We called him “Mumbles”…

NOTE 31 July 2019

Reviewing this, I see an error! In fact Mumbles was my 1957 French teacher, in 3B. My 2B French teacher was the memorable also Mr Bonanno — always said when asked “I am Breetish!” He was in fact a veteran of the Maquis from France, I believe. What the war failed to do, I fear 2B did. He vanished, never to be seen again — and so we got Mumbles!

5 August: Dear me, my memory is playing tricks! Fortunately I still had my 1956 copy of The Record to check from, and I see Mumbles was my French teacher in 56 and 57. Mr Bonanno must have been a casual or a trainee teacher.

Back in time, people, to 1956—and here are my teachers at Sydney Boys High.


Can you make out the signature on the right? I didn’t ask for it, by the way. He just grabbed the book and signed! Silly old bugger!


M C I Levy, that’s who. Our French teacher in Year 8, as we would call it now. 2B French, that is. We called him “Mumbles” because he always spoke not much above a whisper, and compared with the other French teachers he had an atrocious accent. His lessons, for want of a better word, consisted largely of reminiscences of Paris some time in the Neolithic – or so it seemed to us. And the unfunniest funny stories we had ever heard. I seem to recall him reading a “Father Brown” story to us as well. Much of the lesson was occupied by him sending talkers – whether or not they were actually talking – to the Deputy Head to get caned; apparently – hearsay because I avoided this by sitting in front and, probably, talking to my neighbour – the Deputy would send them straight back uncaned when he heard Mr Levy had sent them. So we thought him a fossil and a fool, and we learned, I suspect, very little French that year.

And yet, if you go into the Great Hall these days, you will find on the World War One honour roll a name clearly added fairly recently: M C I Levy. I am not sure why he was omitted at the time. You can find him too in Parramatta:


He was an ex-student of Sydney High, and already a teacher aged 25 in 1914. Michael Charles Ivan Levy:


Bit of a poet too. The poem is called “The Men of a Thousand Days.”

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Given he was a boy from Balmain, the bushman image is a bit naff really – but a sign of the times. Mr Levy clearly was intervening on behalf of the YES vote in the Conscription Referendum of 1917.

In 1917 Britain sought a sixth Australian division for active service. Australia had to provide 7000 men per month to meet this request. Volunteer recruitment continued to lag and on 20 December 1917 Prime Minister Hughes put a second referendum to the Australian people. The referendum asked:

Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the Commonwealth Forces overseas?’

Hughes’ proposal was that voluntary enlistment should continue, but that any shortfall would be met by compulsory reinforcements of single men, widowers, and divorcees without dependents between 20 and 44 years, who would be called up by ballot. The referendum was defeated with 1,015,159 in favour and 1,181,747 against.

The conscription referenda were divisive politically, socially and within religious circles. Newspapers and magazines of the time demonstrate the concerns, arguments, and the passion of Australians in debating this issue. The decisive defeat of the second referendum closed the issue of conscription for the remainder of the war.

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Norman Lindsay recruiting poster

See WW1 Recruiting Posters and Norman Lindsay