Peter Jones, Tasmania Regional Meeting
Julian Robertson is well known to many Friends as a former Presiding Clerk of Australia YM, but his path to that role is not so well known. He was born in the south of England but with an Army Dad, spent the first twelve years of his life in many different countries as the military moved the family around all the time. High school in Berkshire was more settled but he was now moving on from his Anglican background to a more searching phase of life, perhaps influenced by his mother’s interest In Theosophy and his sister’s interest in Buddhism.
Tertiary education had led him into Mining Engineering and practical experience took him to South Africa during the apartheid era as well as to tin mining in Cornwall, but his spiritual search now extended to Eastern faiths, including the writings of Krishnamurti. His professional career had led him to work briefly for Shell before he hopped on to a boat going deck class from the Persian Gulf to India, now on a serious search for the meaning of life. Indian travels led him to a Rural Health Centre at Sevanilayam in Tamil Nadu (South India), and it was there that he met Kay, his future wife, on her overland trip from Australia through Asia.
By then Julian had further expanded his spiritual search and visited a Catholic ashram run by Dom Bede Griffiths as well as developing an interest in Vipassana meditation and meeting Marjorie Sykes, a British Friend who had settled in India and had worked with Mahatma Gandhi. After three years, he and Kay moved back to England where Julian trained as a teacher before they decided that Australia called and they set off on a tandem that he built himself. Back in India at Sevanilayam for four years, they adopted their son, Chris, from an orphanage in India but had to go to Australia to complete the legal paperwork then required. Here they settled in Melbourne where Julian started attending Meeting at the former Meeting House in Toorak. It was in Melbourne that he started teaching Religious Studies at a Catholic school before an ad by Community Aid Abroad caught the couple’s eye, this time for a position in Somalia, so off they went, with Chris, to work there for two and a half years as a nurse and administrator of the project.
When that job finished, Julian took up an offer from the co-principals at The Friends’ School in Hobart (then Margaret and Michael Bailey) to come and teach Maths, after meeting them at Yearly Meeting in Perth. By then, Julian’s leadings had centred on connecting East and West so Quakerism had answered his need for a spiritual home, along with his perception that when it came to faith, “it was the practice rather than the belief that mattered.” The focus of Meeting for Worship for Julian was finding the stillness within, a concept that he feels that Friends still need to work on, but the Universalism of the Society also attracted him and still does.
Although teaching in the high school, Julian now suggested to the head of Year 11-12 that the school should pick up on teaching Studies in Religion again as it had lapsed as a curriculum topic although it was on offer as an examination subject in Tasmania. At Hobart Meeting, he also became involved in developing a Young Friends group that incorporated older Friends’ School students while in addition being earmarked at Meeting for the role of clerk and co-editing a regular newsletter. Young Friends activities frequently involved water: sailing, rafting and swimming and for Julian, his celebrated efforts to “walk on water.”
When Long Service Leave came up, Julian and Kay set off on the water in a small catamaran until the weather gods intervened and they ended up teaching in the Torres Strait Islands Then it was Kay’s turn to organise their travels in Asia and Julian ended up teaching briefly in Burma. His interest in meditation continued to develop through this period as he took part in various courses still with the focus on Vipassana. Back in Hobart, Julian resumed teaching at the Tarremah Steiner School until John Green (then principal at The Friends’ School) offered him a job as Quaker coordinator.
When retirement called, Julian could return to his passion for building and sailing boats, on top of all his Quaker positions at the Meeting and at the school, along with the support he has given to Silver Wattle since it started. Their son, Chris, had finished school and university, and celebrated his wedding at the Hindu temple in Melbourne (his bride came from a Sri Lankan-Australian family) and then a Meeting for Worship in a nearby garden. However work took the new family to Canberra and so today Julian and Kay contemplate leaving Hobart to undertake grandparent duties there.
The search continues but Hobart’s loss will be Canberra’s gain ….