Early Moves towards Government Support

From the mid-18th century, politicians and reformers were starting to look at ways of broadening access to education to include all levels of society. Derek Gillard’s Education in England: a History Chapter 5 provides a useful timeline, and list of resources, in relation to the evolution of government-funded education in England and the penal colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land.

In 1776 Adam Smith, in his book Wealth of Nations, put forth the argument that education is an essential element of a flourishing society and the costs of education should be such that “even a common labourer may afford it”. He expands on this to say:

… for a very small expence the publick can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people, the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education …

However when it came to setting up a penal colony in New South Wales in 1788, the ideas of Adam Smith and others were not foremost in the minds of British parliamentarians. Overcrowded gaols and prison hulks were highly visible social problems, and the general view of the ruling classes was that criminals were inherently defective, and incapable of rehabilitation. Solutions were limited: resort to the death penalty, or separate the worst of the prison population from the law-abiding citizens by exiling them.

The victory of the Americans over the British forces in the revolutionary wars ruled out continuing the option of shipping criminals across the Atlantic.  An alternative destination was needed, and New South Wales was identified as being, among other considerations, sufficiently far away to daunt any thoughts of escape by prisoners.

So it should not come as any surprise that Lord Grenville, Secretary of State for the Colonies, included, almost as an afterthought, in his instructions to Captain Arthur Philip, first Governor of the new Colony, that:

a particular spot in or as near as each town as possible to be set apart for the building of a church of 400 acres adjacent thereto allotted for the maintenance of a minister and 200 for a school master.

Box ticked – no further action required on our part! Have a good trip.

Six years later William Wilberforce, writing to Henry Dundas, Principal Secretary of State for Home Affairs, still felt comfortable to say, when referring to education:

… In my last letter I mentioned to you that I had been informed a sufficient number of tolerably qualified instructors for the children, both of the convicts and the natives, that the settlers themselves, would be teachers of the colonial children …

It was left to the Society for the Promotion of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPGFP) to secure the appointment of the Rev Richard Johnson as Chaplain for the 1788 expedition, but no one appeared to be responsible for making provision for a school master, even though nearly 40 children made the journey to  New South Wales with their parents (both bond and free). However in the first few years Johnson was kept busy with his clerical and magisterial duties and it was not until 1792 that he found time to write to the SPGFP suggesting that educated convicts could act as teachers, and receive an annual grant of ₤10 from the Society.

However in 1796 Governor Hunter approached the Colonial Office about the need for a public school. The following year saw around 100 children being instructed in the basics of education by convict teachers. and in 1800 and 1802 Governor King took the first small step towards establishing state-sponsored education by opening Male and Female Orphan Schools in the Colony, which provided elementary education, training and residential care within a religious setting, for children who were neglected, abandoned or destitute. It was the beginning of official recognition that government should accept responsibility for the welfare and education of children.

In another development in 1803, Governor King had become alarmed about the presence of French scientific explorers in the region. In particular, he feared that they might have plans to claim the island of Van Diemen’s Land as French territory. He decided that a settlement should be established in Van Diemen’s Land and the island officially claimed as a British territory, which would operate as an extension of the existing penal colony in New South Wales.

In 1803 John Bowen was hastily despatched to plant the British flag in the newly claimed territory, with a smart new uniform to wear and a proclamation to read to any Frenchman who might appear at Risdon Cove on the River Derwent. As it turned out the scientists on board the French ships were too busy collecting specimens along the southern coast of the continent to make the detour further south to hear the words penned by Governor King.

There was no mention of education or schools in Bowen’s instructions, which was not surprising as the new settlement’s primary purpose was to be used as a convenient relocation of the worst convicts in Port Jackson. Neither David Collins (who took over Bowen’s Risdon settlement in the south and moved it to Sullivan’s Cove across the River Derwent) nor William Patterson who established a settlement in the north in 1804, received any specific instructions on providing similar educational opportunities that now existed in New South Wales. Schooling was essentially left to the Lieutenant Governor and the Lieutenant Governor initially left it to the church, which was the institution responsible for rehabilitation of offenders, and by extension, their children. Free settlers were expected to take on the responsibility of teaching their children.

Initially both Collins and Patterson had to focus all their efforts on surviving, with the new settlements often facing starvation as crops failed and additional supplies did not arrive. But by 1806 conditions had begun to improve and Lieutenant Governor Collins went so far as to buy a 100 acre property in Sandy Bay to be used for the education of the colony’s orphans and children of the poor. He proposed that it could be funded in a similar way to the Orphan Schools in Port Jackson by setting up a maintenance fund and farming some of the property. In September 1806 Collins wrote to Lord Castlereagh also requesting:

… that a respectable man and his wife might be sent out in the capacity of schoolmaster and mistress who might be supported from the produce of the farm. I trust, my Lord, that my conduct in this instance will not incur your Lordship’s disapprobation.

No support for this venture was forthcoming (probably reflecting the attitudes expressed in the Parochial Schools Bill debate in the UK Parliament the following year)

In 1807 a bill designed to provide for the education of the poor in England had failed to get parliamentary support, with one speaker going so far as to say:

Giving education to the labouring classes of the poor … would in effect be found to be prejudicial to their morals and happiness; it would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture, and other laborious employments to which their ranks in society had destined them.

Debate on the Parochial Schools Bill covered a wide range of opinions about the desirability of state assistance for schools in England, and goes some way to understanding the lack of any specific government policy towards the education of “the lower classes” (including convicts) in Van Diemen’s Land.

So it was left to private enterprise to provide the first schools in Van Diemen’s Land, supporting themselves by charging fees, and in some instances receiving modest funds from philanthropic bodies. Jane Noel, a schoolmistress from Sydney, was probably the first to open a school in Hobart, but little is known about this enterprise except that it only operated for a short time. In 1807 Thomas Fitzgerald, an ex-convict, set up the first regular school in Hobart, combining this with acting as a clerk to the bench of magistrates. In 1810, Thomas Macqueen began teaching in the north of the Island, receiving a grant of ₤10 from the SPGFP. Two years later Thomas Fitzgerald received a similar grant.

Following the sudden death of Lieutenant Governor Collins in 1810 there was a period of three years before the arrival of Thomas Davey to replace Collins. During the period 1810-1817 there were no new educational initiatives in the Island. Schooling continued to be provided by private teachers, and churches ran Sunday schools. It was not until the recall of Davey and the arrival of William Sorrell as his replacement in 1817 that education began to be taken more seriously by the local administration as well as being included in British investigations into the operations of the penal colony of New South Wales and its dependencies. These two topics will be the subject of future posts.

About dashea2014

A Law Librarian with extensive experience in general legal and court libraries. Editor of the Australian Law Librarian for 4.5 years (2008-2012) and active member of Law Libraries Tasmania. Special topics - Tasmanian legislation and case law. A passion for maintaining access to print resources.
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