Within months of his arrival in Hobart Town in 1817, Lieutenant Governor William Sorell set about improving the overall status of education in the colony. At that time, no government educational institutions existed though there were a few private schools for the children of those who could afford to pay fees.
He was not the first Lieutenant Governor to express an interest in education in Van Diemen’s Land. Colonel David Collins, who held that office from late 1803 to 1810, had seen the need for orphan schools, particularly for poor and convict children but received no support from the Colonial Office for his plans, even though they were designed to be largely self-supporting by the incorporation of a school farm.
Following Collins’ premature death in1810 his successor, Thomas Davey, did not arrive in Van Diemen’s Land until 1813. Prior to Davey’s arrival, the first official notice relating to education in Van Diemen’s Land was issued in 1812 by Governor Macquarie, who was obviously keeping an eye on the affairs of the Island whilst it was being administered by a succession of military officers. The notice declares that His Excellency the Governor was:
… pleased to confirm Mr T Fitzgerald as schoolmaster at the settlement in Hobart Town in Van Diemen’s Land. Mr Fitzgerald will be entitled to receive from the Rev Mr Marsden, Principal Chaplain of the territory, the usual salary of £10 sterling allowed by the Society for the propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, which salary is to commence from June last .
In return he was to teach the children of the poor for free.
Following confirmation of Davey’s appointment as the new Lieutenant Governor, the authorities in London had felt it necessary to warn Governor Macquarie about his character and behaviour, and indeed the Governor’s own was assessment of Davey was that he showed “an extraordinary degree of frivolity and low buffoonery in his manners”. Davey was often referred to as Mad Tom and appears to have been too busy frequenting local taverns in the evenings, and illegally declaring martial law to deal with bushrangers, to give any thought to the lack of schools and teachers in the Colony. Reports of his administration over the period of 1813-1817 point to a steady decline in the moral and social character of the settlement on the banks of the Derwent River.
Sorell, in contrast, proved to be a sound administrator, and sympathetic to educational development. His early correspondence with Macquarie about education received prompt and favourable responses.
Requests for funding for the payment of teachers, and the provision of bibles, prayer books and spelling books met with favourable responses. Requests for government funds to be paid to certain teachers, however, reveal a less than vigorous assessment of what kind of character reference was needed to be a teacher. In the case of Thomas Fitzgerald, who had been dismissed from his position as clerk to the bench of magistrates because he was too much of drunkard, Sorell had no compunction in assuring Macquarie “an increase in salary for this schoolmaster would be well bestowed”. The increase was granted, with no objections raised by Macquarie.
When Sorrel expressed concern about the plight of the children of convicts and poor parents, who had limited access to schools and teachers, Macquarie readily agreed to help, though with the proviso that he would like it to be done without too much government expense. In relation to affording suitable education to this group of children Macquarie had sought advice from the Reverend Mr Cowper, assistant chaplain to the Reverend Marsden in New South Wales which he passed on to Sorell.
Mr Cowper qualified his response by saying firstly that he did not know the clientele of the Van Diemen’s Land charity schools and his response was based on his Sydney experience. He did, however, feel he could comment on the two schools (run by Mr and Mrs Fitzgerald) that Sorell claimed to be inadequate. The Reverend Mr Cowper set out the ideal qualities of a teacher as being to have learning, morality and piety and to be freed from all other duties. Teaching should be an all-consuming occupation with teachers necessarily “devoting their time and talents to the children committed to their trust.” More schools were not the answer, rather more attendance and diligent discipline. Fine words about the desired qualities of teachers, but as in other appointments to colonial positions, Thomas Davey being but one example, there was often a blind eye turned on character failings to achieve the goal of “good riddance”.
It is hard to provide accurate figures on the number of government schools, teachers and pupils during Sorell’s tenure in Van Diemen’s Land, as the compilation of statistics by different officials, using different resources, does not provide a reliable result. However, it is estimated that by 1819 approximately 160 children were receiving education at public schools. By the time Sorell left Van Diemen’s Land in 1824, his aim of making education more widely available had seen the establishment of eleven public schools and a Sunday School, with over 200 pupils in Hobart Town, Launceston and other major areas of settlement. The position of Superintendent of Schools was created in 1820 and was the first attempt to organise Tasmanian education.
In 1819 Thomas Bigge was instructed by Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, to carry out a wide-ranging commission of inquiry in the colony of New South Wales (including the dependency Van Diemen’s Land). He visited Van Diemen’s Land from 21 February 1820 to 28 May 1820. His report included a thorough examination of the state of education, laying bare the grim reality of government funded schools in Van Diemen’s Land which is discussed in separate post.
In fairness to previous Lieutenant Governors and Sorell, the point needs to be made that prior to 3 December 1825 Van Diemen’s Land was part of New South Wales and where decisions on a whole range of matters were required, they had to seek permission from the Governor of New South Wales. Acting on their own initiative was not open to them.
While an examination of Sorell’s achievements in furthering government funded education reveals only small victories, his efforts paved the way for his successor, Colonel George Arthur who, once Van Diemen’s became a separate colony, had the advantage of not being ham strum by oversight from a distance.