In 1785 Britain had to face the dilemma of what to do with the convicts it had been sending to the American colonies from 1718 to 1785. It is estimated that over 50,000 criminals were shipped to America during this period, in order to alleviate the overcrowding in British gaols. But the American War of Independence put an end to this convenient disposal of undesirables, and as a result the Colony of New South Wales was established as a place of penal punishment and exile for British criminals.
By 1812, when Lord Bathurst became Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, questions were beginning to be raised about the effectiveness of transportation being a sufficient deterrent to criminal activity. In fact, there was a growing suspicion by officials in the government that there was a widespread view that being a convict in New South Wales was better than being destitute in England.
Under pressure to make a decision on New South Wales’ future as a penal colony, Lord Bathurst appointed Thomas Bigge to head a Commission of Inquiry in 1819, The commission sets out the extent of Bigge’s task:
We … do give you full power and Authority to examine into all the Laws Regulations and Usages of the Settlements … and every other Matter or Thing in any way connected with the Administration of the Civil Government, the Superintendence and the Reform of the Convicts, the State of the Judicial, Civil and Ecclesiastical Establishments, Revenues, Trade and internal Resources thereof and to report to Us the Information, which You shall collect together, with your opinion thereupon.
Notwithstanding the wide-ranging powers bestowed on Bigge, Bathurst followed this up in a letter reinforcing the point that transportation to New South Wales was intended as a severe punishment, applied to various crimes; and as such must be rendered an object of real terror to all classes of the community. The sub-text of this communication could be read as the British government having concerns about paying for criminals to have the opportunity for a better life overseas. During the early colonial years in Australian of the Home Office proved to be quite adept in identifying and shifting financial responsibility for the convict population from London to the colonies.
Bigge did undertake a very thorough Inquiry, which included the state of education in the Colony (including the dependency of Van Diemen’s Land). In the first half of 1820 the Commissioner and his Secretary travelled to the Island to gather evidence on the administration of the dependency, which included an examination on the state of education.
The chief witnesses to give evidence to the Inquiry were the Rev Robert Knopwood in the south and the Rev John Youl in the north. Robert Knopwood appeared before the Commissioner in Hobart Town on 3 April 1820 to answer questions about the school system:
Q.- Are the schools of the settlement under your superintendence?
A.- They are in great measure, and I give a monthly return to the Lieutenant Governor. During the interval I generally visit the schools.
Q.- How many schools are there in Hobart Town?
A.- There were four lately, but one has been reduced on account of the misconduct of one of the masters. There are likewise two girls’ schools.
Q.- How are the schoolmasters and mistresses paid?
A.- They are paid a salary from the Colonial Fund, and they likewise receive a certain sum from the parents of the children, some 1s. and some 1s.6d. per week. Fitzgerald is the principal schoolmaster in Hobart Town and has kept a school since the year 1807. He receives £25 per annum from the police fund and a government man on the store, and in consideration of that, he teaches the children of the poor persons gratis. Mrs Fitzgerald has £15 per annum and one government man on the store. The schoolmasters at Pittwater and Clarence Plains are paid £20 per annum each from the Colonial funds.
Q.- Do the other two schoolmasters receive pay from the government?
A.- Neither. Both are locally set up.
Q.- What was Mr Fitzgerald when he arrived in the Colony?
A.- He was a convict.
Q.- What was Mrs Fitzgerald?
A.- She was free, I believe. She came from Sydney.
Q.- What are the other schoolmasters?
A.- Stone was a free man and came so lately from England. Donnelly, who has been dismissed, was a convict.
Q.- What was Donnelly dismissed for?
A.- He was fined for receiving stolen goods.
Q.- Did not a Mrs Jones keep a girls’ school here?
A.- She did for about a twelvemonth. She does not keep a school now, but she instructs the children of the Deputy Judge Advocate and I believe of Mr Kemp.
Q.- Has Fitzgerald’s conduct been correct?
A.- Pretty good, though he is sometimes guilty of excess in liquer.
Q.- Do the in habitants and settlers in the country show a desire to send their children to school?
A. They do.
Q.- Do the convicts when they can afford it?
A.- They do, and when they cannot afford it, they apply to me and are admitted gratis.
Q.- Do Catholic parents show any reluctance to have their children taught at these schools?
A.- I have never seen any objection made by them.
Q. What are the children taught at these schools?
A.- Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, and the girls Sewing, Needlework and The RevReading.
Rev John Youl gave evidence in Launceston, on 27 April 1820.
Q.- What is the character of the two persons employed as schoolmasters in Launceston?
A.- Mr Macqueen, the public schoolmaster, is a very dissipated man.
Q.- Is he free and of the Protestant religion?
A.- He is free and I believe he is Protestant. The other school master is William Browne who acts as my clerk, and is a sober and attentive man and has a very good school. He was a prisoner and is now free.
Q.- How are these schoolmasters paid?
A.- Macqueen is paid £15 from the Orphan Fund, and £10 by the Rev Marsden from some institution in England. Browne is paid only by his scholars, and as a clerk he and his wife are on the stores.
Q.- Does Macqueen receive any payment from the scholars?
A.- About sixpence per week.
Q.- Are the schools well provided with books?
A.- They were not until I came (five months previously). They have a good supply now from a Sunday School Society in London.
Q.- Do you observe a disposition amongst the parents in this settlement to have their children educated?
A.- In general there is, but at a distance from this place they are very ignorant.
It is not surprising that the Inquiry’s report on education in Van Diemen’s Land deemed it to be unsatisfactory. The only supervision of schools was by district chaplains, drunkards taught both boys and girls, and none of the teachers had any training.
Suggestions by the Commissioner in his final report included bringing competent teachers to the colony, the establishment of training schools, the introduction of the English monitorial system of Doctor Bell and the establishment of a farm near the school in Hobart Town. His opinions would provide future lieutenant governors with a reference point from which to improve the standard of education in Van Diemen’s Land.