1910s-1920s: War, then peace At Home

“Throughout the first ten years of its existence, Emmanuel had a struggle with circumstances as the war came on the heels of its inauguration with devastating effect.”

These are the words of Emmanuel’s founder and inaugural Council Chairman Reverend Dr Ernest Northcroft Merrington MA writing on the occasion of the College’s silver jubilee in 1936.

From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 Australians enlisted for service in World War I (1914-1918). Their number included Emmanuel students and staff — “practically the whole of the College” — and Council members “who heard the call and resisted not its challenge”.

Merrington, as he had been called by God to serve the church, was now called to serve his country and community. Bidding farewell to his wife Flora and three young children, he enlisted in the First Australian Imperial Force. He served as an army chaplain in Egypt and Gallipoli in 1914 and 1915 and in France in 1918. Merrington’s war service included giving spiritual comfort, performing the last rites, carrying out burials, and writing to the families of the fallen. St Andrew’s Uniting Church is the home of the Merrington Anzac Memorial Peace Chapel. The chapel commemorates Australians who have served in conflicts and the communion set used by Merrington at Gallipoli is on display. See Stories from the Honour Boards for details of Merrington’s service, including excerpts from his war diaries.

Chaplain Ernest Northcroft Merrington (at far right) conducting a communion service for members of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at Gallipoli, Turkey, in 1915. The altar is two biscuit boxes draped in a cloth. source: Australian War Memorial, P01875.004

At Emmanuel, the confidence and enthusiasm of a just a couple of years before was overturned to “anxiety and despondency” over the College’s future. By 1916 only three students were in residence. Facing Emmanuel’s collapse, in 1918 the councillors decided to sell the site and amalgamate with King’s College, which had been established by Methodist Church in 1912.

The signing of the Armistice in 1918 brought an end to the war and, with that, an eleventh-hour reprieve for Emmanuel. The decision to amalgamate was reversed and the sale was cancelled.

Merrington was serving in France when The Great War ended, and afterwards gifted a special memento of that glorious occasion to Emmanuel:

“On 11th November came the great news for which everyone was waiting: The Armistice has been signed… The Commandant borrowed my Australian flag, which had been given to me by the ladies of my Church, and it proudly flew over the largest depot of Australian soldiers in France at 11 o’clock on that eventful day. On my return to Brisbane, I presented it to Emmanuel College.”

While Merrington and his flag returned home to Brisbane, there would be no homecoming for five Emmanuel students. Lest we forget: Frederick George Pitty Barbour, Sydney Stanna Bond, George Ferguson Grant, Charles Chalmers Jameson, Charles Roberston Wonderley — Pro Patria Ceciderunt (fallen for their country).

Emmanuel, with new hope and determination, opened in 1919 with six students. Enrolments increased, albeit gradually, over the next few years.

By 1923, with the arrival of Reverend Mervyn Henderson MA as Acting Principal, ten students were in residence. Their number included engineering student James Eric Gifford Martin, who, 36 years later as Brigadier J. E. G. Martin CBE, DSO, ED, and having served with great distinction in World War II, became Emmanuel College Council Chair (1959-68). He is the namesake of Emmanuel’s Martin wing (previously known as block 12).

Principal Rev. Mervyn Henderson (left) shaking hands with the Duke of York, later to become King George VI, and with UQ Vice-Chancellor Dr William Robertson (right) at the university in 1927

It was during the “roaring 20s” that the sporting and social sides of college life boomed. After the privations of the war years, it was time for fun!

In sports, Emmanuel fully embraced the Inter-College Competition in 1924 with a student body of only fifteen. Principal Henderson was a certified “rowing tragic” and his enthusiasm for the sport was taken up by the students. Henderson took the oars as stroke for the ICC Head of the River that year and Emmanuel finished in second place. Rowing glory first came in 1927 with an unbroken winning streak through to 1935.

First Emmanuel rowing crew with Principal Henderson at stroke, 1924

Emmanuel was always envisaged as a collegial, as well as a collegiate, community and the social whirl accelerated in the 1920s. The first At Home organised by the students was held in 1923 as an expression of “the great friendliness … among students and their pride in the College”. Each member of the College invited male and female guests. Contemporary newspaper articles describe Emmanuel illuminated by lanterns, the dining room and supper room festooned with blue and silver streamers and decorated with flowers, “and the dance music provided by Miss Stewart’s band”. At this stage, the Presbyterian Church deemed dancing as sinful and, as recalled by then-student A. P. Muir, “each year at the General Assembly of the Church, there was a furore on the subject of the dance held at the College”. However, Principal Henderson did not share this view. He gave the party his blessing and attended with his wife and daughters. At Home was acclaimed as the “social event of the year” and it became an annual tradition — one which today’s students still joyfully and excitedly embrace.

1924 newspaper clipping from The Telegraph describing that year’s Emmanuel College “At Home”

The importance of students’ wishes and needs was recognised formally in 1925 with the formation of the Emmanuel College Students’ Club. The ECSC took the lead on “the social and sporting life of students” and incorporated “a committee to form definite contact between the students as a body and the officials who govern the College”. While student leadership positions have changed in the ensuing decades, the ECSC continues to work with staff to help provide an outstanding collegiate experience for all members of Emmanuel.

Emmanuel College At Home 2019

The 20s roared on and Emmanuel had 37 residents in 1929. The Wall Street Crash of that year and the subsequent economic collapse reverberated around the world, bringing on the Great Depression. Again, Emmanuel would rise to this challenge and those to follow.