He was more than just the father of singer and actress Dame Olivia Newton-John. Brinley Newton-John spent over a decade of his life here in Cambridge, eight of those as the Headmaster of the Cambridgeshire County High School for Boys – today known as Hills Road Sixth Form College.
Hills Road Sixth Form College has been in the neighbourhood for as long as I can remember. In the very early 1990s my primary school class would go there for P.E. lessons run by the sixth form students there. The same was the case with Homerton College, though that started from the late-1980s. I had no idea at the time that I’d end up a student at Hills Road for my A-levels.
With the scrapping of the 11+ system from the mid-1960s, many state schools in Cambridge were renamed. The County High School for Boys was one, just as the County High School for Girls was another. They became Hills Road Sixth Form College and Long Road Sixth Form College respectively.
Brinley Newton-John was appointed Headmaster of the Cambridgeshire County High School for Boys in 1946. A year before his arrival he got himself fined for a couple of minor motoring offences – by which time he held the rank of Wing Commander.
The institution was founded in the very early 1900s at at time a number of new schools were being built in Cambridge. One of the people at the opening ceremony of the school was a Mrs Florence Ada Keynes. Furthermore, the first headmaster, the Rev. C.J.N. Child was a supporter for Votes for Women, and in February 1913 spoke at a public meeting of the Cambridge Women’s Suffrage Association.
Newton-John first arrived in Cambridge as an undergraduate at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, graduating in 1935. The Australian Dictionary for National Biography summarises his life story here. Newton-John is one of several historical figures in Cambridge’s history who deserves a substantial biography given his life achievements and experiences, both in wartime and peacetime.
He married Irene Born – one of the daughters of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Max Born, who arrived in Cambridge having had to flee his German homeland due to persecution by the nazis who had just come to power. The incredible and moving story of how Max Born and family fled Germany and arrived in Cambridge is told by Newton-John’s brother-in-law, Gustav Born here. Dame Olivia Newton-John describes Gustav as her favourite uncle in this Instagram post.
Olivia Newton-John in her autobiography Don’t Stop Believin’ writes movingly about her parents’ courtship in Cambridge.
Although I found out fairly early on in my research of Brinley Newton-John that he was married three times, I did not know what effect his divorce from Irene had on Olivia, or that their marriage was already breaking down while they were still in Cambridge where they lived at the southern end of Hills Road.
Olivia writes about her father as a musician with this observation on singing at church.
This makes me wonder which church this would have been in post-war South Cambridge. The nearest church to their house at the time would have been St John the Evangelist on Hills Road opposite Homerton College. But then Brinley Newton-John was a Welshman born in Cardiff, a part of the world where Methodism was the dominant denomination at the time. The magnificent Wesleyan Methodist Chapel was still running in the 1950s. The Methodists surrendered the lease on the building which was demolished in the 1970s.
The website for Olivia Newton-John’s fanclub has a page for her mother, Irene Born. It describes the challenge of bringing up a young Olivia as a single mother. Divorce meant that Brinley had to relinquish his post as Master of Ormond College, Melbourne, Australia and move to another city – Newcastle in Australia.
The one part of Brinley Newton-John’s life that had otherwise lost to history re-emerged in 2018 from the University of Newcastle in Australia. It was filmed and broadcast not long after the first restrictions on his wartime work were lifted under the Official Secrets Act. The video begins at 11m18s.
Professor Brinley Newton-John interviewed by Ron Hurst in 1980.
It’s worth watching the video of Brinley Newton-John’s remarks in full – in particular on how he interrogated captured German airmen shot down over Britain in WW2.
Closer to present circumstances and the international lockdown due to the Corona Virus outbreak, Olivia Newton-John spoke to Rock Star Richard Marx (he was a familiar face in the UK music charts in the late 1980s & early 1990s) on the inspiration behind Olivia’s work on environmental campaigning.
A folk singer in Australia for a number of years, Olivia was scheduled to headline the Cambridge Folk Festival in 2017, but had to cancel due to a relapse of her illness – cancer. A huge shame as it would have made for a wonderful homecoming. She still battles on as we see in the video above, and there’s a small part of South Cambridge that has remained incredibly proud of all of her achievements, as many of the long-time residents reminded me during my childhood here.