<< Back to Lion December 2020 homepage

Best friends

Pets have long been a feature of life in the Wesley community: the dog cemetery during the long headship of LA Adamson

A pandemic sweeps the world, countries lock down, Melburnians are more or less housebound – and pet adoption spikes. We all know the benefits of pet ownership, but it seems Wesley’s longest serving Headmaster, LA Adamson, understood it better than most. Dogs were ever present during his tenure: a long-buried piece of Wesley folklore has it that his love of his dogs was so great he even created a cemetery for them. Wesley archivist Kenneth Park did some digging to determine if the legend is true.

LA Adamson wasn’t alone in his understanding that a pet is a man’s – and woman’s – best friend: his contemporary, Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, once explained that his dog Jofi, a Chow Chow, was not just a pet but a friend.

Recovering from a series of operations, Freud said of Jofi, ‘I wish you could have seen with me what sympathy Jofi shows me during these hellish days, as if she understood everything.’

It’s fair to say both Adamson and Freud would have been unsurprised to discover, some 90 years later, that pet ownership would provide so many physical and mental health benefits during this pandemic.

Dogs were a feature at Wesley College throughout Adamson’s long headship from 1902 to 1932, adding an important dimension to life at school. He was so enamoured with his dogs that on their passing they would be interred in a dog cemetery under a Moreton Bay fig tree in what was Headmaster’s Garden – roughly half way down the laneway alongside the Holt Wing and Science block at the St Kilda Road Campus – where each dear departed dog had a headstone crafted by the School Sergeant.

When it came time to write a book on Adamson and his achievements as an educationalist, the task went to Dr Felix Meyer (OW1876). The book, with its all-conquering title, Adamson of Wesley, as expected was full of laudatory praise of ‘The Chief,’ but it also offered fascinating insights on Adamson and his passions. A chapter was devoted to ‘Adamson and his dogs.’ It meant a great deal at the time of publication because in 1932 the Wesley students of the Adamson era had grown up with the dogs. These pages reproduced here tell their story. The unapologetically sentimental words are an affectionate remembrance of pets loved most dearly.

‘When Adamson returned to Wesley in 1902 he brought with him the first in a long line of dog friends whose names are familiar to successive generations of Collegians.

‘Paddy, an Irish terrier, was the first of these, and of him many tales are told. When Adamson lived at the University High School, in Grattan Street, Paddy, if he lost touch with his master, would return on the right tram to his destination. He was known to all the tram conductors on the lines that he used, and so ingratiated himself with them that he always had his way. Later, when he moved to Wesley, he would accompany his master into town. About that time, in the Christmas holidays, Adamson was much at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for all the big matches.

A medal with the name Paddy on it

Honour deserved: the silver dog tag – perhaps more properly medal – worn by Paddy, the first in a long line of dog friends of Headmaster, LA Adamson

On one occasion, when his master went to get shaved, Paddy became bored, and thought he would go first to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where his master would be sure to pick him up. ‘He used the tram for this purpose, and his master, missing him, thought that he might have gone home; but when he arrived at the MCG, about lunchtime, he found Paddy, not begging, for that would have been ungentlemanly, but watching the people in the members’ enclosure eat their lunch, with an assumed wistful expression which always had its reward.

‘To please a relative in England, he instituted birthday dinners for Paddy, at which the host presided in a chair next to his master’s. He would go solemnly through the dinner, oysters being the only things he disdained if  these happened to be on the card.

The invitations were issued in Mr Paddy Adamson’s name, and there was a notification that, “Gentlemen will wear collars.” The end of the dinner always had the same quotation from the Book of Tobit, ch. ii, v. 4: “They went their way, and the dog went with them.” This is perhaps the only reference to dogs in the Bible which is not extremely derogatory.

‘Paddy died in 1907, partly of old age and partly of a fretting heart when his master was in England. He lived that winter with a retired matron of the College, who was much attached to him, and on Adamson’s return he found that the old lady had, among other things, placed a cross upon his grave. It was explained to the old lady that this could scarcely be allowed. She retorted, “Well, he was as good as most Christians, anyhow.”

‘The next to earn a headstone in the dogs’ cemetery at Wesley was Tommy, a bull-terrier of large size, who was most amiable to all human beings, but not to other dogs. On his headstone is the inscription: “Kind and courteous to all, he was an example to younger dogs,” and a verse from “Garm – a hostage,” by Rudyard Kipling, ending, “You will discover how much you care, and will give your heart to a dog to tear.”

‘The next in order was Nancy, a bull-terrier, whose headstone tells that, “she was the gentlest and most virtuous of her breed and sex, and, alas! left none to inherit the many virtues of a perfect little lady dog.” Her verse is, “Kind, kind and gentle is she. Kind was my Nancy.” There was an occasion when for days this loveable old white terrier had been missing. The Head was genuinely upset. Advertisements and rewards were in vain, nothing brought Nancy back, until one morning in Assembly when prayers were being read, Nancy was heard coming pit-pat pit-pat towards the platform and up the steps. Prayers ended abruptly, and as Nancy, somewhat bedraggled, settled into her usual place, the Head rebuked her very audibly, “Oh, Nancy, you naughty dog; where have you been?”

‘Meanwhile, two more graves were added, that of Bonza, a Pointer whom Mr Adamson gave to Charles Donald, the coach of the (First VIII) crew. About him the tradition arose that he was trained by barking in different ways to give signals to the crews where Donald’s bicycle could not follow the race, and he knew almost as much about pace and when to give the extra dozen as his master did.

‘There came a time when he was so aged that he could not follow the race on land, but used to lie down by the University boat sheds and await the return of his crew. Here, on one occasion, his colours were placed on him, and a small boy from another school, in the guise of paying him homage, removed the purple and gold streamers and replaced them by the colours of his own school. Another young Pointer, called Bonzette, was being trained by him to be his successor, when, at the early age of 18 months, she was run over by a car.

‘The last of Adamson’s dogs to have a headstone was Barney, an Airedale, the constant playmate and protector of all Preparatory School boys. His guardianship was so thorough that he would not allow adults to cross their path or come near them, unless he knew them very well. The dogs’ cemetery is not far from what is known as the orchard lawn. So, the inscription on Barney’s grave is taken from Kipling’s Thy Servant a Dog: “I wented… to all those old places. He were not there. So I came back and waited in the Orchard. But he did not come. Please, I am a very little small mis’able dog! I do not understand.”‘

Such words offer not only a view into schooldays days past, but also a reminder of our present. When Canadian researcher Lisa Carver asked an open-ended question of participants in her study of people and pets in lockdown, one reported, ‘I don’t know what I would do without the company of my dog, she has kept me going,’ another, ‘(My pet) is the only thing that is keeping me sane.’

Kenneth Park is Curator of Collections and Philanthropy Associate.

>> Find out more on Wesley's archives
Best friends... get some glam

We’ve experienced unprecedented and uncertain times, various new normals, social distance, lockdowns and even – in an abundance of caution – politicians elbow bumping – but one of the most exciting pivots we’ve seen at Wesley has been in House activities.

How do you continue with House competitions when government public health measures require teaching and learning from home? With sheer ingenuity – and a little help from some pets.

The combined inventiveness of students, staff, parents and pets saw Houses across the campuses compete in new events like House Cooking, House Trick Shots, House Pet Dress-ups and more.

We think LA Adamson would have been proud.

<< Back to Lion December 2020 homepage
<< Previous story | Next story >>