Edgar William Herbert (1884-1948), a Castlecrag identity and colleague of Walter Burley Griffin, was an outstanding pioneer of physical education in Australia. Born in Adelaide in 1884, his initial education was in that city where he trained as a plumber and studied architecture on the side. He became active in the YMCA movement, becoming Assistant Physical Director of YMCA Adelaide in 1906. In the same year, he won a scholarship to study physical education at Springfield College in Massachusetts, USA. He was the first Australian to study in the emerging field of physical education and he held teaching positions in this field before returning to Australia in 1914.1
Edgar Herbert had met Grace McLaughlan when he stopped off at Dunedin, New Zealand, to meet with an old friend George Hughes on his way home from the United States. Grace had been studying English and Ancient Greek at Adelaide University when she received a request from her sister May to stay her and her husband, George Hughes, who needed help in his role as secretary of the local YMCA. After Grace and Edgar married and moved to Sydney, she found herself living near her mother’s brother, Henry Willis, who had built the grand Innisfallen Castle on the nearby Castlecove Peninsula. The Herbert family enjoyed regular visits to the castle.2
Herbert had initially set up the Shorthouse & Herbert Physical Culture Institute in Adelaide and worked as a visiting instructor at various schools and institutions, including the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which had been established in England and established its first Australian branch in Adelaide in March 1851. This association resulted in Herbert moving to Melbourne in 1919 as Director of Physical Education with plans to set up a physical education college based on the principles of Springfield College. To his disappointment, he found that the YMCA lacked concrete plans to establish the college and he made plans to return to the United States.3
The following year a chance meeting with Walter Burley Griffin resulted in a radical shift in Edgar’s plans. Travelling on the overnight train from Sydney to Melbourne, Herbert found himself in the same compartment as Walter Burley Griffin. The two men struck up a close relationship as they discussed their frustrations over the lack of commitment within the Australian institutions they were working to. Herbert became an admirer of Griffin’s architectural principles and, in 1923, he moved his family to Dee Why on Sydney’s northern beaches where they initially stayed with his architect brother, Leonard and his family. He established a professional relationship with George Z Dupain (father of Max Dupain), establishing the base for his visiting physical education teacher practice at the Dupain Institute. His long association with the Sydney Kindergarten Training College was established at this time and he introduced Australia’s first complete physical education program through the college.4
The Herbert family moved to Castlecrag at the beginning of 1924, initially living in the Griffin-designed house built for the GSDA chairman King O’Malley. Walter and Marion Griffin joined them there in the autumn of 1925 and the Herbert children spent a lot of time at the Grant House where the Griffins had taken up residence. Grace Herbert soon established close relations with the Castlecrag community and her children — Ruskin Waldo, Irven Runa, Leonary (Len) and Wanda — roamed freely around the estate and through the bushland.
As the inaugural meeting of the Castlecrag Progress Association on 10 November 1925, Edgar Herbert was elected president — a position he held for four years — and Griffin took a position on the management committee. It served as an effective conduit for presenting community concerns to implementing agencies, particularly the Willoughby Municipal Council. Edgar and Grace Herbert found much of their time was taken up with progress association activities, while Edgar was also an initiator of the suburb’s Community Circle and regularly participated in its discussions.5
In early 1927, Edgar Herbert purchased a property at on the point of the Castlecrag peninsula and he constructed a shack for his family to move there during that year. Griffin designed a house for the family, but the family suffered financial hardship during the 1930s Depression and its implementation never went beyond an initial stone retaining wall.6
During his association with George Dupain, Herbert had established the Leadership Training College as a non-profit organisation to implement his core ideals. His professional expertise extended to the design of children’s playground equipment and buildings. His 1918 design of a model playground for a town planning exhibition in Adelaide became the basis for municipal playgrounds in South Australia and Sydney City Council sought input from the Kindergarten Union (KU) in 1932 for playground supervision, especially in congested areas suffering from high levels of unemployment. As the KU Supervisor of Playgrounds, Edgar initiated an experimental that, for the first time, incorporated physical education and full-time supervision seven days a week. It served as the pattern for playground development throughout Australia. In 1937 he founded the Sydney College of Physical Education that provided a three-year course for teachers, and he also pioneered physical education programs for women students.7
Herbert was appointed Director of Studies at the newly established YMCA College of Leadership Training, but he was diagnosed with leukaemia soon after and died on 8 May 1947.
Edgar’s younger brother, Rowland Bladen Charles Herbert (1901-1981), came to live with the Herbert family in January 1926. Rowland, a licensed plumber who had also studied building construction design, had been engaged by Walter Burley Griffin to manage his knitlock tile manufacturing plant at Castlecrag. At Griffin’s request, he had completed a correspondence course in concrete construction through the University of Illinois prior to taking up the position. Rowland made improvements in the design of Griffin’s tiles and also made a valuable photographic record of the development of Castlecrag and Griffin houses elsewhere between 1926 and the mid-1930s. With the demise of GSDA activity in Castlecrag, Rowland established a new venture, Playmaker, which manufactured playground equipment designed by Edgar Herbert.8 He provided much of his photo collection to the GSDA and these widely circulated images, now held by the National Library of Australia, have now been formally attributed to Roland Herbert.
Irven Runa Herbert married Douglas Arthur Trathen (1916-1998), an air force chaplain, during World War II. Trathen was ordained as a Methodist minister after the war and was appointed as headmaster of Wolaroi College at Orange in 1950. He was promoted as headmaster of Newington College at Stanmore, Sydney, in 1963 where he became embroiled in a conflict with prominent old boys of that school over his moral objection to conscription for the Vietnam War. He was subsequently appointed as head of Religious Studies at the Australian Schools Commission and the family moved to Canberra.
Doug Trathen was a lifelong mentor and friend of the writer and I regularly visited the family in Canberra during the 1980s. I spent many evenings with them listening to Irven reminiscing about her experience growing up in Castlecrag and her close personal relationship with Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin. After the family moved to eastern foreshore of the Castlecrag peninsula Irven was studying at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, which required her to walk up to the village shops to catch a bus to the Milsons Point ferry. She was followed one day by a man, so she went into the GSDA drawing office to seek support. Marion Griffin took over matters and insisted that Irven stay with he and Walter on the nights she was going to a returning from the city. Her recollections of the Griffins, their house and the community of the late 1920s and early 1930s have helped to shape this biography of the Herbert family.
–Robert F McKillop
1Leslie, Esther, The Suburb of Castlecrag: a community history, Chatswood, Willoughby Municipal Council, 1988, pp 111-112; Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 10 May 1948, p 2, Edgar Herbert obituary.
2Spathopoulis, Wanda, The Crag: Castlecrag 1924-1938, Blackheath, Brandt & Schelinger, 2007, pp 120-124.
3Spathopoulis, Wanda, as above, p 49.
4Spathopoulis, Wanda, as above, pp 48-51.
5Spathopoulis, Wanda, as above, p 74.
6Spathopoulis, Wanda, as above, pp 115-119.
7Leslie, Esther, as above, p 113; Spathopoulis, Wanda, as above, pp 288-290; Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 10 May 1948, as above.
8Spathopoulis, Wanda, as above, pp 89-92, 101, 344.