Photo of Brinley Newton-John

Brinley Newton-John Obituary, Wife, Career, Daughter, Olivia Newton-John’s Father

Brinley Newton-John Obituary, Career, Marriage

Brinley Newton-John (1914-1992), university administrator and professor of German literature, was born on March 5, 1914, in Cardiff, Wales, to Welsh parents Oliver John, a council schools manual instructor, and Daisy, née Newton.

Brin received a scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge (BA, 1935; MA, 1939), where he earned a double first in the modern and medieval languages tripos.

Following graduation, he worked as an assistant master at Christ’s Hospital (1936-38), then at Stowe School (1938–40).

He married Irene Helene Käthe Hedwig Born, daughter of physicist Max Born, on 5 April 1937 at the Kensington register office.

On 30 September 1940, Newton-John (as he would come to write his name) was commissioned in the Royal Air Force and assigned to intelligence.

He spent two years interrogating captured German pilots, gaining their trust and eliciting information through his language skills and familiarity with upper-class German society.

In May 1941, he assisted in establishing Rudolf Hess’s identity. In 1942, he was assigned to the top-secret Ultra project at Bletchley Park, an intelligence unit that, among other things, deciphered German Enigma codes, providing the Allies with advance knowledge of enemy plans.

He was in Hut 3 and was interpreting and analyzing the information decoded in Hut 6.

He was part of the team that provided crucial information about Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s forces and supply lines to General (Sir) Bernard (Viscount) Montgomery a week before the Battle of El Alamein in October 1942. He was promoted to war substantive flight lieutenant on September 5, 1945.

Newton-John returned to teaching as headmaster of Cambridgeshire High School for Boys after his demobilization in late 1945.

He moved to Australia with his family in 1954 to become master of Ormond College, University of Melbourne.

He spent five years at Ormond College. During his liberal regime, he initiated a massive construction program and made significant contributions to the college, university, and general community through committees and activities as an actor, singer, and television host.

Following the dissolution of his marriage in 1958, Newton-John applied for the position of associate professor of German and head of the arts department at Newcastle University College, which was then part of the University of New South Wales.

On June 28, 1963, at the district registrar’s office in Hamilton, he married Valerie Ter Wee (née Cunningham), a bookshop manager and pianist who later became a clinical psychologist.

He remained at the university until his retirement in 1974, rising through the ranks to become deputy warden of the college in 1963, vice-principal of the new university in 1965, and deputy vice-chancellor in 1974. (1968). He frequently filled in for J. J. as vice-chancellor.

Auchmuty, as the college gained independence and grew in stature as the University of Newcastle, rapidly expanded over the next decade.

Newton-easy John’s social skills complemented Auchmuty’s forthright drive in the early days when the vice-chancellor and his deputy were raising the university’s profile in the Newcastle community.

Newton-John stated in his farewell speech in 1973, quoting Jesuit superior general Claudio Acquaviva, that he had developed a “habit… of acting suaviter in modo to supplement the Vice-fortiter Chancellor’s in re.”

Eloquent and elegant, he brought to the fledgling institution a version of Oxbridge tradition, wrote its bylaws, and provided the university’s motto: ‘I look ahead.’

During the years of radical student protest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he made a significant contribution to good governance by establishing a staff-student consultative committee, paving the way for improved communication channels within the university.

Another long-standing concern was the provision of student housing. A history of the university’s first forty years noted “the enormous amount of work” he did for students, noting that “when he retired early in 1974, the students lost a real friend” (Wright 1992, 118).

Although administrative duties demanded much of his attention, particularly in preparation for autonomy, Newton-John continued to teach and was remembered by former students not only for the brilliance of his instruction but also for the sense that he took them seriously and treated them without condescension.

A personal chair of German literature was established for him when a chair of German was established in 1966.

He was particularly interested in student activities and welfare, founding the first university choir, performing in Student Players productions, and encouraging student revues.

Newton-John and other members of staff, many of whom, like him, are proud of their Welsh heritage, gave public readings of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.

This performance built on the success of previous performances in Melbourne. As an occasional speaker, he was well-known in the community as an ambassador for the cultural value of higher education.

He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1972. When he retired, the university bestowed the title of professor emeritus on him, and the convocation named an award for creativity and innovation in his honor.

Newton-John was able to pursue a long-standing interest in classical music more closely during his retirement.

His mother had been a member of the Royal Welsh Ladies Choir, and he had studied the violin as a child. He had considered a career as a professional singer for a time.

He participated in opera performances, German lieder recitals, and revues at Bletchley Park.

Throughout his career, he lectured on music ranging from Bach to Wagner, and after moving to Sydney in 1981, he was a regular presenter and board member of the fine music radio station 2 MBS-FM.

He was also a pioneer in Australian television broadcasting, serving as moderator of the Australian Broadcasting Commission program Any Questions in 1958 and creator and presenter of the popular but short-lived Forum for Newcastle TV station NBN 3 in 1962.


Newton-John married Gay Mary Jean Holley (née McOmish), a journalist, on August 21, 1983, in Manly, Sydney, after divorcing his second wife.

In addition to his love of classical music, he was a skilled photographer and an avid squash player in his youth.


He died on 3 July 1992 in Manly, NSW, leaving behind his wife, a son and two daughters from his first marriage, and a daughter and son from his second marriage.

He was cremated. Olivia, his first marriage’s daughter, became a world-famous pop star, and Brin became known as ‘the father of Olivia.’ Bill Leak’s portrait hangs in Ormond College at the University of Melbourne.

Cause of death: cancer of the liver

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