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Bromby, John Edward (1809–1889)

by Manning Clark

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

John Edward Bromby (1809-1889), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co. from a lithograph by Fergusson & Mitchell

John Edward Bromby (1809-1889), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co. from a lithograph by Fergusson & Mitchell

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3600375

John Edward Bromby (1809-1889), clergyman, schoolmaster and public lecturer, was born on 23 May 1809 at Hull, England, son of Rev. John Healey Bromby and his wife Jane, née Amis; his brother, Charles Henry, became bishop of Tasmania. Bromby was educated at Hull Grammar School and at Uppingham where he won exhibitions and scholarships. At 18 he entered St John's College, Cambridge, where he held a scholarship on the foundation and the Bell university scholarship. He graduated ninth wrangler in mathematics and second class in classics (B.A., 1832; M.A., 1845; B.D., 1845; D.D., 1850), and was ordained deacon in 1834 and priest in 1836. At Cambridge he competed with Tennyson and Hallam for the chancellor's medal for poetry, the subject in his year being Timbuctoo. Though Tennyson won the medal, Bromby maintained through life that his own poem was better.

In 1836 Bromby began his career as a schoolmaster at Bristol College where Walter Bagehot was one of his pupils. In the same year he married Eliza Sophia, the daughter of Alderman Lilly of Bristol. Later he founded his own private school in Bristol but was appointed principal of Elizabeth College, Guernsey, in 1847 where Hugh Childers was one of his pupils. In 1850 Bromby was university preacher at Cambridge. In 1854 he resigned from Elizabeth College in order to assist his ageing father.

While working as curate to his father at Hull he was offered in 1857 the first headmastership of the newly-founded Church of England Grammar School in Melbourne. He decided to accept. He arrived in Melbourne with his wife and nine children in February 1858 and opened the school with eighty pupils in April. By 1861 he had enrolled 195 boys and, though by 1870 the school was feeling the pinch of competition from other schools such as Scotch College then under Alexander Morrison's forceful personality, the school continued to expand and its old boys began to make their own distinctive mark in the commercial, professional and political life of Melbourne. When Alfred Deakin was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly in February 1879, Bromby noted in his journal that he was the first of the Grammar School pupils to rise to legislative powers and then added wryly, 'Would that it had been in a better cause'.

Much of this success was due to Bromby. Quixotic and unworldly on all questions affecting the material welfare of the school, he had the presence, the wit, the learning and the charm with which to win the admiration and affection of the boys. Sarcasm was absolutely unknown to him. A stern denouncer of sin, he managed to convey that it was not the boy but the sin which had provoked his rage. On the rare occasions when he used the cane, he used it severely. The boys saw him very much as Alfred Deakin saw him when a pupil as 'a fine breezy, humorous, prompt, passionate and impressive personality'. The boys also responded to his eccentricities of behaviour. Spartan simplicity, he told them, was the rule by which he governed his life. He kept his body spare but athletic by wielding the spade or axe in the headmaster's garden before groups of delighted boys to whom he offered simple maxims on life, while chips flew as the doctor laboured with all his might.

In 1874 Bromby retired full of honours. His fame and reputation were then well known outside the classrooms of the Grammar School. On 4 September 1866 he was appointed a member of a royal commission to report on the working of the educational system. With George Higinbotham and James Henty he had been selected by McCulloch's ministry to represent the Anglican Church. After the first meeting of the commission on 13 September, Bromby noted in his journal: 'the dignity of the position will not repay a man for all this toil. Let me hope I am doing something for the good of my generation. Today the grey goose was busy in training her goslings'. On the commission he showed his sympathy with the principle that in questions of religious faith and practice every man had a right to decide for himself even if his conclusions clashed with those of bishops, priests and deacons. Five years later Bromby was again a centre of public controversy when he championed the right of women to study for degrees at the University of Melbourne. In 1868 he had been elected warden of the University senate. Influenced possibly by the success of his oldest daughter Elizabeth, who had taught Latin with great success at the Presbyterian Ladies' College after her matriculation, Bromby used his influence to persuade the professorial board on 6 December 1871 to admit women as students. On that day the council of the university instructed the registrar not to permit a female to matriculate. By that time he was already a storm centre because of his public lectures. Like Bishop Charles Perry, Bromby believed fervently that religious belief had nothing to fear from the advances in scientific knowledge. But to the consternation of those who relied on the Bible as their authority, Bromby seemed prepared to surrender too much ground to the critics of holy writ.

On 9 August 1869 he lectured on 'Pre-Historic Man' at the Princess's Theatre, Melbourne, under the auspices of the Early Closing Association. He declared his sympathy with the objects of his promoters, for on questions of behaviour he was a stern advocate for discipline and restraint. He thundered against all the degrading vices of drinking, prostitution and gambling which sprang up in towns, as he put it, 'like poisonous weeds'. He remained the fervent champion of religious faith, partly because he believed that it deterred man's descent into the life of the goat and the monkey. He was aware, he said, of the panic whenever science penetrated deeper into any of the arcana of nature, as geology had done in the preceding age and as everything from positivism to protoplasm was doing in their own age. Yet religion held her own, and never before numbered in its ranks so many men distinguished for science and research. The Bible, he insisted, must be taken as a book full of religious but not of scientific truth. It must not be treated with a prostration of mind amounting almost to superstition, nor with that reverent feeling which in fervent excess led to Mariolatry, Sabbatolatry and Bibliolatry. 'Let us ever bear in mind', he reminded his audience, 'that the letter killeth but the spirit it is which giveth life'.

The defenders of the Bible were outraged. Believing that Bromby had surrendered to the evolutionists, they accused him of handing man over to the paternity of the chimpanzee and orang-outang. Shouting from the public platform that all those who criticized the Bible were destroying the entire moral government of the universe and that savages could not create a civilization, they prophesied that the Bible would stand through the ages until the last sinner had been called and the dead had been gathered for their prize of eternal salvation.

On 8 August 1870 Bromby appeared on the stage at the Duke of Edinburgh Theatre, again under the auspices of the Early Closing Association, to lecture on 'Creation versus Development'. Once again he reiterated his three themes: that the discoveries of science supported the statements of holy writ; that indulgence in gross vice shipwrecked men's finer sensibilities; that the individual should not accept uncritically the teachings of those who claimed authority in questions of religious truth. He also discussed whether a Christian should impugn the righteousness of God because multitudes of souls went down the broad road to perdition while few entered the narrow gate which led into life. He insisted that God would save those who had heard of his Word, and leave to perdition, not torment, those who were strangers to it. Once again some of the believers were shocked and attacked Bromby, but he refused to shift his ground. On 15 November he again lectured for the Early Closing Association; this time his subject was 'Beyond The Grave'. Again he praised the men of an inquiring mind who did not devote all their spare time and money to indulgence in so-called pleasures. Again he insisted that only those in covenant with God could go to life everlasting. He had incorporated the evolutionary doctrine on the survival of the fittest into Christian teaching on the life of the world to come.

By then it was clear that Bromby, far from being a rebel or a radical on the question of faith, was reflecting the drift of opinion amongst the professional and commercial classes who had risen to political and social power in the decades after the discovery of gold. As a mark of the high regard in which he was held by the supporters of individualism in questions of belief and a disciplined conformism in all questions of behaviour, Bromby was inducted vicar of St John's Church, Toorak, in 1875. In November 1876 he was appointed senior chaplain of the Victorian Volunteer Force. In 1877 he was appointed incumbent of St Paul's Church, Melbourne, and elected a canon when the chapter of St Paul's Cathedral was constituted in 1879.

In 1880 Bromby preached a course of sermons on the earlier chapters of Genesis. He took the occasion to sum up his vision of life. He had used the gifts of God not to shake but to confirm the faith of his fellow-Christians. He had clung closely to faith in Christ his Lord. With the Holy Spirit's aid he had striven, as should all the faithful members of Christ's church, to keep firm in the paths of righteousness. He had been filled, as were all believers, by joy and peace, and hoped to pass after death into a higher state of existence when much that was mysterious about life on earth would be unveiled. On 18 September 1882 he delivered a lecture for the Australian Health Society on 'The Emunctories'. His subject was the contribution of the handkerchief to civilization. He began with much wit and ended characteristically with a plea to his audience to take exercise and use discipline in diet so that they might become like the prophet Daniel, 'fairer and fitter in flesh than all the others'.

By then Bromby's appearance mirrored much of what he had striven for in life. He was white-haired, spare in build, of little more than middle height and much given to the eccentricities and absent-mindedness of those whose minds were constantly on higher matters. Though the side whiskers were a venerable white, the eyes were bright, the mouth firm, the voice full and the accent decided. On many aspects of life he spoke with a lively wit, but on all questions affecting faith and morals he spoke with the fierce, yet gentle, mien of a man who believed he would be summoned before the supreme judge and lawgiver of the universe. That was no laughing matter. On his seventy-fifth birthday a large and brilliant assembly gathered in the Melbourne Town Hall to present Bromby with an address.

By his wife, who died on 29 September 1883, he had six sons and five daughters. On 29 October 1884 at Queenscliff he married Elizabeth Margaret, daughter of C. D. Banks of Melbourne. On 29 June 1882, as though sensing his own dissolution, he had proposed to make a fresh will, and made this entry in his journal: 'I have now set my house in order, and … shall be ready to obey my summons to depart; fully aware of my unworthiness, yet not without hope that I may find mercy and pardon at the hands of my Saviour and Judge'.

On 14 December 1888 while hurrying to Sunday school he was seized with dizziness and fell down the stairs of the parsonage in East Melbourne. Early next year, while still an invalid from injuries when he fell, bronchitis set in and followed by heart failure led to his death at the parsonage on 4 March 1889. His funeral service at St Paul's Church and burial in the Melbourne general cemetery were attended by large congregations of clergymen and laity including many old boys from the Grammar School. The choir sang 'Now the Labourer's Task is O'er', while at the graveside three volleys were fired by the party from the Victorian Permanent Artillery. The Argus, 5 March, praised him as one of 'the genuine pioneers of the colony [who had laid] the foundation, not of our material prosperity, but of that intellectual superstructure which every thinking man wishes to see raised upon the wealth of the community'; had there been more like him in the colonies it would not be necessary to send to Britain for bishops, for Bromby had begun that education of the sons of the bourgeoisie to fit them to take over the government of both church and state in the Australian colonies. Within ten years of his death one of the men whom he had helped to fashion, Alfred Deakin, was putting his stamp on the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia.

A posthumous portrait by Charles Wheeler is at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Goodman, The Church in Victoria During the Episcopate of the Right Reverend Charles Perry (Melb, 1892)
  • G. M. Dow, George Higinbotham: Church and State (Melb, 1964)
  • ‘Prominent Victorians. Rev. Dr. Bromby’, Leader (Melbourne), 26 Mar 1881 supplement
  • J. A. Hone, Higher Education of Women in Victoria in the Later Nineteenth Century (M.A. thesis, Monash University, 1965)
  • J. E. Bromby, letter-journal extracts (Melbourne Church of England Grammar School).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Manning Clark, 'Bromby, John Edward (1809–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bromby-john-edward-3063/text4517, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

John Edward Bromby (1809-1889), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co. from a lithograph by Fergusson & Mitchell

John Edward Bromby (1809-1889), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co. from a lithograph by Fergusson & Mitchell

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3600375