Julian Miller was born on the exact day his father, the Reverend John Miller was advised the Council of Governors had approved his application as the 10th Headmaster of St Peter’s College. An English cleric leading the School was a return to tradition in contrast to Miller’s predecessor, Headmaster Gordon, who was a layman, recognised for his informal and consultative style.
The Miller years from 1961-1978 are often remembered as a difficult period, due perhaps in part, to teachers mourning the untimely death of Gordon who left big shoes to fill. Also, Miller was an English clergyman appointed to lead an Australian school at a time when Australia – even the middle and upper-class – was experiencing a ‘youthquake’ of post-war socialising, political activism and challenges to traditional values.
Miller arrived by ship from England to Australia in 1961 with children in tow (including Julian and his older brother Nicholas,) and his wife Margaret. In all, the family lived on the grounds in the Headmaster’s House (now Oval House) for seventeen years. Margaret liked the fact that the residence was ‘surrounded by enough grounds of its own to make it an ideal family home’ in which to raise her children.
The relationship between a headmaster and a school’s governing body – like that between any CEO and board – can be potentially difficult. John Miller stayed the course, despite it being well known the Council encouraged his resignation.
Julian, now in his fifties, was kind enough to meet with us recently to reminisce with an insider’s view on what day to day life what like at Saints during the 60s and 70s.
SPCA: You were just a baby when your father was commissioned as Headmaster of St Peter’s College, meaning that growing up here for nearly two decades of your life, Saints was your entire world. What was that like?
Julian: I really valued being here. Looking around the campus now, I don’t remember it being quite so pristine back in my day, but nevertheless it was still a great place to live. Many staff lived on site, so there was a community of children living here, and we used to get together quite a bit. Essentially, they were my next-door neighbours.
It was only sixteen years after the War and it was a very different time. Life was much simpler, in many ways less prosperous, and society was far more straightforward.
SPCA: How did growing up as the son of a headmaster affect your reputation at school? Do you feel it had an impact on your education?
Julian: It was a little bit strained inviting friends home when your father’s the Headmaster, although I wouldn’t say it altered things in a big way. I don’t think I really processed it too much. You don’t when you’re a child. You just accept what you know to be your normal life. People probably thought I was a bit strange – I’m sure they did, but I don’t think it gave me any more or less social collateral than I would have otherwise had. Basically I found myself here, and I did the best I could to fit in, like everyone does.
SPCA: What sort of a student were you?
Julian: I really enjoyed English, Music, and History. I remember particular standout teachers being Mr Schubert for German, Andrew McKenzie for French, John Roe for English, and Fred Danielsen for Maths. I’m not a natural mathematician, but Mr Danielsen made it interesting to me. David Merchant who taught me Music was another one. He was amazingly talented and could carry on an entire conversation with you while playing the piano.
As far as sport goes, I enjoyed playing soccer and I used to get up early and go down for a run along the Torrens most mornings. I learnt to drive a car here on campus when I was about fifteen. I drove all over the place – it was almost like driving around the Botanic Gardens. There were obviously no seatbelts required in those days.
SPCA: Ongoing conflicts between your father and the School Council during his tenure are no secret and are well documented. Were you aware of what was going on?
Julian: I was aware he was under stress, although I was unaware of specific details. My father was a caring and sensitive family man and had quite a reserved personality. This, combined with applied wisdom obviously led him to observe the limits of propriety, and we were not privy to particulars. However, I do remember perceiving the impact it was having on him.
As a teenager, I recall seeing him on the front page of The Advertiser and I didn’t know what to make of it. I hadn’t realised until then just how big the issues must have been. He was a remarkable man who took things in his stride, but there would have been certain days and weeks like this where the pressure must have been intense.
SPCA: Some have described your father as having been a traditionalist. Do you agree with that assessment?
Julian: He was a proper ‘English gentleman.’ To some extent, some of the struggles may have boiled down to a clash of old versus new. Whilst I can’t comment on the rights and wrongs of the time, I do admire the fact that he stood for what he believed in. No doubt, he was perceived as rather unbending but he had reasons he thought were the right and moral thing to do. It’s easy to look back with hindsight and say, “oh, he should have done ‘x’ or ‘y.’” But when you’re living through such a time of change and social upheaval, you’re navigating as you go and trying to make sense of it all yourself.
SPCA: Your father was colloquially known as ‘Penguin’ due to his black trousers, black shirt, white jacket, and clerical collar. Were you aware of his nickname, and did the other boys use it in front of you?
Julian: Yes they did. It was funny because I think they probably worried that I might tell my father. But to me, it was all just a bit of fun.
SPCA: Tell us about your first five years after leaving Saints.
Julian: My mother, though a native New Zealander, had undertaken her university studies in the U.K. and longed to get back there. When I matriculated in ’77 and my father resigned in ’78, we all decided to move to the U.K. as a family. It proved to be a major upheaval for me. Whilst the cultures are similar in many ways, there are scores of small differences that really affected me as a young man and caused me to struggle. In particular, the darkness and the cold had a depressive effect. It wasn’t until 1983 that things improved.
I had been studying Theology at university and my reasons for selecting that degree were that it combined history and literature – things I loved. Towards the end of my study, I was attending Selwyn College Chapel at the University of Cambridge and they held a silent retreat that I went on. For a whole weekend, we observed complete silence and I fell to reading the Bible and a book I found called Living More Simply by Ronald J. Sider. The silence gave me an opportunity to reflect on who Jesus was, which I had never come to grips with before.
I had been raised in an Anglican environment my whole life, attended church religiously, sung in the church choir for years, and was happy with the whole ethos, but there hadn’t been a transformational inner change. That weekend presented me with some revolutionary truths that couldn’t be ignored and so, at age 23 I became a genuine Christian.
SPCA: We’ve covered the first five years after Saints. What happened from there?
Julian: At the end of my degree I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. Someone suggested the Church of England and I considered it, but ultimately decided it wasn’t for me. I believe if you are called to ministry it should be very clear, and that wasn’t so in my case.
I started doing some work at an aged care facility in Cambridge and then got married in 1984, before relocating to York. Building upon my experience in aged care, I started training to become a nurse. After graduating, I worked in York District Hospital for around five years until a government initiated restructure of the public health system led me to seek an alternative career.
Both my wife Julia and I had previously been interested in teaching English as a second language and had completed the relevant training in 1984. However, we didn’t actually use it until 1993 when I attended a Christian conference and saw an advertisement for English teachers wanted, leading us to move to Portugal. I saw it as an opportunity for a meaningful transition from a nursing to a teaching career. Portugal is a truly amazing place and we loved our time there.
Unfortunately, we weren’t 100% happy with the education our children were receiving which led us to consider schooling in England, the U.S. and Australia. Ultimately, the ideal choice seemed to be to relocate to Adelaide. Upon returning, I taught here at Saints for a short time and then in various other schools over the years including Eynesbury Senior College and the South Australian College of English.
SPCA: You’ve lived in quite a number of different locations. Do you have a favourite?
Julian: I would perfectly happily live in England, Portugal, China, Melbourne…But Adelaide is probably my favourite place to live. It’s beautiful.
In 2008, I transitioned into government migrant and refugee programs rather than schools, and my teaching career continued until 2017 when I was approached by MTC Australia to do some lecturing and auditing work for them. MTC delivers nationally accredited courses and youth programs, providing pathways for people of all backgrounds to gain skills for employment. The reason I work in a migrant education program is that I believe in what it’s predicated on. Fairness.
My whole life is coloured by my faith, and I know everyone won’t agree with me, but think about this – our legal system and the foundations of social justice are built on concepts like honouring women, loving your neighbour, and respecting others. You need to understand these things come from the Bible. Accordingly, I believe God offers hope to our world today. I would encourage anyone reading to give God a chance.
It seems the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, as Julian’s faith is evident throughout most of our conversation. Both his father and his grandfather were clergymen and like Julian, his father also studied history and theology at Cambridge.
Faced with divergent opinions of Saints’ Miller years, it is wise to recall that we all ‘have many reputations, but only one character.’ Fortified by his faith and supported by his wife, Miller did what he thought was right at the time. At Speech Day in 1977, Alex Ramsay (Chair of the Executive and Finance Committee) described Miller’s achievements and praised him for his strong Christian leadership at a time when traditional values were besieged. He noted that the School’s enrolments had been maintained and academic results had been good, while Miller had taken a stand for public examinations and discipline, when educational fashion went against both.
Miller perhaps can be best remembered for sticking when the going was tough. After all, popularity is not the test, in the end, of a good headmaster.
(Excerpts reprinted from, The Messages of its Walls and Fields – A History of St Peter’s College, 1847 – 2009.)
Pictured above, John and Margaret Miller in their home, the Headmaster's House, 1978, standing in front of his portrait by artist Ivor Hele.