Theodore T Flynn, (1883-1968)
D.Sc.(Syd) MBE. MRIA, FLS (Lond), FZS(Lond), FRS(Tas)

Theodore Thomson Flynn was a prodigiously talented young man when he arrived in Hobart early in February 1909 to become the first lecturer in Biology at the University of Tasmania. His family was not well off and he started his working life when only 15 years old as a pupil teacher in a very small school in the far west of New South Wales. Within five years he was a fully qualified teacher and at Sydney University studying science. There he won the Medal for Biology in 1906 and the John Coutts Scholarship. He was awarded first class honours every year in Biology among a brilliant group of students. Flynn and at least two other students in the small group studying Advanced Zoology later occupied chairs of Zoology and another held a senior position in CSIR. After coming to Tasmania he became full professor in 1911 at the age of 28. When he was just 32 the Tasmanian Government entrusted him with a Royal Commission to investigate the State’s fishing industry. He earned his Doctorate of Science from Sydney University when 38 years old. The University of Tasmania historian, Richard Davis, included Flynn amongst the five most illustrious members of staff prior to World War II.

An Irish Heritage

It was often written that Flynn had a clipped English accent, as did his son Errol when he arrived in England. Theo was an anglophile yet he was a second generation Australian, having been born in Coraki in northern New South Wales on 11 October 1883. When Errol first appeared in movies the Hollywood publicity machine promoted him as Irish and his true birthplace was not revealed until many years later. Research reveals that both father and son could scarcely have had a more authentic Australian pedigree. Theo’s grandfather, John Flynn was a 20 year-old blacksmith from living in Mohill, County Leitrim when he took an assisted passage to Sydney in 1854. He disembarked from the Lady Elgin on 9 August and four months later was married in St James Anglican Church to Anne Connaughty, another bounty immigrant from Trim in County Meath . Anne was twenty years old when she emigrated on the
Ellenborough that arrived on 13 October 1853. It seems that the pair may have known each other in Trim before she decided to go to Australia as John gave Trim as his birthplace when registering one of his children. Anne had no relatives in Australia and could neither read nor write when she arrived. Consequently the spelling of her surname varied and had been written as Connerty, Conaghten and Conahaty.

John and Anne initially settled in Sydney and their first child, Theo’s father, was also baptised John in St James Roman Catholic Church on 13 January 1856. John was named after his father and their second son Michael, born in 1859, was named after Anne’s father. In between a daughter Mary Ann had died as an infant, and a second daughter Rosanna also died as a small child. After their third daughter, Jane, was born in Sydney in 1865, John and Anne moved to Coraki on the Richmond River in northern New South Wales, there a third son, William was born in September 1867. In May 1880 Theo’s grandfather took up a small selection of 50 acres at Wyrallah, near Lismore.

John Flynn Jnr began work as a shipwright in Ballina but by early 1882 was in partnership with a William Thomson, manufacturing cordials and aerated waters in Coraki. Now 27 years old he bought some land and courted William Thomson’s daughter. John Flynn married Jessie Thomson at Jessie’s home in Wyrallah on Boxing Day 1882. As she was only 19 her father gave permission for the Presbyterian Minister, Hugh Livingstone to marry them. The witnesses were Robert and Annie Thomson, the bride’s aunt and uncle, John Baker and the groom’s 18 year-old sister, Jane. A Robert and Jenny Thomson witnessed the marriage of John’s brother William when he married another local girl, Catherine Watterson in Coraki in February 1895.

Following John and Jessie’s marriage they continued to live in the Lismore area and their first child Theodore Thomson was born in Coraki in 1883. The family left Lismore and travelled around, first to Grafton where Theo’s brother, Claude Clarence was born in 1886. The next stop was Moruya on the south coast where daughter Adeline was born in 1888. Soon the family moved to Newtown in Sydney. John first rented a house in Richard Street that then joined Missenden Road just outside the southern edge of the Sydney University complex between Campbell and Aylesbury Street.(2 on map below). The family settled in Newtown where Adeline died in 1890. Jessie gave birth to two daughters after the family settled in Newtown, Ivy May in 1891 and Stella Claudine in 1894. John was now working as a cordial maker again, and they had moved house a short distance south east to 24 Wilson Street (3 on map). In 1896 and 1897 he is listed in his former vocation as shipwright and living in adjacent Bucknell Street (4 on map). John seemed to have had trouble finding long term employment and moved to the central western town of Hillston to work in the brewery.

Sydney residences

The locations of Flynn residences between 1890 and 1912 shown on a contemporary map.


The modern locations of Flynn residences between 1890 and 1912.

Theo probably went to the Camdenville Public School in Newtown where he, or his family, decided that he should become a teacher. By 1898 he was living with his mother at 58 Alma Street, Darlington that is now in the middle of the Sydney University campus (1 on map). His father learnt that the pupil-teacher at the Hillston school had resigned and a replacement was being sought. The school then wrote to the District Inspector in Hay to request that if Theo, who was then sitting the entrance examination in Sydney to become a pupil-teacher, failed to get a city position he would like the position. There were no suitable local applicants so Theo was appointed on probation after passing an examination in arithmetic, grammar, geography, drawing and vocal music. In addition he had to demonstrate his ability to teach a junior class in front of an inspector. Having passed this test, Theo took the train from the city to Carrathool, stayed overnight at the hotel and then travelled by coach to Hillston. On arrival he sought reimbursement for the £4.15s it cost him to get there. He was surprised to learn that ‘it was not the practice’ to pay such costs as his father lived in the town. John Flynn then wrote to Jim Carroll, the local Member of Parliament. He was the former publican in Hillston and it is likely that Flynn lived at the hotel while working at the brewery. The Minister for Public Instruction, James Houge, agreed that as the family was poor the cost of the fare, but not the hotel bill, be paidbut this was ‘not to form a precedent’.

The conditions under pupil teachers served apprenticeship frequently imposed a heavy physical and mental strain. They had to be between 13 and 16 years of age and received instruction from a principal teacher before and after school. During school hours they taught classes in his presence. Theo’s responsibilities gradually increased and in February 1889 he was adjudged to have successfully completed his probation. If he continued to pass the annual examinations in four years time he would be eligible to win a place at the Fort Street Training School. Fort Street Training School adjoined the Model School and trained all N.S.W. public school teachers until 1906 when it was replaced by the Sydney Teachers College at Blackfriars in Ultimo.

Hillston was a small town with a population of about 900 some 900 kilometres west of Sydney. For a fifteen year-old boy who had never before left home before it was a serious test of his vocation. His apprenticeship was supervised by J Machin who was required to devote at least an hour a day to introducing Theo to his new career. He also set work to be done at home after school and was required to see behaviour and morals that fitted his pupil’s responsibilities. Machin judged Flynn’s punctuality as ‘very good; never late’, his diligence was also rated as good, and his obedience as very good. Machin found the boy to be ’prompt and cheerful’ and always very attentive to his duties. ‘He has made satisfactory progress since his temporary appointment, he is gaining command over his class and manages it generally with increased skill. He bids fair to become an efficient teacher and is as efficient and useful as might be expected for the time he has been teaching.’ In the two years Machin had known Flynn the latter seemed to be both happy and healthy. ‘His conduct out of school is satisfactory. He is of studious habits and spends much of his time in reading and study and healthy recreations, whilst his associates are all of a good reputation. Being naturally of studious habits, he does his work (home study) thoroughly. He has passed his Junior University Exam twice; the last time qualifying for matriculation.’

The Education Department had set Theo a serious test and he had passed with flying colours, but in June 1899 a problem arose. John Flynn claimed that the brewery where he worked was to close, and as a father he was not happy leaving Theo ‘in the care of strangers as he is young and may easily be led astray’. He again sought the help of James Carroll. ‘If he could be removed to anywhere in Sydney he would be under his Mother’s eye should I be away at any time’ he wrote. However, according to the electoral roll John was still living in Hillston four years later and working as a brewer; he had a more personal and less honourable reason for returning his son to Sydney. Theo was an unwanted observer to his father’s affair with a local woman. Again Hogue obliged and Theo was assigned to Stanmore Public School, one stop on the train from Enmore. The Sands Directory for 1899 has the family in Alice Street (5 on map).

Stanmore school 1886
Stanmore Public School in 1886

After six months at the Stanmore School Theo passed the annual exam in December to progress to Class III. After another year there he entered Class II and spent the next year at Camdenville Public School, literally around the corner from his home (* on map). In July 1901 he again moved, to the new West Redfern Public School. He caught influenza in August and returned to work while still ill. By late November a doctor found he was ‘suffering from extreme frustration and debility’, and recommended he be given three months leave of absence. Flynn’s application for leave was granted but only for one month. ‘If any further leave is required fresh application can be made.’ It was suggested that he recover in the country and he planned to spend the early summer with his maternal grandparents in Lismore, he got approval to sit his final pupil teacher exam there. There was some confusion in the Department when he did not appear in Lismore for the exam, but he passed it in Sydney and gained a full scholarship for admission to Fort Street training college starting in January 1902.

After graduating and becoming a fully qualified teacher in 1903 Theo was permitted to enrol at Sydney University. In first year he studied Mathematics (Calculus, Logarithms), Biology, Dynamics, Physics, Chemistry and Physiography. His ability in biology was immediately recognized and he was awarded Honours Class I in the exams at the end of 1904. In his second year he studied Chemistry, Geology and Biology and again awarded Honours Class I in Biology, and a High Distinction in Geology. In final year he again achieved Biology Honours Class I, plus the University Medal for Biology and the John Coutts Scholarship. [The electoral roll for 1906 lists Theo and Jessie as residing in Newington Rd Stanmore and records his occupation as a teacher. ] For the last two years of his time at the University he rented a house at 36 Missendon Road (8 on map) and it seems probable that his mother and younger siblings also lived there. Apart from his time at Hillston he had lived near the University since he was eight years old.]

As a student Theo came under the influence of Professor W A Haswell who nurtured his interest in marine biology, but marsupial anatomy captured Theo’s first real scientific interest. He formed a close friendship with a young Demonstrator in Biology and Lecturer in Embryology. James Peter Hill was born on February 21 1873 in Scotland. In 1889 Hill entered the University of Edinburgh and in 1890 went to the Royal College of Science in London for teacher training. In 1892 Hill accepted a position as a demonstrator in Sydney, ‘perhaps, the youngest who has ever received an appointment on the University staff’. Hill made fundamental contributions to biology while not yet gaining an undergraduate degree. In 1897 he received leave of absence to return to Edinburgh to take his BSc.

Hill returned to Australia in 1898 and continued work on early development of marsupials and monotremes. At Sydney University he gave a remarkable series of lectures to the Honours students in mammalian embryology. ‘His lectures, his demonstrations, his slides and drawings were all models of preparedness’. To his students he was a something of a god and Flynn could have had no better model to emulate.

In 1906 Hill was appointed to the Jodrell Chair at University College London and he returned to Great Britain. At his death Flynn wrote ‘From the outset of his career in Australia Hill displayed that keenness and wholehearted devotion to his work, both in teaching and research, which have been amongst his distinguishing characteristics throughout all the subsequent years. Almost from the first he displayed a bias in favour of research work on the problems of the development of the marsupials, and with a view to work of this character he early began to collect the necessary embryological material.

In this indispensable preliminary work of collection, Hill proved himself to be peculiarly gifted. Though he soon became an adept in laboratory practice he was at the same time a born collector and a genuine naturalist. Modest and unassuming to a degree, in this one matter of collecting he approximated as nearly to the quality of pushfullness as the possibilities of such a character permitted.In these collecting propensities lay the roots of his researches and of their success. By his diligence and industry in this department he has gradually acquired a collection of marsupial embryological material which might lead to international complications if the versatile Kaiser were perchance to become interested in zoology.’

Flynn kept in contact with Hill after the latter’s return to Britain and his own appointment in April 1907 at an annual salary £200 to teach of science at Newcastle and Maitland High Schools. In December 1908 he sought a testimonial from Hill apropos his application for the position of Macleay Research Fellow at the Linnean Society of New South Wales. ‘My first paper on Points in the anatomy of certain megapods parts I and II has been written up for the Linnean Society but not yet published’, continued the letter. It also referred to the pair’s joint interest in embryology -

While teaching chemistry and physics at the Newcastle and West Maitland Technical Colleges Flynn continued research into marsupials. At the end of December 1908 he wrote to Hill - The purpose of the letter was to seek a testimonial from Hill. Flynn and Hill remained close friends and research collaborators until Hill’s death in London 1954.

Flynn and Hill were a natural pair with a shared interest embryology. In 1908 Flynn had asked Hill ‘Are you still getting emu eggs?’
‘Jummy Hill’ was exactly the mentor young Theo needed. As Hill had thrived under the mentoring of J T Wilson after his arrival in Sydney in 1892 so did Flynn until Hill returned to England in 1906. In that year Theo was living at 36 Missendon Road within one block of the south-western corner of the University campus. His parent’s marriage was now failing and whilst his father stayed in Keig Street his mother may have moved in with her eldest son. Theo had no older brothers and it appears his father had left home by 1903 for on the 1903 electoral roll for that year Jessie Flynn’s address is listed as 18 Keig Street (now Rawson Street) in a new sub-division at Enmore (7 on map). There is no mention of John Flynn in Enmore, although the Sand’s Directory still has him at 18 Keig Street. Theo stayed at the house in Missenden Road whilst he completed his degree and when he was appointed to the Newcastle and Maitland High Schools in 1907 Jessie went with him to live in High Street Maitland.

Whilst still a student at Sydney University Theo had become acquainted with the Young family who then lived in Balmain. Captain Frederick George Richmond Young, a Sydney based master mariner was a descendant of Midshipman Young of the Bounty. Captain Young had married Annie Madden in 1878 and they had six children. Annie was widowed in 1895 and two years later she married another master mariner, the Norwegian Ole Andrew Hammer. Annie’s eldest daughter Alice married a William Reynolds who lived in Longdown Street and was a neighbour of Theo in Missendon Road. Perhaps this is how Flynn first met the Young family. Alice had two older brothers, Frederick Robert, born 1879 and Leslie, born 1881. Her younger brother, Harry, followed the family tradition in joining the merchant marine and he and Theo were about the same age. The Young’s link to the Bounty was strengthened in 1905 when Leslie, who had attracted some public notice when he saved two girls from drowning in 1899, married Ethel Christian. Leslie, who died in 1908, was a fisheries inspector and perhaps was another influence on Theo’s later interest in the subject. Despite his affinity with both Leslie and Harry Theo’s interest in the Young family was focussed on Alice’s sisters Elizabeth (known as Betty) and Lily. Betty was apparently Theo’s first choice but her younger sister became the focus of his attention. By the spring of 1908 Lily was pregnant. According to Errol ‘He must have been a pushover for my Mother. She was twenty-one and full of animal spirits. He was just a tall hunk of scholarship.’ Theo married the beautiful and vivacious Lily Mary Young, then 21, on 23 January 1909 (some years later Lily began calling herself Marelle ). By then Theo had been appointed lecturer in Biology at the University of Tasmania and was about to move to Hobart.

Lily Mary Young

Flynn retained his links with Sydney University through correspondence with Haswell and Hill and through his doctoral research on marsupials. From 1920 onwards he regularly spent the summer at the University with laboratory accommodation in the Zoology Department.