and present members of the School. The annual subscription was set at five shillings, payable in advance. A.B. Weigall became the founding President, and a committee was formed to plan a Smoke Concert (the terminology used at that time to signify a concert and review) and arrange Old Boys’ matches against School teams in cricket, tennis and rowing.

In a subsequent editorial, The Sydneian commented on the formation of the Union: ‘The capital at the disposal of the Union consists of the amount of affection which the Old Boys feel for the School that has educated them and the success of the Union will be proportional to the depth and reality of this feeling. It will rest with the Committee to develop this latent affection into vitality and to use its possibilities to the utmost.’

One of the first formal activities of the fledgling Union was a Smoke Concert held on 15 December 1893, an event of intense activity, best described as ‘musical cricket’. Mr Weigall skippered one side and Mr Halliwell the other. ‘Messrs Bode and Armstrong had introduced a daring novelty having placed chairs and glasses all over the fielding ground which came in very handy between overs.’

‘Edmund Barton, the large-hearted federationist, proposed the toast to the Union. He didn’t make a speech: he spoke like a man of the School as he knew it: of its splendid past and its splendid future. He spoke of the ‘Chief’ and wished the Union success from the bottom of his heart.’ The musical evening concluded with everyone contributing to a lusty rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

The general hope of the Union was that it would draw more closely together the Old Boys, with its most important function to unite the past with the present and to render the School ‘such assistance, direct or moral’, as from time to time it might require. In its early days the Union was seemingly plagued with administrative difficulties. Notices in the Sydney Morning Herald had apparently not been seen, subscriptions not paid, meeting notices were sent either too early or too late and there was concern about the age distribution within the Committee. The first annual general meeting was chaired by Edmund Barton MLA QC (who was to be Australia’s first Prime Minister) in April 1894, to be followed in June of that year by another Smoke Concert. Finances were often ‘on the wrong side’ of the ledger, while collecting small subscriptions proved a ‘weary business’!

A concept for an Old Boys’ Scholarship Fund ‘for the assistance of poor boys of ability’ was mooted in 1895, but response to the concept was inadequate and it did not eventuate. The Union began to take definite shape from 1898 when the first annual function — a dinner — was held at Aarons’ Exchange Hotel, although comments on the meal varied from ‘vile to atrocious’.

In line with Weigall’s vision to broaden the School’s sporting programme, the Old Boys’ Union was instrumental in submitting a proposal to acquire land at Rushcutters Bay on which could be developed adequate sports and playing fields. Contracts for the land purchase (at £500 an acre) were signed in March 1907, with the Union conducting a funding drive to support the School with this land and development project.

Notwithstanding such support, by 1910 The Sydneian reported that the Union actually found itself with liabilities exceeding assets by £21 and there was still no formal constitution. Its sole object seems to have been to bring Old Sydneians together once a year and this was the only direction in which it was theoretically or practically successful.

World War I proved a catalyst in galvanising links between the Union and the School. From 1915 to 1919, a new spirit came over the Union which was reflected in the general body of Old Sydneians. ‘Old Sydneians at the front from 1915 onwards were kept in touch with the School by The Sydneian as a roll of honour, exceptional in its completeness’. The Union’s Dinner became a meeting place for those in training and those who had returned from the War. The Sydneian became the ‘official organ’ of the Union with increasing comment being given to news and notes on past pupils’ activities that reflected credit on the School which had imbued boys with a ‘spirit of duty and self-sacrifice’.

Notable among the accounts of this time is the recording of the Old Boys’ Dinner at the Fasts Hotel in Jerusalem in 1918. In the four years of the War, while nearly two thousand Old Sydneians were at the front, annual membership of the Union increased from 386 to over 600 and life membership from 17 to 150, while the Union’s assets rose from £85 to £1,000. As a result of this financial security the Union established the Old Sydneians’ Union Scholarship which was to be awarded each year to the most outstanding boy in scholarship, sport and influence among his fellows, the award being made along the lines of the Rhodes Scholarship. At the Union’s Annual General Meeting in June 1919, a motion was approved that the name be changed to the Old Sydneians’ Union which, apart from ‘being less cumbersome, embodies more of the spirit and the character of the School’.

Also arising from the School’s post-war development was members’ concern to honour those who had served in the War. The Old Sydneians’ Union launched the War Memorial Fund which sought to establish an endowment for the School, to improve the School’s utilities and to erect a tablet in the Big Schoolroom to record the names of Old Boys who had fallen in the war and those who volunteered. Of the 1740 names on the board, 299 had made the supreme sacrifice. The Honour Memorial on the northern end of the Big Schoolroom was unveiled by one of the School’s most famous soldiers, General Sir Harry Chauvel, who had previously been instrumental in organising the famous Jerusalem Old Boys’ dinner. The Memorial remains a distinctive feature of Big School that will be remembered by all boys since that time.

Post-war growth in the Union saw the establishment of the Old Sydneians’ Club in late 1921 in premises in Phillip Street near Hunter Street in a building that already housed the Old Newingtonians’ Union. Club membership quickly rose to 300 Old Boys.

During the 1920s, the Union was also instrumental in proposing the concept of a boarding house for Grammar. Following strong recommendations from the Union, the School subsequently acquired the property ‘Rathven’ owned by Mr A.M. Lowenthal in St Mark’s Road, Randwick. After certain modifications and alterations had been made to the original building, School House was opened in February 1927 with 25 boys attending. The Union, along with the recently-founded Women’s Association, was successful in raising much-needed funds for the site purchase and necessary modifications. This boarding facility broadened the character of the School by allowing sons of Old Boys from country areas also to attend Grammar up until its closure in 1976. In the years up to World War II the Union continued as an integral and most respected part of School life.

The Union’s Annual Dinners were always well patronised and cemented ties between pupils of earlier years. The Union displayed a humanitarian side of its operations within the School by establishing an unemployment register in the Depression that sought to help Old Sydneians find employment, often through the offices of other Old Boys.

As was the case in the years during and following World War I, many Old Sydneians enlisted and fought overseas in World War II and gained solace and support from their School through the links generated by the Union. Although this support was perhaps less publicised than World War I, The Sydneian regularly reported the names of Grammar boys in the forces, subsequently noting that at the end of the war 897 Old Boys had served in the Army, 147 in the Navy and 530 in the Air Force — 208 had been killed.

School plans for post-war development at College Street were conceived by the Old Sydneians’ Union as early as 1944 and included plans to construct a new wing along the Stanley Street frontage. Significant increases in costs associated with this development led to the abandonment of this plan but, despite this setback, the Union was closely involved with the successful completion of the War Memorial Building at the northern end of the College Street frontage. In 1953 the foundation stone to this new addition was laid by the Governor of New South Wales, Sir John Northcott, who also unveiled an Honour Roll of Old Sydneians who had died in World War 11. The new building was opened on 23 July 1954.

Strong links between the O.S.U. and the School continued throughout the 1950s, in line with School plans to undertake further construction at College Street on the site of the old Palladium Building in Yurong Street. These moves coincided with the establishment of a Centenary Building Fund by the O.S.U. which was a flourishing organisation with around 2,800 members. Following the success of a funding appeal for this project the O.S.U. noted the many long-lasting benefits of these links, not solely based on raising financial support. The Union recorded in its 1957 Annual Report that ‘new contacts with our members will stimulate a new interest in the affairs of the School. We shall act together to improve the facilities and efficiency of the School and strengthen the bonds of our Union’. Hand in hand with such developments, the O.S.U. was closely associated with supporting the sporting programme of Grammar, especially where members assisted masters with coaching.

During the last two decades, the Old Sydneians’ Union has continued as a significant element of life at Grammar. This supporting role has been maintained despite the differences expressed by many Old Boys regarding the School’s policy towards emphasising academic standards and certain changes in admission policy. These changes were perceived by some to have lessened the significance of sport within the School, especially in comparison to the stress placed on sporting development in the 1950s and 1960s.

If the significance of the Union, and the complementary role of other affiliated associations within the School, has changed in the last two decades, it is important to acknowledge and respect changes that have occurred in secondary education in this time. Furthermore, the interaction of these forces needs to be assessed in the light of pervading social and cultural changes that have affected, and will continue to affect, all aspects of secondary and tertiary education in Australia. Despite these factors, the Union has continued to maintain its vitality and interest in the life of the School. As an example, the O.S.U.’s latest contribution has been the funding of the O.S.U. Centenary Fellowship to sustain a teaching fellowship programme related to professional development of masters within the School.

Not withstanding these forces of change — both internal and external — the Old Sydneians’ Union, and Old Boys generally, retains strong participatory links in the life of Grammar, not the least being the enrolment of sons of Old Boys, especially those entering the Preparatory Schools at St Ives and Edgecliff. Through the auspices of the O.S.U., the School maintains regular contact with more than 5,000 Old Boys. Virtually all leaving pupils can retain their affiliation with the School through a one-off payment of O.S.U. membership fees. The Union will continue to gather strength as more and more past pupils renew links with the School and participate in year reunions and other official functions.

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