University’s Grant of Arms and Autonomy Day

By Gionni Di Gravio, University Archivist

Autonomy Day 1967 - Photograph courtesy of Mr Ross Smith
Autonomy Day 1967 – Photograph courtesy of Mr Ross Smith

The University’s beautiful Grant of Arms is our very own Declaration of Independence. This historic document, along with Autonomy Day celebrates the University’s emergence as an autonomous institution in 1965.

University Of Newcastle Grant of Arms

In addition the University also holds the 1974 Grant of Arms for the Newcastle College of Education, an institution which in its later incarnation as the Hunter Institute of Higher Education amalgamated with the University of Newcastle in 1989.

Newcastle College of Advanced Education Grant of Arms

Click below to view larger images:

University Of Newcastle Grant of Arms

Newcastle College of Advanced Education Grant of Arms

The University of Newcastle was constituted on the 1st January 1965 by a Proclamation of His Excellency the Governor of New South Wales and signed and sealed on the 23rd December 1964 under the provisions of the University of Newcastle Act of that year.

University of Newcastle Act, 1964

According to folk legend, our understanding is that autonomy for the University officially began on the 1st January 1965 with a symbolic ceremonial bonfire held at the site of the Great Hall and officiated by the legendary Professor Godfrey Tanner who poured wine libations on the ground to sanctify the land upon which the University rests. The bonfire signified the “the joy of attaining long sought destiny”.

So why isn’t Autonomy Day at the University celebrated on the 1st January of each year?

Again according to Don Wright, Autonomy day is normally held in early July, and students interpreted it as celebrating the autonomy of the University of Newcastle, from the University of New South Wales. The date actually coincided with the winning of autonomy by the University of Technology from the Public Service Board control on the 1st July 1954. The students were entitled to give the celebration whatever meaning they chose. The fact that they called it ‘autonomy day’ heightened the students’ sense of the importance of autonomy and their need to defend it against outside interference. (Wright, 1992):113

Original Inspiration for the Seahorse Motif

The original inspiration for the University’s (former) seahorse design came from Plate 46 (Figure 2) in Fairbairn’s Book of Crests. This was Professor Auchmuty’s favourite design. (see illustration above)

‘Newcastle was originally discovered by Lieutenant Shortland in 1797 and the site on which the new University of Newcastle is to be built is on an area which is today called Shortland. Accordingly, it is of some consequence that the crest of the Shortland family is quite unusual and could be adapted as the coat of arms of a new University…. I have looked through the coats of arms of various Oxford and Cambridge Colleges and other Universities and it seems to me that a coat of arms occupied solely by a sea-horse would be comparable to those of Downing or Emanuel College at Cambridge or Hartford College at Oxford’ (Ref. Letter dated 5th January 1965 from Professor J.J. Auchmuty to J.R.B. Walker, Lancaster Herald College of Arms, Archives Shelf Location A6395 – Coat of Arms File 1964-1980)

A request to The Duke of Norfolk, Earl Marshal and Hereditary Marshal of England was made on the 25th January 1965 on behalf of the University for Armorial Ensigns to be’ duly assigned with Lawful Authority as may be proper to be borne and used by The University of Newcastle on Seals or otherwise according to the Laws of Arms’. Discussions as to the design continued between Professor J. J. Auchmuty and Lt. Col. J. R. B. Walker, M.V.O., M.C., Lancaster Herald at the College of Arms in London. Auchmuty wanted a design that was both striking and original.

The coat of arms was based upon the that of the Shortland family. Lieutenant John Shortland led the first Colonial Expedition to Newcastle in 1797, and the site upon which the University was built was called Shortland.

It is also significant that the arms of the Shortland family, which depict a seahorse, a mythical, heraldic creature, are quite unusual and have been easily adapted to the coat of arms of the University. The differentiation between the Shortland coat of arms and that of the University has been achieved by including the Southern Cross in the upper part, on a azure blue background.

The motto adopted for the University ‘I LOOK AHEAD’ was approved by Council in August 1965 and was in keeping with the ambitions of a University and the appearance of the seahorse on the shield.

A6379(xi) Design for the Seahorse A6379(xi) Design for the Seahorse (reverse)
A6379(xi) Design of the Seahorse on the Essex Bridge Dublin by Lady Casey 1st March 1967

The Letters Patent for the Grant of Arms to the University of Newcastle arrived around 26 October 1965. The Date of the Grant was 1st June 1965 and date of the Earl Marshal’s Warrant 10th May 1965.

The Newcastle University College of the University of New South Wales, then known as the New South Wales University of Technology, was established on 3rd December 1951. The University of Newcastle, created under The University of Newcastle Act, 1964 came into being on the 1st January 1965.


Professors Auchmuty and Brin Newton-John examine the grant of arms

Professors J.J. Auchmuty and Brin Newton-John examine the Grant of Arms.
Newcastle Morning Herald 24 November 1965

by Professor Ken Dutton

The seahorse, or more strictly the hippocampus, was a prominent feature of the arms of the Shortland family, a West of England family of strong naval tradition, several of whose members were closely involved in the first days of white settlement in Australia. One of them, Lieutenant John Shortland, RN (1769-1810), is recognised as being the first “official” European discoverer of Newcastle.

Shortland was the son of another Lieutenant (subsequently Commander) John Shortland, RN (1739-1803), who was naval agent to the transports of the First Fleet which reached Australia in 1788. The Shortlands had long used the marine emblem of the hippocampus in their family crest as an evocative symbol of the seafaring life.

In September 1797, the Government’s largest and best boat, the Cumberland, while on its way from Port Jackson to deliver stores to the Hawkesbury River, was hijacked by convicts who formed part of its crew. These “villains”, as they were described, threatened the life of the coxswain and put him ashore with some others before sailing further up the coast. Governor Hunter despatched the 28-year-old Lieutenant Shortland in a government whaleboat to search for the Cumberland and its occupants.

On 9 September, Shortland’s crew rowed through the entrance of Newcastle Harbour, and as far as Port Stephens before turning back. While hugging the coast, Shortland (in his own words) “discovered a very fine coal river, which I named after Governor Hunter.” He also made the first chart of the harbour and collected some samples of coal.

Although it is thought that Shortland may not have been the first European in the area (some fisherman being believed to have taken shelter there from bad weather, and some escaped convicts also having passed through), he is rightly remembered as the first significant white figure in the history of Newcastle and the Hunter region.

In 1962, it was decided that the Newcastle University College, on attaining autonomy as the University of Newcastle, should have its own campus on government-owned land in the suburb of Shortland. Autonomy was finally achieved on 1 January 1965, and the first buildings on the Shortland site were opened in 1966.

The newly-autonomous University was granted its own coat-of-arms by the College of Heralds in England in 1965. In view of the significance of Lieutenant Shortland’s discovery, and the location of the University in the suburb bearing his name, the arms of the Shortland family were used to form the basis of the University’s official crest. Although the grant of arms spoke of a “seahorse naiant” (i.e. swimming), the illustration on the grant shows not a naturalistically-drawn seahorse (which, in heraldic language, would be called a “seahorse proper”) but rather a hippocampus – a mythical beast rather resembling a “merman” with the head of a horse. This figure would be familiar to those cognisant with early maps of the world, in which a hippocampus is sometimes shown as one of the monsters found in unexplored seas. In classical mythology, it was also the beast on which the god Neptune rode. To the Shortland “seahorse” was added the Southern Cross – the constellation at which the original inhabitants of the area, the Aboriginal people of the Awabakal Tribe – had gazed upwards for tens of thousands of years.

The official heraldic description of the University’s arms is: “Azure a Sea Horse naiant in dexter chief a representation of the constellation of the Southern Cross of five Mullets all argent.” In plain English, this means: “On a blue background, a seahorse swimming. In the top left-hand corner a depiction of the constellation of the Southern Cross, made up of five white stars.” [The term “dexter”, in heraldry, means “left”, despite its Latin meaning of “right”: this is because the arms represent the shield as viewed from behind, i.e. the perspective of the person carrying the shield as distinct from that of the viewer.]

The motto assigned to the University was: “I Look Ahead”. At its inception ceremony in 1965, the Foundation Vice-Chancellor, Professor James Auchmuty, reminded those present that they were laying the foundations for hundreds of years into the future.

Like an individual person, the University of Newcastle is a living organism, which changes over time whilst retaining the same fundamental identity. One of the many changes that have taken place since autonomy in 1965 is that in 1992 the campus and surrounding suburb were formally given the name “Callaghan” in honour of the late Sir Bede Callaghan, Chancellor of the University from 1977 to 1989. That this change broke the direct link with the name “Shortland” makes it all the more important that the seahorse has been retained in the University’s visual symbolism, as a reminder of its tradition and heritage.

The emblem currently used in order to “badge” the University is a strong visual reminder of the institution’s official crest and the history that lies behind it.

Professor Auchmuty as King Neptune


By Gionni Di Gravio, University Archivist

In June 1942 during World War II, Newcastle came under shelling from Japanese mini submarines. How did the Parents and Citizens Association committee of the Newcastle Boys High School react to such an attack? According to Don Wright in his History of the University, they decided to set up a University College, initially to be run by the University of Sydney. By October 1942, they began advertising fees for the following year 1943. These actions forced the then Vice Chancellor of Sydney University to come up to Newcastle in November 1942 to inform them that it wasn’t going to happen!

Newcastle is renowned for its amazing resilience, and here is a time line on how the University of Newcastle came to be an autonomous institution.

In a nutshell:

(i) The push for a university 1849 – 1951
(ii) The quest for autonomy 1951 – 1965

The university tradition dates from the middle of the twelfth century and has contained two elements, the humanistic tradition originally founded upon the liberal arts and later including the pure sciences (rational thought and analysis) and a vocational aspect based upon the faculties of theology, law and medicine.

The Paris Exhibition of 1867 inspired the incorporation of technological studies into the IDEA of what a University should be for the fear was that many countries in Europe were overtaking Britain in technology.

1849 Bishop Tyrrell gave birth to the idea of a University in the Hunter Region. To invest his dream he transported aboard the “Medway” his extensive collection of books from England. This Collection known as the Morpeth Collection now resides in the Cultural Collections (formerly Archives Rare Books and Special Collections) of Auchmuty Library. This formed part of a collection of some 2,700 volumes from St. John’s College Morpeth, generously donated by the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle to the University, and includes editions of major theological and philosophical works printed in the 16th-18th centuries. At least half the Collection originally belonged to William Tyrrell, the first Anglican Bishop of Newcastle, who was appointed to the Diocese in 1847. The oldest book held in the Library is found in this collection, namely, Eusebius’ Ecclesiasticae Historiae printed in Paris in 1544.

1907 The Herald re-invigorated the call for a University College [Newcastle Herald articles 31st May 1907, 10th Sept 1909]

1910 Newcastle District Public Schools Association under Inspector J. Finney passed a resolution calling for the establishment of University College originally to be called Edward College (after King Edward). [Herald 1st August 1910.]

1928 Prominent citizens Connelly and Basil Helmore urge for the establishment of a university.

1936 Tighes Hill Technical College opened with help from BHP. The Herald urges the people of Newcastle to see it only as a first step towards a University.

7th June 1942 Japanese Shelling of Newcastle

21st June 1942 Newcastle Boys High School Parents and Citizens Association under leadership of Headmaster Ross Mearns, Rabbi Morris and Paul Hayes resolved that a university college be established in Newcastle. A committee was formed to push for the establishment consisting of the who’s who of Newcastle.

1st October 1942 The University Committee resolved that the Senate of the University of Sydney establish a college at Newcastle beginning in the 1943 academic year. By the end of October 1942 Mearns starts advertising fees for this College.

11th November 1942 The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney is forced to come to Newcastle in order to dampen the enthusiasm of the Novocastrians.

April – June 1943 The Uni Committee began a set of radio broadcasts on 2NC and 2KO to get wider support from the community.

3rd December 1951 Newcastle University College of the New South Wales University of Technology opens at the site of the Newcastle Technical College.

1954 Newcastle University College offers Arts degrees for the first time, with degrees awarded by the University of New England

13th April 1961 Godfrey Tanner marches to TOWN HALL

“On the night of 12 April 1961 they held a ‘freedom march’ from the Tighes Hill site to the City Hall (about five kilometres) to take part in a public meeting organised by the Lord Mayor’s Committee. Estimates of the numbers involved vary from fifty to 200. Led by the mercurial Godfrey Tanner, later Professor of Classics, they marched the distance shouting, cheering, waving flaming torches and banners carrying slogans like ‘Burn Baxter’s Empire’, ‘Big Baxter is Watching You’, ‘Baxter’s Bargain Basement’, ‘Let Newcastle Fiddle while Baxter Burns’. Outside the City Hall, they set alight their banners and tossed them into a blazing heap before moving inside to join 250 of Newcastle’s more sober citizens in a public meeting to demand immediate autonomy.” [Don Wright]

Night of the  Blazing Torches
Torch Procession to Newcastle Town Hall 1961

1961 Lord Mayor’s Committee (under Frank Purdue) visit site of bushland Shortland for future University.

“One of my most cherished memories is being in the McMullin Building in the 1960s and hearing Brin Newton-John’s piano playing wafting through the place”

21st April 1961 Professor J. J. Auchmuty, Mr McClarty and Professor Brin Newton-John (i.e Olivia’s father) at the piano.

12th March 1962 Baxter tells Auchmuty that Newcastle will have Autonomy. A Council is created by the University of New South Wales to prepare for autonomy.

July – August 1962 OPUS visits site on a number of occasions and discovers Aboriginal people living on site. [OPUS 8 29th August 1962 Vol.9 No.8]

2nd Dec 1964 Legislation passed creating 2nd provincial University of the state of New South Wales.

1965 Autonomy granted to the University of Newcastle

Students Publicise Education Problems 1966
“Sober Note In Procession – Students Publicise Education Problems”
Newcastle Sun newspaper article 6th July 1966


1967 Autonomy Day Photographs

Click to see all the Photographs of the 1967 Autonomy Day taken by photographer Ross Smith
Click to see another companion set of Photographs of the 1967 Autonomy Day donated by Katherine MacNeill


Heraldry Australia Inc is celebrating 2007 as the year of academic heraldry. 2007 is a significant date for academic heraldry in Australia as it marks the sesquicentenary of the granting of armorial bearings to the oldest University in Australia, the University of Sydney. Heraldry Australia, a group of people interested in all aspects of heraldry, especially in an Australian context, believes that the occasion provides an opportunity to reflect upon and celebrate the use and display of academic heraldry in Australia. Therefore, the Association has designated 2007 as the Year of Academic Heraldry.

The University of Newcastle received a grant of arms from the English Kings of Arms in 1965. As this was the same year in which the University became an autonomous institution, the grant of arms is a significant matter, as it created a distinctive symbol (or visual identity) for the University, with a clear break from its “parent”, the University of New South Wales.

Heraldry Australia are pleased and honoured that the University of Newcastle has agreed to participate in the Year of Academic Heraldry.

9 thoughts on “University’s Grant of Arms and Autonomy Day

  1. Great work. There isn’t enough material documenting the history of the university. I am particularly interested in finding articles reporting the events of various Autonomy day celebrations (which the University would like to pretend didn’t happen), as well as the history of the Philosophy Club.

    It seems ironic that the year of academic heraldry would be the year that the original crest is cast aside in the ‘re-branding’ exercise we are currently experiencing.

    All the best.


  2. Pingback: Autonomy Day Down Under « Living in interesting times

  3. It’s good to see that Shortlands have spread their fertile seed to all parts of the world. A significant number of my ancestors were married 3 times. I suppose the belief in oneself and in never giving up was important for the people who wandered so far from home in the 1780’s. My own branch only travelled 300 miles to Cork, but it’s the thought that counts, isn’t it? 🙂

    Seriously though, it is a greaat honour to have the family crest reworked to represent a great university in the “new world”.

  4. I am Brin Newton- John’s Grandson.
    My Family and i are looking for photographs of Brin for a documentary his daughter Olivia is making on her father.
    If anyone has any information re this, we would like to hear from you.

  5. Pingback: Festival of Autonomy 2012 « UoN Cultural Collections

  6. Pingback: C50-PART 2 -AUTONOMY & EARLY PARTNERS | Cultural Collections, UON Library

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