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Joseph Clive Nield (1908–1977)

by Anne Sanders

Joseph Clive Nield (a distant cousin of the Australian artist George Washington Lambert) was born at Warren, near Dubbo, New South Wales, on 18 June 1908. His family moved to Manly in Sydney and he was educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (SCEGS), completing his leaving certificate in 1926. He completed a BA at the University of Sydney, majoring in economics (hons), English and psychology (Professor Tasman Lovell was his psychology lecturer). In 1930 he commenced a diploma of education at Sydney Teachers’ College, and his interest in progressive education developed as a result of the suggestion by the Director of the college, Professor Alexander Mackie, that he read the books of British experimental educator, A. S. Neill. Mackie was the author of the textbook, Studies in Contemporary Education (1923), which included a chapter on 'Psychoanalysis and education'. Before completing his diploma of education in 1936, Nield commenced an MA at the University of Oxford, which enabled him to visit many of the experimental schools in Britain including A. S. Neill’s Summerhill, where he spent a term. He returned to Sydney at the end of 1933 and taught for a year at his alma mater, SCEGS. From 1935–38 he was a master at Geelong Grammar School, Victoria, under the direction of Dr James Darling.

In 1935 while attending an education conference at Geelong Grammar School, Nield met his future wife, Janet Blake Plant. They married in 1936; and both attended the New Education Fellowship (NEF) International conference in Melbourne in 1937, which brought together leading proponents of progressive education such as Susan Isaacs, Joseph Lauwerys, Beatrice Ensor, Harold Rugg, William Boyd and Cyril Norwood. They were also introduced to the NEF Chairman, Rector Lavrin Zilliacus, headmaster of an experimental school in Finland, and Canadian art educator, Arthur Lismer—both of whom they visited in 1939.

At the completion of the school year in 1938 Clive Nield resigned his position at Geelong Grammar School and he and Janet left in December to undertake a whirlwind nine-month tour of progressive schools in England, a number of European countries, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Canada and the USA. Their visit to Dartington Hall in South Devon, England, was instructive, not only because of its art curriculum, but also the integration of modernist architecture in its recent building program—both these elements would underpin the Nields’ vision for their proposed progressive school. The death of Clive’s father, and the sale of the family grazing property contributed the funds necessary for the realisation of their vision.

In 1938 sixteen acres of land along the Yarra River at Warrandyte were purchased. This was an area where artists had made their home, such as Clara Southern, Penleigh Boyd, Jo Sweatman and, most recently, the Russian émigré Danila Vassilieff, who would become the art teacher at the Nields’ Koornong School. Following the Dartington Hall inspiration, a young Melbourne modernist architect, Best Overend, with assistance from the Viennese trained architect, émigré Fritz Janeba, were commissioned by Nield to draw up plans for key buildings on the site. Koornong School opened on 3 September 1939, with Clive Nield as headmaster and with its bold proclamation: 'A new school for young citizens of the Modern World'.

Clive Nield envisioned a coeducational school with 'teachers, pupils, and the domestic staff working in a community spirit for the emotional, physical and intellectual development of the children'. After a visit to the school in 1946, the Deputy Chairman of the New Education Fellowship, Joseph Lauwerys, pronounced that Koornong was the 'only one school where the total school environment was planned and set up in the light of modern psychology and pedagogy so as to provide optimum conditions for the wholesome development of children'. Nevertheless, a chronic lack of finance, exacerbated by war restrictions, contributed to the school’s closure in 1947. Sadly, a severe bushfire swept through Warrandyte in 1950 and nearly all the school buildings perished.

The Nields moved to Sydney, where Clive taught in a number of high schools and held research positions in the Department of Education, University of Sydney, where he completed a Masters of Education in 1958. He was appointed lecturer at the Sydney Teachers’ College, and in 1960 was awarded a UNESCO International Research Fellowship to attend the International Institute for Child Study in Bangkok. From 1963 until his retirement in 1973, Clive Nield was Senior Lecturer in the Department of Education at the University of Sydney. He died in 1977 and was survived by his wife, Janet and architect son, Lawrence.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Anne Sanders, 'Nield, Joseph Clive (1908–1977)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 May 2024.

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