David Robinson interview, 7 May 2014, 14 May 2014 and 21 May 2014

Dublin Core


David Robinson interview, 7 May 2014, 14 May 2014 and 21 May 2014


St. Columba College


David Robinson was born in Mildura, Victoria in 1926. After moving to Perth in 1970, he was Principal of St. Columba College from September 1970 until February 1985.


Robinson, David


University of Western Australia Historical Society


Copyright holder University of Western Australia


MP3 files


Oral History

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Julia Wallis


David Robinson


Claremont, W.A.


Interview 1: 1 hour, 3 minutes, 52 seconds
Interview 2: 1 hour, 34 seconds
Interview 3: 52 minutes, 14 seconds
Total: 2 hours, 56 minutes, 40 seconds

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbs

Time Summary

Interview 1: Wednesday 7 May 2014

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 David Andrew Robinson was born in Mildura, Victoria in 1926. In between going to school in Mildura, he had lived for 10 years in Yallourn, Gippsland. Dave’s father was a builder and his mother was a tailoress in Scotland. She migrated to Victoria in 1922. Dave’s father had fought in WW1. At aged 74 he enlisted to fight in WW2 and was injured. He died of blood poisoning as a result of injuries he received. Dave’s mother was a staunch Presbyterian and he attended church with her. Dave’s father was a Methodist but became disillusioned with the church. Dave left school at the end of Year 10 and worked. During the Second World War he joined the RAAF having been in the Air Cadets. When the war in Europe ended he transferred to the army and worked as a navigator on an army boat. He left the army in 1946 and was eligible for a government grant for education. He returned to Mildura High School and got his adult matriculation. He then attended Melbourne University and did an arts degree. By this time he had been accepted as a possible candidate for the Presbyterian Ministry and lived at Ormond College as a student for the Ministry. He finished the arts degree and left to work for a while. Later he returned to Melbourne University and did another degree. He married Lucie and in 1956 was appointed to Pinnaroo situated in Murrayville Parish (on the Mallee in Victoria). They stayed here for 4 years and then returned to Melbourne. In Melbourne, Dave became Secretary of the Victorian Council of Churches.
05:08 In 1962, he decided to look for something different and was appointed to the Parish of Elizabeth, north of Adelaide where they stayed for 8 years. Elizabeth was a hard place to live and was full of migrants from the UK attracted to the Holden factory. Dave and a couple of other ministers started the Elizabeth Counselling Centre dispensing advice including financial advice. As a result of the counselling services Dave applied for a scholarship and was accepted to Princeton University in New Jersey where he did a Masters’ degree in pastoral counselling. By this time, they had 4 children and so although he could have stayed on in the USA, the family wanted to return to Australia and in any case Dave was still officially attached to the Parish in Elizabeth. It was non directive counselling and involved going to lectures and working in a mental hospital and visiting a place that rehabilitated drug addicts and the like. When Dave returned to Elizabeth he ran courses for people in the Counselling Centre. Not long after his return the Government decided that they would pay for a full-time director who had to be a qualified social worker. This set him free to consider other possibilities. He saw an advertisement in the Adelaide Advertiser for a Principal for a college in Western Australia that was not yet built. He wrote and expressed his interest in the position.
09:36 To his surprise he was telephoned and asked to come to Perth with his wife flying first class. About 80 people had applied from all over Australia and overseas. Stanley Prescott, the Vice Chancellor at UWA at the time was on the Committee and Dave had had a run-in with him when he was Master of Ormond College. He was offered the position but couldn’t decide. He returned to Elizabeth and was dithering for a couple of months before deciding to accept. The children were not happy about this decision as they did not want to leave their friends. They drove over with their dog and four children. It was a big adventure. Sir Ronald Wilson was on the committee who Dave had had contact with before and he thinks that Ron tipped the balance. The Committee wanted to know his experience and educational background but did not ask much more than that. Dave was introduced to the Committee individually rather than collectively and does not remember a panel interview with a high powered selection committee.
14:47 The family arrived in September 1970. It seemed a long way from Adelaide. The house that should have been built for the Master was not ready but they were accommodated in a house in Tyrell Street, Nedlands. The older boy attended Hollywood High School and the younger ones Nedlands Primary School. Dave’s duties were to ‘manage’ the college. This included managing the completion of the project in time to admit their first residential students in February 1971. He had to supervise the building project and purchase bedding, furniture and furnishing and develop the grounds. Marion Blackwell was the landscape architect. They built a squash court in conjunction with St Catherine’s College but Dave was unwilling to replicate sporting facilities that were already on the UWA campus such as tennis courts. There was a question of cost overrun with the architects but Dave was fortunate that there were people on the committee who had expertise in this area, such as John Rawlinson who was a quantity surveyor. Other people on the Council were lawyers. There were 12 people on the Provisional Council who are now all deceased. Dave had to meet with them regularly before the opening of the college. After the college was opened, he met monthly with them. The Council determined policy but they would not interfere with the management. For example, they determined the percentage of overseas students to be accommodated.
23:47 In the sixties, when the college was planned, it had been thought that it would be male only. This decision was reversed very quickly. At that time, St Catherine’s was women only. This has recently changed. Kingswood, St Thomas Moore and St George’s were all men. Currie Hall (now University Hall) was mixed. These are all co-ed now but it was a new thing in the 1970s. The Principal of Kingswood was very against co-ed and felt that the students were more interested in co-habitation. Many students moved from Kingswood to St Columba in the early years. Kingswood was a Methodist college and did not tolerate alcohol. St Columba encouraged their residents to drink responsibly and not get drunk. Dave met the other college principals from UWA colleges. He also attended the national conference in Queensland in the first year he was Master to get ideas. In 1977, the Council paid for Dave and Lucie to go and look at colleges all around the world. He was awarded 3 months leave every 7 years but the job demands were 24/7 during term time.
27:47 The college was named Saint Columba after an Irish priest scholar who brought Christianity to Scotland. Dave had no part in the naming of the college but he did have input into the naming of the wings which were named after places that St Columba had been – Iona, Durrow and Derry. In the foyer was a piece of rock from Iona Abbey that had been acquired by one of their members and brought back from Scotland. The college was a joint foundation of the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches. Trinity Church in Perth was a major benefactor. The colleges were not funded by UWA – they merely made the land available as a gift. When St Columba built a library to house theological books for their theology students some people objected to it. Dave and Ron Wilson went to see the then Vice Chancellor and Ron Wilson said that if St Columba could not have their library then Sir Thomas Moore College should not have a parish church on their grounds. The objection miraculously disappeared! Founding of colleges separate from the universities is a tradition going back to Oxford and Cambridge. Nowadays the Federal Government is giving money to the university colleges to enable them to increase their accommodation. Trinity did not accept the offer but University Hall has almost doubled in size. UWA is quite concerned about student accommodation in the area. 3-4,000 students are resident in UWA university colleges. St Catherine’s college is rebuilding at the back to house extra students (including males). The university had a member of the Council of St Columba but that was the only connection. They had no power over the Council or over the Principal of the College. People from the university were invited to speak to the students and/or come for a meal. Many of the tutoring staff was involved at UWA.
34:07 If there was any shortfall in funding, it fell to the college to deal with it. At one stage that had to install fire alarms throughout the college. Luckily, St Columba was never short of money. By the end of the third year, Dave was investing their free money in funds at 17% interest in order to build up their reserves. When he left in 1985, the college would have had about $2 million in the bank. One of the members of the Council was Sir Cyril Bird from Bird & Son accountants. He told Dave he had to take into account future earnings and expenditure in his budgeting. Dave bought a computer so that he could do this work. They had a Bursar who kept the books and kept track on fee payments. The administration staff comprised 3 people – Dave, the Bursar and an office worker. There was also domestic staff, catering staff and a groundsman. Dave used to save money by doing DIY on electrical work and plumbing. He enjoyed the practical work. The students paid $25 a week for their accommodation and three meals in 1971. The college was used in vacation time which also provided them with extra revenue. College fees are now about $16,000 a year. The facilities in colleges now are akin to a 5 star hotel! Every room has its own telephone and refrigerator. In Dave’s time, they merely had tea rooms on each floor. Argyle Wing was opened in 1974, there were self-catering facilities included. Students did not have to pay as much if they cooked their own meals. However, there was no system in place to stop them using the dining room. It was an honour system. Another block was built at the back of the college for visitors. It contained four flats and was another revenue raising exercise.
41:06 Each wing had a place where people could put their own food. The students had an input into how the college was run via the college forum. They would make recommendations to the Council. There were also student reps on the Council. The Council set the policy but the everyday rules were left to the Principal. In those days it was quite easy to get into the college. Today the property is fenced off and you require a code to access the security door. The students had keys to their rooms but not to the front door. There were thefts in Dave’s day as well. Bicycles in particular were always being stolen. The college had a general insurance policy to cover fire, theft and storm damage. In the 1970s, people didn’t worry about having their doors locked.
44:46 There was an initiation incident at St George’s College where a student died from pneumonia from being pushed into the pool. Another time, the girls from St Catherine’s blew up the pool at St George’s College. Dave decided that these would be banned at St Columba College. St Columba had a welcoming night which was an information evening with a BBQ and the new students were matched up with a ‘buddy’ from among the resident students. He did not tolerate bullying or racism. Generally residents who had come from single sex private schools had the most difficulty in fitting into college life and were also more likely to form cliques. Some Australian students were unpleasant towards Asian students but this was by and large quite rare. The first college President, Mr Melville George, was African.
50:14 As well as the socialisation, the students had to learn the practicalities of living away from home. There was a laundry with a bank of washing machines they used 20 cent pieces. All the rooms had balconies. The bedrooms were quite large and contained built in wardrobes, a desk, a chair and book cases. The builders designed the bedrooms to be cell like and encourage study in contrast to the public areas like the dining room which were very open. Dave had no input into the design because two of the blocks were completed when he arrived. The dining room had a gallery upstairs like a medieval banqueting hall. They often had entertainment during the meal. This was apart from when they had dances.
54:14 It was decided quite early on by the students that gowns need not be worn to meals. The people on the Council used the Oxbridge model for how the college functioned. Dave considers St Columba to be better than this especially as they used round tables in the dining room and not long refectory tables. There was a formal meal 4 nights a week. This was gradually reduced to 3 times a week and later to once a week. A formal meal required that all the students attend at the one time, grace would be said and a group would be invited to have a sherry before the meal. There would usually be a speaker. One time an American psychologist addressed the students and said she thought the food was terrible. Dave realised afterwards that this was one of the medical students dressed up as a woman! It was good hearted fun. Dave did not have to eat with the students every night and he had a deputy who could stand in for him in any event.
58:26 There were very few expectations placed on Dave. Some of the staff expected him to intervene and chastise the students especially in cases where students were sleeping with each other. One time a farmer caused a fuss because his daughter’s bedroom was next to the tutor’s room which was joined by a balcony. There were letters in the newspaper about standards when it was realised that the college was going to be co-ed. The students were told to be careful of forming exclusive relationships when college should be a time to make many friends. Dave officiated at lots of college weddings which took place after they had left college apart from cases where the girl got pregnant. The college did not provide sex education but they did have speakers who talked about relationships.

Interview 2: Wednesday 14 May 2014
Track 1

00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 The Lodge was late being completed as the foundations had to be raised. The family did not move in until Christmas Day but there was no power and they had to run a power cord into the college. They remained in the lodge until the appointment of a Deputy in 1974. The Deputy Principal, Reverend Ken Melville, moved into the old lodge and Dave and his family moved into the new lodge that was built alongside. There was plenty of room. Students sometimes stayed there. It had 5 bedrooms as each of their four children (John, Annette, Margaret and Andrew) had their own rooms. There was a bathroom upstairs and a bathroom downstairs and a study so it was a substantial house. The dog, Sandy, came too and would beg for scraps from the college kitchen and attend lectures with Dave’s wife, Lucie, on campus at UWA! The Deputy Principal brought their dog across from Melbourne with his family. He was an Irish setter and one day came straight through Dave’s fly wire door.
03:25 The Deputy Principal was part-time and taught at Scotch College. He provided back up if Dave had to leave the premises. Running the college was a 24 hour day, 7 day a week job. A member of staff was rostered on at night in case something happened. Nowadays all of the colleges employ security officers to protect the students and the property. Sometimes things were stolen, such as arm chairs. Bicycles were always being stolen, sometimes en masse, necessitating the erection of a bike shed.
06:20 Initially the site consisted of an admin block leading the dining room and 3 wings, Iona, Durrow and Derry, which were L-shaped residential wings catering for 120-130 students and staff. In 1974, Argyle Wing was built as well as a tutorial room and library. Initially the site was fairly bare. It was close to Kings Park but not adjacent to it.
08:29 Tutors were employed to give the students extra tuition. There were senior tutors female and male plus others who were studying for PhDs. One was a registrar at St Charles Gairdner Hospital. This was quite an incentive and was based on the Oxbridge system. They also exercised a disciplinary role being resident. A tutor was on duty every night on a roster system in case of any other problems. They assisted to integrate students in the transition stage from school to university. The university drop-out rate for students in first year was about 30%. Anybody could apply to do medicine. It wasn’t as competitive to get into courses. Some students from Curtin were also accommodated – perhaps 6 over the time Dave was there. The college was there to meet students’ needs. They did not discriminate between ECU and UWA. Most of the tutors were connected to UWA. Some of the tutors were mature aged. There would be staff meetings every week of the tutors with Dave. Sometimes they shared tutors with Kingswood College and St Catherine’s. There was a Heads of College Association.
19:08 Parents would be more inclined to pay the fees if they thought the college employed good tutors. Parents also got some comfort from the fact that the students were “looked after” in college. The Principal would assist if the students had a car accident or a medical condition. Some of the residents were younger than 18 and they had to ensure that they weren’t drinking alcohol. Dave’s wife, Lucie, did not intrude into the working life of the college as she was teaching full-time but she did help out where necessary. For some time they had a Japanese girl staying with them while she waiting for a place in college but didn’t want to move out. They also took care of a boy who was sick rather than have him isolated in his room in college. Every week, batches of 6 students would come over for coffee with the family. Dave wanted to create a community atmosphere. This was obviously successful as students from other colleges wanted to jump ship and change over into St Columba. It had a reputation as being a friendly and egalitarian.
27:52 It was important that the students knuckle down and pass their exams when they got into college. They had to apply in writing and an interview. The whole of January was spent interviewing people. Dave wanted to know the needs basis – i.e. why they were applying to come into college. They decided to take a proportion of overseas students. They then wanted to refer their friends. It was often a case of first in, best dressed. Dave did all the interviewing himself. This is now a full-time job at colleges. Dave felt that it was important to know all the students. Very few people had to be asked to leave but there was one occasion when a girl was asked to leave college as she was causing problems amongst the other residents. If they failed their exams they were not normally allowed back into college. Dave often intervened to help the students rather like a father figure and tried to accommodate difficult situations.
37:10 Students could get a Commonwealth scholarship if they were doing some work. Some of the students found work in the college helping in the kitchen or the garden but they weren’t being paid the full wage as they were only working part-time. In some colleges it was compulsory to do a couple of hours work around the college. On returning to college, you got points for passing exams. You also got points for seniority. This enabled some second and third year students to get priority and request their own rooms. Some students helped the college community by working for the College Club. The students paid money into the club and the club arranged dances and sporting events. Some of them represented the students on the College Council. Some of them got together and went on vacation together. Many of them formed alliances and relationships.
44:14 The cleaners cleaned the rooms but did not make the beds. One cleaning person worked on each wing and they were supervised. They related very well to the students. The staff stayed a long time. One lady employed in the dining room was employed in 1971 and only left in 2013! There was only one gardener/handyman so Dave helped out and cut the grass on weekends. One supervisor was asked to leave the college. Luckily this took place while Dave was on holiday overseas as it caused some bad feeling in the college. She played favourites, bribed students and went around telling tales about students. The college was a family or a tight knit community but this meant that relationships were very intense and problems could be caused when things went wrong. One father thought his daughter was having too good a time and blamed the college for the fact that she was not studying very hard.
49:12 Some of the students were mature aged. One was aged 30 and had been a nurse. Another one lived there for 8 years while she completed her Masters. She was in a wheel chair. She was 40 years old and was a good role model. She danced in her wheel chair. They built a ramp up to one of the two roomed flats. Others were semi-handicapped. One had brittle bone condition. He can’t remember any who were vision impaired. At this stage a doctor was appointed to the university and he had an office at the university. He would make house calls very promptly. There was a Counselling Centre at the University and they could refer people here. Some students were referred here when they were concerned about exams. The college had a very good relationship with the university. People came to the college to give talks and vice versa. Dave gave a talk to some engineering students about homosexuality. One of the St Columba tutors was homosexual but never caused any problems at the college. Sexual matters were not the main topic at Dave’s Human Relations discussion groups but poor self-image would come up time and time again. A speaker came in to talk about sexuality so Dave did not have to deal with that. One girl brought a double bed into the room because she thought the college wouldn’t mind! Another wanted a water bed! Dave considered these to be try-ons. The only issues tackled at the College Council tended to be food, heating, facilities and computers rather than relationships.

Interview 3: Wednesday 21 May 2014

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 The college motto and the college crest. It was finally decided that the college crest would be a dove rising from the foot of a Celtic cross. This design was submitted by Mr Ray Montgomery. A motto was never eventually decided upon despite a competition.
02:00 In April 1972, Dave visited Melbourne in order to investigate new developments in student housing. There was a move to make Argyle Wing a little bit different and allow students to self-cater. However, there were no disabled facilities built into Argyle. In 1977, Dave took some long service leave. He was entitled to this every 7 years. He told the College Council that he would like to look at what was happening around the world with colleges. They approved a round the world air fare for himself and Lucie for them to do this. They were away for about 5 months and started off in New Zealand, then the USA and Europe. Dave thought that the colleges in Perth were much more advanced. Some of the colleges were very austere. In one college in Sydney the behaviour was very bad and students had food fights in the dining room and dumped Freshers 150 km from Sydney to find their own way back.
06:40 Students were encouraged to do activities particularly sport. There was an inter college sporting competition, the Nicholson Cup that St Columba joined in 1972 provided that the female students were allowed to participate. The girls did very well and beat the men in some sports, particularly athletics. They took part in PROSH but not as a college activity. There were discussion groups. There was a college forum. They organised dances. There was a Valedictory and a college club dinner. At the end of the year dinner Dave introduced a system of prizes for those who had taken some major role in college life. The students also had their own prize competition. In 1976, Dave was given a surprise birthday lunch and awarded with a suitcase in the form of an aeroplane for his 50th birthday. St. Columba won the cricket a few times. Dave played his last game of Aussie Rules football the day he had a heart attack. The students also played soccer, tennis, volleyball, squash, hockey, athletics and basketball. They didn’t take part in rowing. The mix of males and females in college didn’t cause any issues apart from when relationships broke down. A girl was attacked and raped in St Catherine’s College but there were no incidents of which Dave was aware at St Columba.
12:56 The Vietnam War caused a fair bit of angst. One male student protested against conscription by planning a bomb in the National Services office in the city. He was later arrested. Another male student streaked down the Hay Street Mall one evening. He was kicked out of his university course because he had done a number of silly things. The students took part in protests. The Vietnam War ended in 1975. Dave was a chaplain in the RAAF and did not take part in any protest marches.
16:49 The students did do some charity work but Dave cannot recall what they were. Church services were held in the college. People were married and baptised in the college chapel. There was no compulsion to attend church and you did not have to be Anglican to attend St. Columba. Michael and John Chaney came from a very strong Catholic family but they attended St Columba. They were also very few dietary issues although people sometimes objected to the dining habits of others.
23:00 St Columba has carried on a family tradition in many cases with parents sending their children there. People with a family connection probably have a greater priority in attending Trinity (as St Columba is now called). Some stayed for 6 years while doing a medical degree. Kingswood, St Columba and Catherine’s were on one side of the road and then Currie Hall (now known as University Hall), St Thomas Moore and St George’s were on the other side of the road. There was competition between the colleges but it did not get serious. Many of the students had friends in different colleges and some would come for events. Other times they would gate crash events such as the welcome bbq! One night a group of students from Kingswood streaked through St Columba dining room. Another time a mini car had been parked in the dining room.
27:58 Many of the students had motor cars. There was a car park built at the back of the college. Some from farming areas had cars from an early age. Many of the private school students also had cars – it was prestigious to have a car. 70% of the students had cars.
29:35 In July 1976, Dave had a surprise birthday lunch and the students made him a suitcase in the shape of an aeroplane. It was for his 50th birthday and he had just got his flying lunch.
30:16 In 1978, St Columba accepted responsibility for the running of International Students House in Nedlands as an annexe to the college. These students participated in tutorials and came for meals at the college and the people who had been running the college came in as tutors. St Columba also had a number of non-resident students who paid a fee to attend meals and tutorials. Sometimes there would be up to 20 students who were non-residents. People could come across to college and buy a meal.
33:26 As well as running the college and working in the office, Dave had to be available for pastoral care. Students would call into the office in the mornings before lectures or in the late afternoon after lectures. It was all pretty informal and they did not have to make an appointment. Sometimes it would be advice. Other times it was physical sickness or accidents. Dave had a heart attack on 9 June 1980 (according to Dove Rising at page 82). Dave left St. Columba in early 1985. One student killed a girl from MLC when he had an accident in his mother’s car in Kings Park. Another student committed suicide in Bali. Drug taking apart from smoking Marijuana, there weren’t any particular drug problems.
42:35 The highlights of Dave’s time at St. Columba were the family feel of college – getting to know people and becoming involved in their lives. It was stimulating being surrounded by young people. The downside was the demands of supervising that family and in particular, the grief Dave experienced when the residents left the college. He enjoyed his 14 years at the college. The College Council were very supportive. Trinity has doubled in size. It has about 10 staff responsible for admissions, pastoral care, the buildings, finance, etc. It is much more upmarket now. The student body chose the name. The college motto is Friendship Learning Growth. Their academic results are very good. There is even a Robinson Scholarship. It was a privilege for Dave to become involved in getting something off the ground. He put his stamp on the place by establishing a community. It is not just a boarding house. Trinity has no Alumni as far as he knows.



Robinson, David, “David Robinson interview, 7 May 2014, 14 May 2014 and 21 May 2014,” UWA Historical Society: UWA Histories, accessed July 13, 2024, https://oralhistories.arts.uwa.edu.au/items/show/56.