Wesley College Melbourne Australia
Wesley College Melbourne

The Classical World of Wesley

In this issue of Lion the theme “Wesley and its connection with the Greek community”, especially in the 1970s and 80s, is explored in a revealing article by Dawson Hann. However, Wesley’s connection to the classical world goes back to our foundations. Delve into the history of the College and you will find many Greek (and Classical) references and influences. Our motto Sapere Aude is taken from Horace, and is better known today by the translation “Dare to be Wise”. Indeed, the College’s historical and art collection boasts a number of artifacts including a bust of Dante, a fine bronze of the Winged Victory, a scaled down marble copy of Michelangelo’s Moses, and a noble statute of a classical young athlete. 

Martin Howy Irving, Headmaster of the College in the 1870s, liked to think of his Sixth Form as a group of young men imbued with the democratic values of Ancient Greece. They were to be leaders in the school community and to be responsible for, and to set, an example to younger students. During Irving’s time Wesley prospered in this enlightened setting with many students of the day going on to achieve great success, including the brilliant philosopher, Samuel Alexander (OW1874). Ever since the College opened its doors in 1866 it has offered, at various times, what might be termed as a continually evolving curriculum of subjects including History, Classics and Greek language. Teachers such as Lindsay Newnham worked assiduously with students to encourage a love of the Classical past. He too was a great Classics scholar, and this was a foundation for his teaching of English. 

St Kilda Road Facade after 1930's Renovation
View of the St Kilda Road facade following the 1930's renovation

Over the decades many subjects have come and gone and in some instances returned again as the College aimed to offer a contemporary curriculum. Interestingly, Modern Greek, while not taught as a formal subject, is currently available in the afterschool programs at Elsternwick and Glen Waverley, as part of Wesley’s highly successful Community College program.


The rebuilding of the St Kilda Road campus in the early 1930s, as a result of the benefaction of George and Alfred Nicholas, transformed the College from an attractive Italianate building into a distinctive, clean-lined temple-like edifice, complete with a magnificent colonnade of fluted columns topped with stylised Ionic capitals. The façade of the St Kilda Road campus, when viewed from across the Front Turf, makes a powerful architectural statement. The architect, Harry Norris, did something quite remarkable when he provided the Wesley community with a building that fused ancient classical architectural traditions with the contemporary art deco style of the day to present Wesley College as both physically and literally a temple of learning.

One of our Greek connections started early on, in the form of our fourth headmaster, Arthur Sanders Way (1847-1930). He was not only a fine educator, but a translator of international repute. Born in England, Way was the son of Wesleyan minster and was educated at Kingswood School, Bath, at the Wesleyan Collegiate Institution, Taunton, and the University of London (BA1870, MA1873). In 1870 he returned to Queen’s College as classical master and in 1876 to Kingswood School as Vice-Headmaster. 

Arthur Way came to Melbourne in September 1881 to take up his appointment as Headmaster of Wesley in 1882, serving until 1892. “Way is spoken of affectionately by those who knew him well, and he seems to have enjoyed pleasant relationships with both boys and masters,” but his time at Wesley was not always happy. There is a very illuminating paragraph in The History of Wesley College 1865-1919: “Mr Way wanted to teach Greek and Latin; the parents—particularly the fathers—thought dead languages useless, and cried out for commerce. Mr Way wanted to get the boys to start at the school as early as possible, so that they could benefit from a progression and consistency in their studies; the fathers preferred to keep them, free of charge, at the state schools as long as possible, with a finishing touch at a public school. Mr Way wanted to have the boys stay on (as previous headmasters Irving and Andrew had wanted) to polish their education after passing matriculation; the fathers wanted them off on their careers. Mr Way wanted the boys to participate in the wider life of the college, in sports and cadets; the boys often had different ideas.” The idealist Arthur Way represented one side of a debate which has never ended, about the purpose of schools and education. Who in Melbourne was listening in the 1880s? “A lad who can just pass matriculation is just a schoolboy; he who has continued his studies for a year or two more is a student”. This was just one of his sayings. As the 1880s rolled by, Melbourne boomed and was aptly described by visiting journalist and writer, Augustus Sala, as Marvellous Melbourne. Wesley College was operating in a highly competitive educational marketplace. Enrolments at the College did not grow and so, when the tough economic times hit in the early 1890s, the situation was looking grim for Way and the College. Enrolments were declining and Way as the public face of the College struggled to deal with this pressing problem. The curriculum evolved to include natural science and commerce in the hope of attracting more students, but with little success. This fact is clearly stated in The History of Wesley College 1865-1919: “by the late 1880s other schools were growing fast, but not Wesley. When the boom burst, the school debt mounted and in 1890 the presidency of the school was abolished; in 1892 salaries, including Way’s, were cut and he resigned at the end of the year. He returned to England and there lived on the royalties of his classical translations which continued to appear every few years”. 

Arthur S Way, former Headmaster 1882 - 1892
Arthur S Way, former Headmaster 1882 - 1892

Way served as president of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society and on the council of the Royal Society of Victoria, but he was not terribly involved in the community. Writing and translating were his two passions. He was a lover of the Classical world and he would achieve an international reputation for his translations of Greek and Latin poetry. Prior to his move to Melbourne, in 1876 in London he had published The Odes of Horace…translated in metre, and under the pseudonym Avia, produced The Odyssey of Homer. Interestingly while at Wesley he produced The Iliad of Homer in three parts, and later on in his retirement he produced translations of the works of some twenty Latin and Greek writers. One reviewer called him the “translator-general of his time”. Yet his translations attracted both praise and criticism.


“He brought to translating much rhythmic flexibility and the capacity to render meaning, despite the demands of rhythm and rhyme, with a crib-like accuracy. But the total effect rarely does credit to the originals. His vocabulary is quaint and stilted. The jaunty anapaestic metre which he used for the translations of Homer, and which owed something to William Morris and Swinburne, was reviewed by a contemporary as ‘neither flowing, gliding, rushing, nor leaping, but mere bouncing’. His translations into iambic verse were more successful and are still published in the Loeb Classical Library editions of Euripides and Quintus Smyrnaeus”. 

The story of Way is revealing for it brings to the fore that old conundrum of what should be taught and how it should be taught. Indeed, Way’s love of the classics and language did not have had much appeal to most fathers and sons in the heady boom days of Marvellous Melbourne, who preferred a curriculum offering that was more practical and relevant to the demands of the day. For some parents the role of education was to prepare their young sons for commerce rather than academia. Nonetheless, Way’s passion for classical studies and the discipline required to study subjects like Latin, he believed lifted education to a higher level where students would be taught to really think. A skill which he believed was an excellent foundation for life after school. 

Today, as we all rush about, we take for granted Wesley’s innumerable connections to the Classical past and yet they are present with us each and every day and an immeasurable part of the heritage of our great school. Sapere Aude - “Dare to be Wise”. 

Information for this article was drawn from the Australian Dictionary of Biography and The History of Wesley College 1865-1919.