Heritage Guide to The Geelong College

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Students on a Gun outside Morrison Hall.

Students on a Gun outside Morrison Hall.


Photographs of Norman Morrison Memorial Hall during the 1920s and 1930s often feature two artillery pieces stationed on the asphalt near the front of the Hall facing the Main Oval. The 77mm artillery pieces were a favourite photographic backdrop for students who had themselves ‘snapped’ draped across the guns in a cheerfully casual embrace. While these guns arrived with much fanfare and pride in 1920 their eventual removal was a far more quiet and subdued affair.

Secured as war trophies, the captured German guns were won in a long campaign by the then Lieut. Colonel Frederick Charles Purnell, a former College student and one time president of the Old Geelong Collegians’ Association. Much of the correspondence detailing the acquisition of these guns is held in the College Archives.

The guns were 'presented to the College as a gift from the Old Collegians’ Association, in honour of those old boys of the College who served in the Great War, and also as a memorial to those who had made the supreme sacrifice.' Almost 600 Old Collegians served in World War I, with almost one third of enlistees killed in a slaughter that is now impossible to comprehend.

The letters reveal a concerted effort by many members of the Old Geelong Collegians’ Association to secure these relics of the war. While Purnell drove the quest others, including Horace Robertson (later General 'Red Robbie' Robertson) and Charles Shannon were also involved.

The Guns outside Norman Morrison Memorial Hall.

The Guns outside Norman Morrison Memorial Hall.

A lengthy correspondence commenced in November, 1918 after a promise to provide war relics was made to Purnell by General Bourgeois, the General in charge of the French Department of Artillery. In the year and a half that followed, delays, confusion and considerable frustration were revealed in the correspondence between Purnell and the French Department of Artillery. Ultimately, Purnell sought intervention from both the Victorian Premier and the acting Prime Minister of the time in supporting formal applications to the French military authorities.

This second post-war campaign by Purnell finally saw agreement to provide the guns in late 1919 more than 12 months after his initial letter to General Bourgeois. Even then obstacles remained, such as that of securing official certifications of the absence of explosives. A further frustration occurred when Purnell was advised by the shipping agents that the guns had been shipped on the steamer SS Boonah only to be informed that the ship had been reported afire. To Purnell’s horror the remaining cargo, supposedly transhipped to the SS Booral, was not aboard when the ship reached Melbourne in March 1920. It was not until the manifest for the ship Australglen was forwarded by the agents shortly afterwards that Purnell at last began to feel assured of the success of his campaign.

Finally, the guns arrived in Melbourne in May 1920 though even then Purnell was to be thwarted. By now inured to the delays, Purnell glumly reported in a letter to Colonel Aubertin of the French Department of Artillery in June 1920 that 'The cases have not arrived at Geelong yet. With the usual perversity of ships, the Austraglen discharged the whole of our Trophies at Melbourne Pier, then came on to Geelong without them' .

The guns were rescued by the popular bay steamer SS Edina and finally arrived in Geelong to the relief and pleasure of an anxious Purnell who wrote that he had actually been to the wharf and touched them.

The celebration that then accompanied the presentation of the guns to the College in July 1920 was to enthral Geelong and was reported in detail by the Geelong Advertiser newspaper. Led by the Geelong City Band the entire College marched in procession. Watched by thousands, including girls of the Church of England Grammar School and Morongo, and with younger students perched precariously on the gun limbers the procession left City Hall, the site of the presentation by the French Consul, and proceeded up Aberdeen and Pakington Streets to the College where further speeches marked the event. College students towed the gun limbers. The old boys marched in the rear followed by the car containing the French Consul, the Principal of the College and other members of Council. Even the pre-schoolers from the Kindergarten Hall turned out to cheer the spectacle.

Guns Procession through Geelong in July 1920.

Guns Procession through Geelong in July 1920.
Many College photographs depict as their fascinating backdrop a Geelong now passed.
Despite the dismally wet August day the cloaked and hatted crowds have turned out to view the spectacle of the College guns procession.
In the background however, are the signs of a multitude of businesses no longer known - M Page, saddler; G. Taylor, jeweller;
W. Leggo, cash grocer; William Dodghsun; J.M. Grelis, ironmonger; Tas.O’Donovan; C. Urquhart;
To complete the streetscape - horse drawn carts and in the middle a resplendent Hansom Cab.

Sources: Ad Astra December 2006 pp24-25 'Presentation of the Guns' by Con Lannan.
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