My Fascist Teacher:

Memories of Kelver Hartley


A Personal View by Alan Barcan


In 1995 the Hartley Bequest Program of the University of Newcastle published Kelver Hartley: A Memoir. This book of 223 pages contains reminiscences by 15 men and women of Hartley as a secondary school master and as a university lecturer, together with a biographical sketch by the editor, Professor Ken Dutton. It also includes a previously unpublished extract from a long, confused, political/philosophical essay written by Kelver Hartley called Optimism and a list of Hartley's published academic works.

Kelver Hartley lectured in French at Newcastle University from 1955 to 1969, the last four years as Professor. He was shy, unobtrusive and eccentric. He died in February 1988, but came to public attention in September 1989 when Richard Glover of the Sydney Morning Herald wrote an article about 'the millionaire professor who lived in a $25 a week room'.

Kelver Hartley died alone in a cheap Glebe boarding house somewhere between 26th and 29th February 1988. But the obscurity of his death was remedied when it became known that he had left a bequest of $1 million to the French Department of his former university. By 1994, when various legal problems had been circumvented, it amounted to $2 million. He had no heirs - as he once put it, 'Nobody can say I didn't take a practical interest in eugenics: I have never married'. His bequest to the University of Newcastle French Department was the crowning achievement of a frugal and what he must have considered a somewhat disappointing life.

I had been a pupil of Kelver Hartley at Sydney Boys' High in 1937-38, soon after he had returned from France with his doctoral degree. I saw him fairly frequently when I became a part-time lecturer in education at Newcastle in 1963, and more frequently when I became a permanent member of staff in 1968. Yet we never spoke.

At my high school Kelver Hartley was a distinctive teacher. He had rather coarse features, which made the elegance of his French diction all the more striking. His blackboard writing was neat; his knowledge of the language extensive. And he was a fascist, whose views surfaced even in the classroom.

His politics was evidenced even in his dress. He affected a white shirt and a white tie - the distinctive dress of Pierre Laval, a leading right-wing politician, premier of France in 1935 and 1942-44, who was shot as a collaborator in 1945. Hartley was in France during 1933-35, writing his doctoral thesis. 'Doc' Hartley told our class how, during the Stavisky Riots of February 1934, he exchanged shots with the Garde Mobile. These riots were led by Action Française and the Croix de Feu, two fascist groups, protesting against suspected political involvement in a failed credit organisation set up by Alexandre Stavisky. Accordingly to John Gunther, whose Inside Europe was popular in the 1930s, the riots began each day at 8 am (when the Metro trains started running) and ended at 10 p.m. (when the last trains ran)!

My political views were quite the opposite of Kelver Hartley's. As for French politics, our home possessed a single-sheet wall calendar for 1934, produced by the Paris Committee of the Communist Party of France. We were also admirers of the Soviet Union. Thus I found it irksome when, to illustrate the meaning of 'agent-provocateur' Hartley used the analogy of a communist agent in a Russian cathedral making subversive statements in order to trap a believer into expressing anti-Soviet sentiments.

On another occasion, Hartley told the class that it was not generally known that the full version of the slogan of the French Revolution was 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity - or Death'. He seemed to think this significant in a way that escaped me.

Hartley was scornful of the then dominant textbook, Frank B. Jones' French Grammar, and took considerable pleasure in correcting any errors he discovered. He is reported to have stated, later in his career, 'there are two kinds of French: that spoken by the French, and that prescribed by Frank B. Jones'. He seems to have had bad experiences with descendants of the Jones clan. Frank B. Jones taught him at Sydney Boys' High in the 1920s and was his Headmaster in the 1940s when Hartley taught at Armidale High. One of two police officers of the Special Squad who secretly scrutinised him during the war was a Constable H. A. Jones. The interesting thing is that he was born Hayward Kelver Hartley Jones and his father, with whom he did not get on well, was Frank Jones. The family dropped the 'Jones' in 1927.

Yet later in life one of his few close friends was Grahame Jones, his student at Newcastle University and later Professor of French at New England University. However, Hartley knew that Grahame's original family name was not Jones. He was an adopted child.

At Sydney High, Kelver Hartley was an excellent teacher and we respected him for that. He was a part-time lecturer at Sydney University, giving two weekly lectures per week, one on Wednesday evening and one on Friday morning. Quite often he retailed to us discussions he had had with his university class on linguistic issues. He encouraged us to read French novels during vacations. He introduced us to French poetry - often in the period between the examinations and a subsequent vacation. I can recall transcribing Victor Hugo's Oceano Nox from the blackboard and being introduced to the 15th century poem of François Villon - 'Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan? which translates as 'But where are the snows of yesteryear?'

One little incident supports, perhaps, the legend that Hartley was cautious, almost afraid, of women. In a boys' school this should have been no problem. Yet on one occasion when we were discussing the meaning of 'maintenir' he said, apologetically: 'I'm sorry, boys, but the only example that I can think of at the moment is 'maintenir une maitresse'. This reticence may have been significant. At least one contributor to Kelver Hartley: A Memoir recalls how at Newcastle University he was prone to shrink against the wall when a female student passed him in the corridor.

The asides in his lessons were not mere intrusions of personal belief, they were part of the educating process. In French, as in Latin, the asides, the background to language and literature, were often valuable. Education was then about character formation, moral values and a sense of culture. I suppose it still is, though the values imparted have changed.

Hartley suffered a series of disappointments. He resented what he considered his slow professional advancement. He apparently wrote science fiction stories under an assumed name but, again apparently, none were published. The defeat of fascism in Europe undermined his political philosophy. He took his study leave in 1966 in Italy, not France! He retired at the earliest prescribed date, on reaching 60.

In his early years a political reactionary, in later life he posed as an academic reactionary, a defender of old academic standards against a new decadence. I have mentioned that although we were both on campus at Newcastle University for some six years, we never spoke. Perhaps he disapproved of my academic speciality, education. He is reported to have defined an educationist as 'a man who has failed to acquire an education, and is determined that no one else shall'. But I prefer to believe our lack of communication came from our mutual shyness.

The most famous story of his eccentricity relates to the day he retired. He insisted on picking up the whole of his superannuation benefits in cash. He walked out of the university carrying some $30,000 in a battered suitcase.

His sense of failure must surely have reached its depth when the stock market collapsed in October 1987. The value of his shares, then $1,382,359 dropped in two days by $306,000. At the time of his death in February 1988 he was worth $916,197. He died as a result of 'barbiturate poisoning associated with alcohol ingestion'. What a pity he did not live to see the remarkable recovery of his legacy.

Yet doubts surround Kelver Hartley. Did he, in fact, fear physical contact with women any more than with men? Did he really participate in the Stavisky riots? Did he write science fiction stories? How much was it all fantasy? Kelver Hartley had a private life, a life of the mind, perhaps a life in the mind.

In his sad and lonely retirement Hartley must surely have found occasion to reflect on one of the phrases he introduced to his pupils - 'Where are the snows of yesteryear?'

Kelver Hartley: A Memoir is a tribute to an academic eccentric and an academic philanthropist-both rare species in Australian higher education. Copies are available at $20 (postage and packing included) from Professor Ken Dutton, The Hartley Bequest Program, The University of Newcastle, Callaghan, 2308.

Dr Alan Barcan, Honorary Associate of the Faculty of Education, University of Newcastle, N.S.W.



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