Three decisions that made Mentone Grammar

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By P. Russell Lea (1961)

If you believe in something strongly enough, you back your judgement and take a punt on it. Inevitably, your judgement will be proved right more times than it is wrong.

Whichever way you look at it, there have been three critical phases in the 90-year history of Mentone Grammar in which those guiding the fortunes of this great School backed their judgement – and won.

In each, it was the vision of those charged with responsibility for the School which propelled it forward and on onward.

The first was in 1923 when local resident and Melbourne solicitor, J. Allan Anderson and other leading lights of the district who were mainly vestrymen and parishioners of St Augustine’s Anglican Church in Como Parade, Mentone decided to start a new School despite the fact that a church School bearing the name Mentone Grammar had been established just three years earlier.

Anderson and his team believed they had the ability to win over the parents and re-establish the School - which had previously operated in a church hall at St Augustine’s - in Stawell Street, off what is now known as Warrigal Road.

Fate played an ugly hand late in 1929 when the Great Depression hit. Student numbers fell and keeping the School afloat was an ever threatening problem until a group of seven parents stepped in to bale it out.

Just two years later, the School suffered another setback when its founding Headmaster, Henry L. Tonkin decided to accept the position of Headmaster at Camberwell Grammar following a family bereavement.

The second occurred in 1957 when the School Board led by Finlay Anderson, the solicitor son of J. Allan Anderson, engineered a period of rapid change which finally laid the foundation of a financially secure School.

Student numbers in that year had grown to more than 650 but the constant lack of funding meant the School did not have sufficient classrooms and other facilities to meet the needs of an increasing School population.

Now under extreme financial pressure Thorold believed the only way forward was for the School to be incorporated.  He canvassed the idea and Anderson, together with four other like–minded residents of Mentone who were either parents of students at the School or in the case of one, an Old Mentonian, bought the School on very generous terms. Effectively, the new Board had bailed Thorold out, although they allowed him to remain as Registrar.

In September 1957, Thorold applied for the School to come under the aegis of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, formally cementing the School’s long-term relationship with the church and, in particular, St Augustine’s.

The new Board now had to establish a master plan and it required engineering the retirement of 16-year veteran Headmaster, Lionel Large.

Mentone had become a member of the Associated Grammar Schools of Victoria in 1958 and with it came membership of the Headmasters’ Conference, which Thorold attended despite the fact that representatives from other Schools were Headmasters and that Thorold himself freely admitted Large’s professional qualifications entitled him to be present.

This impasse presented a relationship problem and the Board admitted what Large had felt for some time, a reluctance on their part to endorse his professional standing.

The Board’s first move was to reduce Large’s wages based on his workload which was subsequently reversed. Then they introduced a retirement age of 60 for Mentone’s Headmaster which impacted on the 59-year-old Large. He retired at the end of the second term of 1960.

Next they had to manoeuvre Thorold out of his Principal’s role so that the new Headmaster had unfettered control of the academic aspects of the School.

Finally, the Board had to recruit the right person for the job of Headmaster of Mentone Grammar School.

From 37 enquiries, the Board chose a 33-year-old Keith W. Jones who commenced as Headmaster in 1961. Initially, he was not impressed with what he had found at Mentone during his first interview and two of four Headmasters he consulted in Melbourne warned him off the position altogether.

Thorold had, by now, become Registrar so Jones met with him to discuss his role and was later forced to stamp his authority on the relationship. Soon after his started his long reign as Headmaster, Thorold offered him Large’s old office which faced the oval. “No,” replied Jones, “I will have the front room, the one you now occupy. You may have the room next door,” he added.

For the next 26 years Jones continued to lead the School until ill-health forced him to resign in 1987. He died shortly after on January 10, 1988.

The third gamble occurred in 2004 when the Board, concerned that the student population had flat - lined and with the School facing an uncertain future, decided the time had come to become co-educational. Initial overtures to amalgamate with Mentone Girls’ Grammar, which would have provided greater shared facilities for both Schools were declined and there was also opposition from past students and members of the local community.

But the Board was not deterred and the first girls were enrolled in 2006. Enrolments grew so that by the start of 2013 they stood at 1300 - 900 boys and 400 girls. Again, the Board was proved right.