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News > Alumni Stories > Michael Gallagher: A Fresher's Perspective in 1908

Michael Gallagher: A Fresher's Perspective in 1908

Have you ever wondered what it was like as a newcomer to St John's over one hundred years ago?

Things have changed enormously since our fresh-faced freshers of the early 20th century first walked through these hallowed halls. 

Dr Michael Joseph Gallagher (SJC 1908-1913) shared some of his memories in the Johnsmen’s Magazine’s centennial edition of 1958. Here are some selected sections:

Around Nineteen Ten
Michael J Gallagher, MB, ChM,
Mackay, Queensland

In March, 1908, several Freshers enrolled at John’s.  To one of them the massive Gothic masonry looked old, neglected and forbidding.  No four-spired Freehill Tower adorned its portals, but an old ivy-mantled wooden gable did its utmost to hide the architectural beauty of the College doorway.

The Rector, the Rt Rev Mons JJ O’Brien, DD, at the time was in his mid-sixties.  He was a strikingly handsome man, tall and straight, all of six foot, nothing portly, with clear-cut classical features, crowned with a thick crop of white curly locks.  He was one of the last of the Sydney clergy to wear, out of doors, a tall black silk hat, and carry gloves and a walking-cane.  This custom, combined with his fine figure and dignified deportment, lent him an old-world, aristocratic air.

He bade us a cordial welcome and wished us a happy and successful life in College and University.  In College, he celebrated Mass every morning and presided at dinner every night, except Sunday…

In those days the interior of the College was more depressing than its exterior.  The vastness and emptiness of its high-ceilinged corridors and vaulted chambers, containing nothing but the dust of ages, filled one with hopelessness…However, after we had entered into the life of the College, the unfavourable first impressions soon faded, and we felt the friendly fellowship of the united band of happy students who dwelt within its venerable walls…

In 1907 John’s won the Boat Race – previous wins had been in ’98, ’99 and ’03 – and this victory had given a general uplift to the status and morale of the students.  Being only 21 in number we were the smallest College…as there was promising material amongst the Freshers, our hopes of winning again ran high.  We were doomed to disappointment, nor did we win a boat race again during this period…Cricket was not our ‘long suit’, although some good cricketers passed through…At Tennis we were no ‘hot potatoes’, but at Boxing we had one glorious vintage year…

In the first term the Boat race and Dinner were the great diversions.  Win, lose or draw, the boat crews and almost all the students from the men’s Colleges, and many non-Collegians, on boat race night gathered at one of the big restaurants – Beauman’s or the ABC – to do honour to the winners and cheer up the losers.  In middle term the Annual College Ball, held in the Dining Hall, was our piece de resistance, and in third term the College annual Commemoration was the gala day on which the Rector and Fellows entertained the official Visitor – the Archbishop of Sydney…

We had no College library, no debating society, no wireless, no television, no electricity, no hot-water system, but we were happy, healthy and always ‘broke’…We enjoyed many hours of happy entertainment at the dramas, melodramas and musical comedies of JC Williamson.  Catchy melodies, tunes and songs were sung, whistled, bawled, and shouted up and down the corridors, each new ‘Show’ bringing with it a new set of popular numbers…

Whilst we were at John’s we saw the motor taxi-cab gradually eliminate the old horse-drawn Hansom cab.  We watched the lights of motor cars change from candle lamps, to oil, to acetylene, to electricity.  Being poor we mostly travelled by tramcar: one penny section from the Quay to the Railway, and another penny from the Railway to Johnstone Street, Annandale, or to Newtown Bridge – 2d. from the Quay to either end of Missenden Road!  Surfing came into its full flowering during our time and Lifesaving Clubs were formed at Manly, Bondi, Coogee, Maroubra, Cronulla and elsewhere…

Of all that gay band of happy students linked together in the ‘first fine careless rapture’ of undergraduate life, the great majority have vanished from the scene.  Almost all remained true to the Faith of their Fathers, and lived honourable and successful lives.  Some few of them had the happiness of seeing their sons become students of John’s, and all of them have retained an ever-increasing love for their old College.  As time marches on the ranks of the Old Brigade are becoming thinner and thinner:

I drink alone; e’en now on Neva’s shore,
Haply my name on friendly lips has trembled.
Round that bright board, say, are ye all assembled?
Are there no other names ye count no more?
Whose voice is silent in the call of brothers?
Who is not come with you? Say!


Younger generations of students are ever pressing forward, eagerly occupying places which once were ours, and there comes to mind a haunting rondeau which appeared some little time ago in the Cornhill Magazine.  The student of bygone years meditates on the towers of Oxford, mirrored in the slowly moving stream, while younger generations press on impatiently:

We also, youthful, long ago, dreamed
‘neath these walls,
Whose lovely show, deep in our hearts
their image dyed.
O Youth, who thrust our youth aside,
Flow softly, ‘tis but once you flow
through Oxford Town.

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