From the Archives: Origin stories of our prizes and awards

Ms Charlotte McColl and Ms Bridget Minatel bring us the first of a series dedicated to exploring the origin and background to some of the many prizes and scholarships awarded to Grammar boys annually at Speech Day.


Alroy Cohen Prize for Oratory

This Speech Day prize is named after Alroy Maitland Cohen (SGS 1892–1899). It is described in the Prizes and Scholarships section of the Speech Day Booklet as being established by his estate in 1959. However, our research on Alroy Cohen found that an oratory prize was awarded in his name in 1921, much earlier than originally thought.

Pictured: Alroy Cohen (right) with fellow barristers

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Alroy Cohen participated in Grammar’s early Mock Trials such as the one pictured from 1906

Alroy Cohen attended Sydney Grammar School in the days of AB Weigall, when the school was a mere 35 years old. Although still relatively young, there were landmarks today’s pupils would recognise. Big School and its Blacket wings, as well as the Old Science building (then known as the New Science Rooms) were erected and being used.

Alroy Cohen, who later went on to become a barrister, received the first taste for his trade at College Street in the Literary and Debating Society, of which he became president. The Society regularly held animated debates, some which would not sound out of place today, such as “The censorship of the press is undesirable” and “Should a tax be imposed on bicycles?”. Cohen was involved in one of the School’s early Mock Trials, playing the role of ‘Mr Fleecem Well’. An account of the occasion can be found in The Sydneian.

Admitted to the Bar in 1905 and appointed as one of Her Majesty’s Counsel in 1961, he was active in chambers until his death in 1966. He served in both World Wars: as a Captain of the Infantry Battalion in WWI and as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Legal Corps in WWII.

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Alroy Cohen letter to Trustees 1959

Alroy gave back to his community in many ways: through his Jewish faith, his legal profession and quietly to his old school. He was an active worker for Legacy and in the NSW Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, a foundation member of the Jewish War Memorial, and he served on and gave to the Prisoners Aid Association. These were just a few of the ways he gave his time.

An oratory prize was first named after Alroy Cohen in 1921, where it is referenced in The Sydneian that “Mr AM Cohen has this year again presented £1 1/- for the Oratory Prize. He was a very active member of the Debating Society in the ’nineties.” He donated funds to the School a number of times over many years, naming Sydney Grammar School in a trust. In a letter in reply to the Trustees he writes, “I feel that in common with many others I owe a lot to the School and its welfare is dear to me”.

“…his sympathy and kindness, his patience and sincerity, his very goodness are the qualities which need no recall for they are unforgettable”. ABD Obituaries

Blake Matthews Memorial Prize for Creative Writing

This annual writing prize was named in memory of Blake William Matthews who flourished at College Street between 1973 and 1978, after attending Edgecliff Preparatory for three years.

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Blake tragically died in a car accident, while travelling as a passenger, on 30 July 1983 at the age of 22. The prize was established in 1990 by his parents, Michael and Wendy Matthews. Every year, the winning entry is published in The Sydneian.

While at College Street, Blake’s academic career was exemplary. But he also embraced all facets of school life, from being a member of the choir and naval cadets, to regularly participating in active pursuits such as rugby, skiing, surfing and camping with the Endeavour Club. He seemed to emulate his older brother Shaun, who clearly also made the most of his time at Grammar, as School Archive records show.

Blake was brimming with creativity and displayed a particular flair for literature. Many of his poems while at School appeared in The Sydneian. After the completion of his Communications degree at the Institute of Technology, Blake travelled to Europe and spent a year studying French and working in the film industry in Paris, returning via India. On his return he wrote a number of poems and a novella, Once Upon a Mind. Blake loved the medium of film, had begun directing short films and saw himself as a filmmaker. Shortly before his death he applied to the Australian Film and Television School in Sydney.

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In May 1983 he moved into a share house with other creatively minded friends in Darlinghurst. One of those was comedian, presenter and author Gretel Killeen. Gretel was in the car with Blake returning from a week-long skiing holiday with friends and family at Thredbo, that was involved in a collision in which Blake was killed instantly.

In 1990, Blake’s mother, Wendy, published a book titled Thoughts of a Young Man 1961– 1983 containing Blake’s writing, poetry and illustrations from the years before his untimely death. In the book’s introduction, Wendy describes her son as “a curious mixture of a Romantic and a Realist. From his poems and observations, it seems as if at times he had a love–hate attitude to life. Yet his joy in life and all it has to offer, and his search for truth often made it seem that he had to do everything now to pack it all in. Perhaps instinctively he knew he didn’t have much time.”

Coincidently and rather fittingly, Blake William Matthews shares his given names with William Blake, an English poet, painter, and printmaker (b. 1757–d. 1827), who was largely unrecognised during his life but now considered a seminal figure in the history of poetry and visual art of the Romantic Age.

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The following poem was written by Blake in March 1982 and read out at Blake’s funeral service by a close friend:

It seems so long since I’ve preferred
the comfort of poetry over sleep. T
he mind spiral of waking
in creative wonder
to a new idea,
rather than just a new day.
For you have absorbed that half of me,
Illuminated the shadows of my romantic spirit
to such an extent,
Happiness rendered me mute,
It sat on my lips like a heavy drug
Of sensual slumber-
Awaiting to lead me once again
Into the underworld of silent peace.
Where only one thing mattered
And that was love, and each moment
Of its presence hailed itself as divine,
So I prayed before it,
As once cynic blessed with a new belief
In something beyond myself.

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SGS Rugby 12A XV 1973 (Blake Matthews front row, second from left)

With sincere thanks to Dr Shaun Matthews and family.