Newspaper stories then and since reported that no one had any idea how Prince Charles came to study for two terms at Australia’s Timbertop. In fact, he would never have ended up there but for the tragic end to a relationship between two young men studying at Oxford.
(Timbertop is a remote rural campus of Geelong Grammar.)
Michael Dudley de Burgh Persse
Michael Dudley de Burgh Persse knew in 1955 what he was going to do with his life. He would become an Anglican priest. Born into the Toowoomba branch of a wealthy Irish-Australian agricultural dynasty, he attended The King’s School Parramatta before reading history and then theology at Oxford.
Michael enjoyed two great friendships during his time at Oxford. One with James Fairfax, the gay heir to Australia’s wealthiest newspaper fortune, lauded at birth as ‘Australia’s Richest Baby’. And also with Sir Andrew Hills, a 21-year-old elevated to the peerage as a baronet at the age of 5. Decades later, an article in the Sydney Morning Herald recalled that friendship.
“His closest friendship at Oxford was with Sir Andrew Hills, a scruffy, yet elegant, Roman Catholic baronet with a brilliant, but occasionally troubled mind. For seven months they were close, reading together, travelling abroad and staying up into the small hours debating the divide between Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism.
“But their friendship came to an abrupt end when, after a hard night’s drinking, Andrew Hills fell under a bus near the Martyrs’ Memorial and was killed, aged just 21. He was said to have been on his way to confession.
“Stricken with grief, Persse drew comfort from In Memoriam, Tennyson’s poem about his lost friend Arthur Hallam. He abandoned his plan to seek ordination, turning down an invitation to join the teaching staff at Eton before returning home in 1955 to Australia to teach English and History at Geelong Grammar.”
Always at heart
In his later years, Michael Persse spoke of Andrew Hills remaining “always at heart, sometimes in mind.” In 2012, he published Scholar Gypsy: an Oxford Friendship: a Memoir of Sir Andrew Hills. The writer, who would end up spending 63 years at Geelong Grammar, felt it necessary to emphatically deny any homosexual element to his relationship with Andrew Hills.
And so, putting aside his priestly ambition, Michael Persse returned home in 1955 and took a job as a master at one of Australia’s most elite private schools.
Author Peter G Emery first met Michael Persse as a 10-year-old on a 3-day flight from Singapore to London in 1952. When Peter’s aunt and uncle failed to pick him up at London Airport, Michael suggested spending the night at Windsor Castle.
The husband of Michael’s cousin, the Countess of Gowrie, was a former Governor-General of Australia and, in 1952, Governor of Windsor Castle. (Probably a good place to note that we should all study hard, work hard, and apply our talents honestly and diligently. But, in the grand scheme of things, who you know often trumps what you know.)
Peter G Emery ran into Michael Persse at a party in Mayfair as a young adult about a decade later.
“Michael confided to me that he was off to Sandringham to meet the Queen to discuss Prince Charles’ imminent term at Geelong.”
So there’s the Butterfly Effect at work.
If Andrew Hills didn’t run in front of a bus on his way to confession prompting a distraught Michael Persse to move home, Charles may have spent those two terms in Canada, South Africa or another of his mother’s realms.
Michael Persse had cousins other than the Gowries, including Errol Blair de Norman-Ville Joyce (Barney).
Barney inherited Queensland’s Eidsvold Station as a young man and Prince Charles visited the cattle property during his time at Timbertop for a taste of the outback.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography described the owner of Eidsvold Station as ‘no shrinking violet’ and ‘colourful in both dress and manner’.
Almost 30 years before the prince’s visit to Eidsvold, the Brisbane Truth described a younger Barney as a ‘devotee of fashion’.
“The first man to don a Homburg [hat] and a green suit on his return from abroad, and recently seen with buckled shoes (we thought he might be trying to revive the days of the Dandies, especially as he wore pale blue socks!)”
A few years later, the Sydney Morning Herald noted that everyone was ‘agog’ at the latest male fashion note — “Barney Joyce’s black suede evening shoes.”
Not quite what anyone expects! Cow cockey cum fashion icon.
But Barney’s family enjoyed wealth and connections. Lady Fairfax hosted the reception following his wedding to Joan Dowling at the historic Sydney Harbour-side mansion Elaine in December 1938. Later, the pair holidayed at Government House in Canberra as guests of Lady Gowrie.
Barney and Joan lived on a station outside Eidsvold but thought nothing of popping down to Sydney for a weekend of high-society partying. A noted art collector, Barney also enjoyed the company of artists. On a visit to London, he and his wife caught up with their friend, the gay Australian artist Paul Jones. Paul painted flowers, specifically camellias. Apparently, fifties art lovers paid handsomely for paintings of the popular blooms.
James Fairfax was related to both Michael Persse and Barney Joyce by marriage. He sailed home to Australia with Michael Persse following the death of Andrew Hills.
Despite his prominence in Australian society, James Fairfax never hid his sexuality. Journalist Mike Carleton recalled that, as chairman of John Fairfax & Sons, when the Liberals threatened to out James Fairfax to prevent a story they didn’t like, he told the editors to publish anyway.
Michael Persse never commented on his own sexuality. But he made a very careful reference to James Fairfax in an obituary for his old friend published in Geelong Grammar magazine Light Blue, in 2017.
“He had a strong sense of what was decent and right – one that helped keep an essentially gay and loving man safe in days when danger of persecution, blackmail and other injustice prevailed.”
Michael Persse died in 2018, described in The Age as “Historian, educator, author, genealogist, curator, devout Anglican and classic gentleman… Universally loved and eternally remembered.”
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