Gordon Thomson


William Thompson Masonic School

Interview 5

Interviewee: Gordon Thomson, born 1917

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for Baulkham Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 25 Jan 2007

Transcription: Kevin Murray, April 2007

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee(s)

Gordon’s father was gassed in France during WWI and later died in 1923 as a result of his injuries. His mother found it difficult to keep him financially so she eventually decided to send him to the Masonic School in 1925 and he attended there until 1933. Gordon later worked at the school from 1947-1977 becoming Deputy Superintendent.

Now who were the people in charge of the school when you joined it?

Rubert Cropley. He was the Honorary Superintendant of the school for 27 years, and his wife accompanied him.

So, Gordon, what was Mr Cropley like? What do you remember about him?

Well, he became known as Pop Cropley in the general run of the school. He was a very fair man. He looked after us for, as I say, 27 years.

You were there at the school until 1935, is that right?

No. The latter end of '32.

Sketch of Masonic School pre 1922

Now, can you describe what the school looked like when you first came? What was built by that stage?


The main Administrative Block was the centre of it. There was an Assembly Hall at the back of the Assembly (Administration) Block, which could seat over 300. And being quite a large stage in the front - proscenium - when the screen was drawn there was a picture screen there for both types of pictures. At the side of the stage there were two doors leading out onto a verandah on which there were two separate doors leading into two Dining Rooms, each housing 125, I think it was. A kitchen beyond that, store rooms, staff dining rooms and facilities. There was a school near the front gate, a gymnasium on the back drive. I might add there that there was 360-odd trees planted to represent the Masons who had died in World War One. There were tennis courts, a swimming pool. They had their own hospital with two wards, with a sister in charge. At the front of the hospital was a surgery which also held a Dentist's chair. The work was supplied by a chap named Wansbrough from Castle Hill. They had their own laundry, their own Dairy. They had a vegetable garden which supplied all their needs. I think that about covers the lot. They had a Dairy which supplied the milk to the school.

And what did the grounds of the school look like, Gordon?

That was designed by the Royal Gardens in Sydney...

The Botanical Gardens?

The Botanical Gardens. The object there was to plant it and to take the seeds from the plantings to use for themselves over the years.

And did you work in those gardens?

No. Only the staff worked in the gardens, also in the Dairy.

Did they ever have dances in that Assembly Hall?

Yes, they had a dance once or twice a year. I'm not sure how many times, but that was the only time there was integration with the girls.

Did you make many friends at the school, Gordon?

Well, yes and no. More acquantances that you lived with for a certain time. There were a few... there was Geoff Page, was one. Fred Widderson was another... not Widderson... what was his name? (Actually Frank Whiddon)

Are you still friendly with these people?

No, we don't mix much, except once a year there's what is known as the Cropley reunion, which is held every November - the nearest day to Saturday the 11th and the time of 11 o'clock.

Remembrance Day?


Senior Boys House c1950, was renamed Cropley
House after Rupert's death

Now, did you ever live at Cropley House as a Senior Student?

Yes, I lived there for three years. We went to school at either Parramatta High School or Granville Tech school. Travelled by train to Parramatta and Granville.

Which school did you attend, Gordon?


That was a Tech?


What did you learn there? What sort of crafts?

Well, there was all the usual ones, plus the Sciences, Woodwork, Metalwork. That was about it.

So, you were at the school for almost eight years, you said. When you left the school, how old were you... about 15 years old?

Yes. 15, nearly 16.

What did you do about getting a job, or whatever?

Well, the school put you into a job through what was known as the Welfare Fund of the Grand Lodge of New South Wales and always looked after you through various Tech Colleges or, in some cases, University.

So, what was your job? What did you start off doing?

I started off as a Heel Builder in a big factory. The main factory was in Chalmers Street. Our factory was in Cleveland Street and was known as the cut sole department.

Was that hard work?

Not really. It was more or less repetitive work all the time.

How long did you have that job, Gordon?

Just on two years. I got to work one morning and the foreman said to me "You're wanted down the main factory", which was something that happened quite often. You just bundied off and went down the main factory and you reported in and did the job that you were there for for the day. This particular day I reported in and the girl said to me "you're wanted by the manager of the factory. Go along and knock on the door". I went along and knocked on the door. "Come in and sit down". This is a bit strange, sitting down with the manager. He said "I've been informed by the Union that your papers were not in order when you were indentured and I have to put you off". "What for?" He said "That's Union business, nothing to do with me. I'm sorry". And I was sacked. I didn't have much time for unions after that. Veteran's Affairs Repatriation Department got me another job with the Diamond Battery Company down at Miller's Point, where I worked for about 18 months until they were taken over by the Eveready Battery Company who were going to employ us but didn't. I went to another job then with the Snowball Brothers. They were dress people. "Robes and Mantles" as they seemed to call themselves. I worked for them for a while, and then I was out of work again because they closed down and I went to work in the bush for a feller named Gordon Gordon where I stopped working until the War broke out and I joined the Army.

WWII memorial late 1940s

Going back to Libya, and the battles of Bardia and Tobruk. Did you take part in those battles?


What was your position in the Army?

I was a Driver with the 16th Australian Brigade Headquarters, and you just did the jobs that you knew had to be done.

Do you have vivid memories of that war and the battles you fought?

No memories of war are good. They couldn't be but there were times when you met various people you got on with and you just did what had to be done.

How long were you in the war? Was it all the way to the end of the War?

No. The third of November '39 until the second of May '44... Four and a half years.

So you were discharged from the Army by then?

I was discharged from the Army on the third of May 1944.

Did you go back to Australia then?

Yes. I was brought back to Australia and discharged in Sydney.

Now were you looking for a job when you came back? What did you find?

I went back to the same job that I had before the war in the bush at Blayney.

What were you doing in the bush?

I was a jackaroo.

Tell me, what sort of jobs did you get after that? What happened 'til you came back to the school?

Well, I got up to the job of Manager in the estate at Bilpin, called Mantooby(?) Estate where I worked for a couple of years until I had a fall out with the owner. Then I went back to live in Richmond. In the process of that I went to the school one day to see what it was like and I was offered a job on the staff of maintenance of the school. When Pop Cropley died in September of '49, I was asked to take over the job of running the accounts and general day-to-day work at the school.

Rubert Cropley memorial window was
erected in the Assembly Hall in 1951

What was it like being back at the school after all those years?

Well it was run on much the same lines as when I was a child there, so it wasn't hard to fit in with what had to be done.

Did the school look physically different from what it had before the war?

It was a bit older, that's all.

The Army had it, of course, for the War years, from about 1942 'til 1946, they occupied the school...

That was in 1942, I think it was, the Army took over all the buildings that were there plus added a lot to it one way and another, which was a gift from the Masonic Grand Lodge to the Armed Forces free of charge.

Had they made many changes to the school?

Not a great deal. Instead of one or two cottages there were five cottages on either side, and at the other side of the property was a two-storey building called Cropley House which housed just on a hundred Senior Boys.

Who was actually in charge of the school when you came back to work there?

Rubert Cropley.

And who took over after he died, Gordon?

Bill Turner. He was Superintendant. Stan McMillan was Deputy. I was in Administrative and Accounts, and another chap later on... Frank Waddington was the Gym Supervisor.

And how did you become Deputy Superintendant of the school? Tell me about the events that led to that.

Well, Stan McMillan passed out on the job and things moved a little bit around the Administration at that time.

When you say he "passed out", he left the job, do you mean?

No. He died on the job, actually. Came to work one morning and just before breakfast was on. We had to call the doctor and he pronounced him dead on arrival.

So is that when you became the Deputy Superintendant?

More or less, yes.

Exactly what does that job entail, Gordon?

I kept all the accounts and the day to day running of the school. Making sure that the food was all brought to the school at the right time. There was the Baker, and the Butcher, and the milk came from the Dairy, the greens came from the garden, and whatever else had to be done.

Rear view of girls cottages late 1940s

Most of the people we've interviewed so far have told us that the school was quite a different school after the War - and the students were different. What's your experience of that?

Well, the post-war children of the World actually came more or less. They didn't believe in the same sorts of discipline that we put up with when we were kids. You had to work out and learn to live with that particular type of people coming through.

Now the school wasn't, most people say, as successful as a school after the War, than it had been before the War. What do you think that was due to?

Well, as an institution it was really good. Nothing really changed there. It's just the attitude of younger people coming through in the World today.

Was it a question where the teachers couldn't manage those new children?

I think it was a case of the teachers couldn't, also the children couldn't put up with the same type of treatment as was going on before.

So do you think the school needed a different approach to those new students?

Well, it needed something, yes. The institution as a place where children were brought up didn't change at all. It was the attitude of the World today.

Do you think the school might have been a bit slow in adapting to the new conditions after the War?

Yes, I think that the school... let me put it this way... we were governed by what was known as the School's Council. I think their problem was that they didn't understand the situation well enough. They were too old and not up with things of the day.

So they were trying to enforce attitudes that they had in the 1920's on a 1950's situation?

That's right.

How do you think they went trying to enforce those attitudes?

Not very well.

What changes do you think they needed to make in order to be successful?

They needed a new School Council, for a start. They needed to get some brighter, younger people in that understood the situation of the World today.

Some people have also told us that Bill Turner, who became the new Principal at the school, because he'd been a student at the school, he couldn't change either. What's your opinion on that?

Well, the position was this. Bill Turner was a paid Superintendant. Bert Cropley was Honorary all the way through his life. The difference was that Bill Turner did what he was told by the School Council and that's the way things ran.

How successful do you think Bill Turner was in managing the school?

Oh, pretty well.

Margaret Brown (centre), William Turner and
Mrs Tops Turner 1960s 

Now, also of course, after the War people got to be a bit better off than they had been in the Depression days, and perhaps didn't send their kids to the school. Was there a decline in numbers of children?

Yes, for a while there was quite a decline. There was also a decline in the number of Masons joining the Grand Lodge situation.

So was the enthusiasm for the school waning a bit, do you think?

Yes, a little.

'cause the school had been established with great enthusiasm by William Thompson and the other Masons. There was a great spirit of enthusiasm there. What was it like in the Sixties?

It was much the same, by and large, but the whole situation of children accepting what happened in the 20's was the big difference.

So how long were you actually at the school when you worked there. You were there from 1947 or so 'til when?

Ah, 'til I retired in 1977.

Really? That's 30 years.


Tell me some of the highlights of those 30 years. What were they for you?

Oh, it was quite an interesting job. I first went to work there in Maintenance, and then when Bert Cropley died they asked me to take over the office, which I did. I was the Paymaster and looked after all the accounts and did the general day to day duties of the...

Did the school go through any "crisis" periods while you were there?

No, not really.

What happened until the school became unprofitable towards the end? Tell me the events that led to the school's demise.

Well, there was a fall in the numbers of children being enrolled. It got down to the point where it was just not feasable to run it any more and they took on family group homes for a start, which were not successful. There was one in the school grounds, next to the old Superintendant's residence. And the group homes were not successful and they went out of it altogether in 1976, I think, and the Baulkham Hills Council took over.

Building 25 was Mr  and Mrs Cropley's first residence

How did you feel about the school having been sold to the Council?

Well, I wasn't too happy about it at the time, but you've got to realise that we weren't up to the financial situation of Grand Lodge or anyone else, for that matter. The group homes were a failure, they just didn't kick off, and finally the school was sold for about nine million dollars, I think it was.

Whose decision was it to sell the school?

Grand Lodge.

Do you think they could have perhaps re-invented the school, make it a paying school, a boarding school, perhaps?

I doubt it.

So it wasn't a commercial proposition any longer was it? It couldn't have been resurrected, do you think, in any form?

I doubt it. Although the school finished in '76. Today it is run by a different organisation and is called the Masonic Youth Welfare Fund - run by the Secretary Bruce Whittet, and ex-Navy Commander.

Looking back at your life, you've had more than 30 years at the school. You've spent eight years there the first time, and another 30 or so the second time, when you were working there, so that's 38 years of your life. That's quite a period of your life. How do you look back on that?

I rather enjoyed it. I knew the situation as from being a child there, the running of it generally, but there were a lot of other things that I had to learn and get used to doing.