Nicknamed ‘The Boss’, William Still Littlejohn was not only Melbourne’s foremost educationalist in the early 20th century, but a staunch Rugby man who was once in contention to play for Scotland, and for a time became President of the NZRU.
The son of a watch-maker, Littlejohn was born in Turriff in Scotland in 1859. With an above average application to study – it was said “he reads a candle a night” – Littlejohn moved from Aberdeen Grammar School onto the University of Aberdeen, qualifying with a Master of Arts.
Littlejohn did not disregard the importance of physical well-being while at the University, and became keenly involved in boxing and Rugby. His combination of mental acuity and physical presence apparently impressive – his biography noting:
During one holiday at home he is asked to umpire a match between teams from two textile mills. He is aged only 17, but he accepts, and when the match becomes little less than a brawl he stops the game…and tells the men to behave. Instead of knocking him out they give him three cheers, which are echoed by the spectators, and the game ends as a game.
Later the captains of the two teams, which have been celebrating, visit his home to pay their respects, and offer him a bottle of “mountain dew.”
In 1878 the young student is listed as a “possible” for the Scottish XV against England. But his father’s business is not prospering, and he cannot afford the expense.
His father and brother soon moved to New Zealand, and in late 1881 Littlejohn decides to join them, arriving in Wellington with hopes of gaining employment as a school teacher. As recounted in his profile on www.electricscotland.com:
He obtained the position of third master at Nelson College which then had a roll-call of about 150, and entered on his work early in 1882, a tall, burly, bearded, fair young man with a strong Aberdeen burr. He immediately began to be an influence in the school, playing football and cricket with the boys after school hours, and showing an immense interest in his teaching.
Littlejohn appears to have been content to limit his playing of Rugby to guiding and encouraging the boys at Nelson College. He does though become a prominent referee in local club and provincial matches, and is active as a vice-president on the Nelson RFU.
In the early 1890s he was a delegate to the newly formed NZRU, president of the Nelson RFU, founding president of the Nelson Rugby Referees Association, and donated a trophy for a pioneering 7-a-side Rugby charity tournament at Trafalgar Park, that rapidly becomes a very popular annual fixture that continues until 1915. In 1899 he was elected as President of the New Zealand Rugby Union.
As noted by the Australian Dictionary of Biography:
Appointed principal at Nelson from 1898, Littlejohn set about transforming the school. Within five years there were four times as many boarders and twice as many day-boys. He drove staff and pupils hard, but within a humane curriculum, making English the main subject, emphasizing translation in languages, experiment in science and stressing the stimulus of the library, museum and extra-curricular activities. To increase participation, he divided the school into groups of thirty for Rugby and twenty-two for cricket.
In 1904 Littlejohn was successful in obtaining the vacant position of headmaster at Melbourne’s Scotch College, following the passing away of Alexander Morrison (headmaster from 1857-1903). As the College’s website observes, following Morrison was a difficult task, but Littlejohn established his own impressive record and legacy:
Littlejohn made Scotch the largest school in Australia, indeed in the Empire, with around 1300 students. He appointed distinguished teachers but kept administration firmly in his own grasp. He stamped his personality upon the school—a driving ambition, a questing intelligence tied to assessing and commenting upon academic outcomes, and a hearty religious belief more Christian than Presbyterian and yet dourly Scottish in tone and trappings. When he took office, to be the successor to Alexander Morrison must have seemed an impossible task; by the time he died 30 years later he had created his own legend.
Littlejohn is recorded as being a vice-president on the Victorian RU in 1910. Despite his obvious love for Rugby, he did not use his position or authority to influence the choice of football played at Scotch College, though he did in one instance feel compelled to write a letter to The Argus (24 April 1914) setting out the College’s Rugby football history before the birth of Australian rules:
“…the game was introduced into the school by one of the masters, a Mr Harvey, from Rugby at some time in the fifties. The exact date is unknown, but it was not later than 1858. Indeed, old boys of the school have always claimed that Mr Harvey was the pioneer of football in Victoria.”
The influence of Harvey being mentioned by Geoffrey Blainey in A Game of Our Own:
It is on record at Scotch College that one of its masters, Harvey, imported six footballs from England and taught some of his students to play football in the school yard: their code was probably Rugby, from which school he is said to have come.
Not long after first arriving in Melbourne, Littlejohn wrote to his friends at the Nelson RFU (reported in the Colonist 19 September 1904), using the safety of distance to confide with them his view of the local Victorian game:
“I do long many a time to witness another rousing game of Rugby, something to send the blood tingling through one’s veins; there is nothing to beat it.
“I am taking a course of the Victorian game, and although I must not speak disrespectfully of this colonial product, I must confess to having proved a very dull pupil. I am told to wait till I can appreciate the fine points, and I shall become as enthusiastic as the best of them.
“You may be sure that I shall do my utmost to like it, if only a little, for a school at any rate cannot do without games.
“There are only two features of the Victorian game that a Rugby onlooker might think worth considering, with a view to adoption. The one is that the hands are used as freely as the feet, and a knock-on is just as admissable as a knock back; but probably you would not like that.
“The other is that there is no scrum. The players in the ‘ruck’, as it is called, stand round, and play is resumed by the referee bouncing the ball forcibly on the ground. So the game becomes very fast, and scoring is heavy.
“The off-side play that is a cardinal feature of the Victorian game will never commend itself to a Rugbeian’s idea of what a game should be.”
In 1933, with interest in Rugby in Melbourne on the rise, especially after Victorian-born ‘Weary’ Dunlop played for the Wallabies (1932), Littlejohn was still headmaster of the College when a decision was made amongst the Victorian Public Schools to introduce the English football code (though only at Scotch was Rugby officially added to the sports curriculum options).
The Scotch rugby union team made its first public appearance on 30 July 1932 when it played a team of cadets from the Flinders Naval College before a large crowd at Middle Park. The team had already played practice matches against the University of Melbourne, the 37th-52nd Battalion and the naval cadets. The first Public School rugby match in Victoria was played on 11 August 1932 between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School at Scotch.[link]
Littlejohn was on hand to congratulate each one of the College’s XV after their 19-nil victory. The following season The Scots College (Sydney) accepted an invitation from Littlejohn and the College to send its Rugby team to Melbourne, and though the visitors were unsurprisingly winners, the local Scotch boys gave them a good show.
“To hold a team such as Scots College generally superior in tactics and knowledge of the finer points of the game to a score of 17-12 was really a fine performance on the part of Scotch College.”
[The Referee, 31.8.1933]
Only a few weeks later Littlejohn, at the age of 76, resigned as headmaster due to his failing health. He passed away on 7 October 1933.
The College’s chapel – originally an idea of Littlejohn – stands today in his honour (“Littlejohn Memorial Chapel”), and the students still play Rugby.
© Sean Fagan
Geoffrey Blainey, A Game Of Our Own: The Origins Of Australian Football
Alec Einar Pratt, Dr. W.S. Littlejohn: the Story of a Great Headmaster
Other sources as identified in the article