In 2023, we are honouring the place, the people, and the purpose of our Timbertop campus. Timbertop was established in 1953 and, 70 years later, this transformational learning opportunity helps those who experience it to literally look upward, to the top of the mountain, and to unearth the courage and confidence of daring to trust themselves, and others, and all that they can become in these most formative years and beyond.
One morning in June 1951, Hugh Montgomery was taking a Mathematics class at Corio when he was summoned by the Headmaster, Dr (later Sir) James Darling. Leaving work for the boys to do in his absence, he gathered up his gown and walked through the red brick quadrangle to Dr Darling’s study, wondering why he was wanted. Darling looked up as he walked in.
“Montgomery,” he said. “I want you to buy me a mountain.”
“Certainly,” replied Montgomery, unfazed. He sat down.
“Where do you want the mountain, and why?”
Darling explained that he wanted to solve overcrowding at Corio and provide adolescent boys an opportunity to “better develop by themselves, out of the usual school machine” at a remote, bush outpost. He sketched a map showing a mountain and winding creek, saying his preferred site would be in north-east Victoria, near the snow line. Thus, the educational phenomenon that is Timbertop was set in motion. Darling had been Headmaster at Geelong Grammar School (GGS) for 21 years and had already transformed the School from a church school of 370 boys on the edge of Corio Bay to a more vital institution of more than 1,000 students spread across three sites. However, Darling’s vision of a remote campus where students would spend a full school year living, working and studying in the bush was his most ambitious yet.
Darling’s vision for Timbertop was influenced by a number of factors, including his own education at Repton School in Derbyshire, his experience with the Royal Field Artillery in World War I, and the educational philosophy of Kurt Hahn, who founded Salem Castle School in Germany, Gordonstoun School in Scotland and the Outward Bound movement. However, when Darling unveiled the idea to the GGS community on Speech Day 1951, his reference was the School’s own rich history of outdoor activity dating back to the 1870s and “the tradition of the Saturday Parties”.
Saturday Parties were the initiative of the School’s other iconic Headmaster, John Bracebridge Wilson (Headmaster 1863-1895); a keen naturalist, marine biologist and Fellow of the Linnean Society of London. Every weekend the whole boarding house went out in “parties” of at least three students into the sparsely inhabited countryside surrounding Geelong – having entered their name and destination in the Saturday Book, the parties could roam from dawn until dark (they often set out from as early as 4am and had to be back by 9pm for supper).
They went by boat along the Barwon River, cart and on foot (or later by bicycle), making for regular camping places “to nest or fish or swim or just ramble about”. Students roamed from the You Yangs to Anglesea. A favourite breakfast place was The Willows, downstream of the Barwon River breakwater, while students often ventured towards Barwon Heads, to Grub Lane (now a wildlife sanctuary), where they gathered so regularly that some had planted vegetable gardens. Timbertop was Darling’s distinct evolution of Saturday Parties infused with Hahn’s “outlandish thirst for adventure”.
In the 1967 book, Timbertop: An Innovation in Australian Education, Darling wrote that his idea for Timbertop “was based upon the belief that education must be closely concerned with the development of self-confidence, and that this comes from the learning of competence in practical ways, and from the growth of self-reliance and independence”.
In 1939, Darling had introduced ‘national service’ at Corio, focusing on practical activities such as carpentry and engineering, and had proposed turning parts of the campus into farmland for educational purposes. He championed outdoor education as a means of developing stamina, persistence, enterprise and other “necessary character training”.
“Boys will have to learn to look after themselves, to find their own occupation, and develop their own capacities… in the bush a boy learns to know his capacity and discovers that it is much greater than he expected.” Darling was convinced that “moral and intellectual courage comes only from experience”. He later wrote that his “theory of Timbertop” was “that adolescent boys could better develop by themselves, out of the usual school machine. Placed in a different and less clement environment, they should undertake responsibility for themselves and be given the challenges of something like a man’s life under conditions that they had to conquer. But the first principle was essentially one of self-reliance and the challenge to live up to this responsibility.”
After four months of searching, Hugh Montgomery (with the help of the Ritchie family of Delatite Station near Mansfield) found Darling’s mountain. He had turned off the Mount Buller Road and down a track marked ‘Howqua Track – Bridle Path’, climbed through a fence and found: “a beautiful valley full of trees that had been there for a long time, and at the bottom of the valley was the lovely, small bubbling Timbertop Creek”. It was the perfect site for Darling’s experiment.
The Herculean task of building Timbertop began at Corio – four pre-fabricated structures were built in the paddock behind Francis Brown House as a ‘national service’ project in Term 1, 1952, and transported to Timbertop at Easter for the first of several work camps. A Nissen hut donated by the Gebhart family was the first permanent structure. Harold Doughty bulldozed a temporary road. A bridge was built over the creek. When 34 teenage boys arrived at Timbertop at the beginning of February 1953 there were two units for students, but aside from one house, there were only tents for staff, no dining hall, no kitchen, no classrooms, no library, no telephone and no running water.
In addition to the regular Timbertop reunion programme, this year the School will also be hosting a Timbertop Open Morning, a Timbertop Staff Reunion and a visit from our inaugural 1953 cohort.
Saturday 22 April: 1973 Timbertop 50-Year Reunion (morning tea, campus tours & lunch)
Saturday 16 September: Timbertop Open Morning (morning tea & campus tours)
Saturday 16 September: 1983 Timbertop 40-Year Reunion (morning tea, campus tours & lunch)
Sunday 17 September: Timbertop Staff Reunion (lunch & campus tours)
Saturday 7 October: 1953 Timbertop 70-Year Visit (Chapel Service and lunch with students)