Public schools ... Still advancing Australia fairly

Maurie Mulheron

The next time you are standing on a school assembly listening to or singing "Advance Australia Fair" you might like to reflect on the fact that the composer of our national anthem was a fellow NSW public school teacher.

Next month will be the 100th anniversary of his death, and at his last school, Five Dock Public School, where he was Headmaster, the current Principal is ensuring that this piece of history is not forgotten.

Peter Dodds-McCormick was born in 1834 in Port Glasgow, Scotland and migrated to Australia, landing in Sydney on February 21, 1855. Through his involvement in the Presbyterian Church, he became active in musical circles, composing songs and conducting choirs.

It was reported that after attending a concert in the late 1870s in Sydney at which a number of national anthems were performed, he was frustrated that not one mention of Australia had been heard. On his trip home late that night he started composing in his head the music for “Advance Australia Fair”:

“[I] felt very aggravated that there was not one note for Australia. On the way home in a bus, I concocted the first verse of my song, and when I got home I set it to music. I first wrote it in the Tonic Sol-fa Notation, then transcribed it into the Old Notation, and tried it over on an instrument next morning, and found it correct … It seemed to me to be like an inspiration, and I wrote the words and music with the greatest ease.”

Many former students of Five Dock Public School recalled decades later that their Headmaster “could wield the baton to some purpose”, which may or not have referred to a conductor’s stick. But he must have been regarded with some affection as his nickname at school was Amicus, Latin for friend and adviser. And it was under this pen-name that, years later, he published his new musical composition.

Its first known public performance was in Sydney on St Andrew’s Day, 1878, at a Highland Society concert, which must have been a source of pride for this Presbyterian Scot.

However, it remained a little-known song until the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, for it was at this important occasion that it was performed by a massed choir of more than 10,000.

It was also for the inauguration that a new third verse was written, which today many Australians feel has such powerful resonance:

Beneath our radiant Southern Cross,
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make our youthful Commonwealth,
Renowned of all the lands;
For loyal sons beyond the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;
With courage let us all combine
To advance Australia fair.
In joyful strains then let us sing
Advance Australia fair.

Some six years later, the NSW Government awarded Peter McCormick £100.

On September 3, 1915, he registered his copyright. The song was published by the famous Sydney-based Australian music publisher and instrument seller, W.H. Palings.

Sixty two years later, in 1977, a national plebiscite confirmed “Advance Australia Fair” as the popular choice for a new national anthem to replace ‘“God Save the Queen”. It was not until 1984 that this was proclaimed officially.

The original copyright has long expired and is now claimed by the Australian government. The official anthem consists now of just two verses, the original first and the 1901 third verse, albeit with more inclusive and gender-neutral language.

Peter Dodds-McCormick died at his Waverley home on October 30, 1916, the same year from which the earliest known recording of the song exists sung by Australian troops in Egypt. He is buried in Rookwood Cemetery.

Confirming what we all know, that nobody becomes wealthy choosing teaching as a career, his estate at probate was valued at £52.

Even though I have never been a fan of songs being made “official”, each time I hear the Australian national anthem played, I allow myself a little smile knowing that the words and music were composed by an immigrant, who arrived by boat, and who was a NSW public school teacher.

Click here for PDF of this story.