Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lawton, John Thomas (1878–1944)

by Desmond Gibbs

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

John Thomas Lawton (1878-1944), Presbyterian clergyman, educationist and social reformer, was born on 13 March 1878 near Digby, Victoria, eldest of eight children of James Lawton, carrier and later farmer, and his wife Susan, née Whyte, both Victorian born. Educated at Grassdale State School and privately, Lawton excelled scholastically and at 20 became a pupil-teacher. In 1903 he entered Ormond College, University of Melbourne (B.A., 1907; M.A., 1909) as a theological student and became the college's champion athlete. After a period as travelling secretary to the Australian Student Christian Movement, on 26 May 1910 at Hawksburn Presbyterian Church he married Bertha Maria Davies, daughter of a wealthy hardware merchant. That year Lawton was ordained and inducted into the new parish of Sunshine. In 1913 he became Presbyterian foreign missions secretary in New South Wales and in 1915-19 was minister at South Yarra, Melbourne, where he founded the School of the Pathfinder, a Montessorian day-school conducted by Margaret Lyttle (1875-1944).

A pacifist, Lawton joined the Australian Imperial Force as chaplain in October 1918. Arriving in London in April 1919, he attended a London University summer school in 1919 where Homer Lane spoke on the psychology of education. Back in Melbourne in December, Lawton lectured on psychology and sociology for the Workers' Educational Association. He resigned his ministry and in 1921 established St Andrew's College at Kew; Margaret Lyttle was directress of the junior school.

St Andrew's trained a generation of students, mostly girls, into ideals of truth, individual freedom and self-government. Believing in the perfectibility of human nature, Lawton envisaged a new social order which would challenge commercialism and exploitation. He attacked advertising, the cinema and the financial world, and promoted the pacifism of Kagawa, Schweitzer and Gandhi. He allowed his student council wide powers, encouraged participation in decision-making and banned classroom competition. The senior girls responded with speech-night pageants based on H. G. Wells and Van Loon, plays in Esperanto and participation in student Christian organizations. To the popular misconception of St Andrew's as 'the school where they do what they like', Lawton's riposte was 'the school where they like what they do'. Indeed, the curriculum was varied and comprehensive and Lawton attracted talented staff.

The Depression and Margaret Lyttle's departure to establish Preshil, Kew, forced the school's closure in 1933. Lawton returned to the ministry. From Hartwell he wrote on social and fiscal issues, broadcast over the radio and worked for the Christian Social Order Movement, the Kagawa Co-operative Fellowship and, less actively, the Workers' Co-operative Movement and the Movement Against War and Fascism. Sometimes called 'the red parson', he took a Christian Socialist stance and shunned the Communist Party of Australia in order to keep his ministry.

Tall and eloquent, Lawton was a sincere, strong-willed, at times dogmatic, man whose social conscience often cost him his peace of mind. He died of cerebro-vascular disease on 24 December 1944 at East Melbourne. Survived by his wife, four sons and one daughter, he was buried in Box Hill cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Other Men Laboured: Fifty Years with the Student Christian Movement (Melb, 1946)
  • C. A. White, The Challenge of the Years (Syd, 1951)
  • Centenary History of South Yarra Presbyterian Church, 1854-1954 (np, nd)
  • Middle Way, June-Dec 1940
  • Hartwell Presbyterian Messenger, vol 3, no 7 (Jan 1945)
  • Presbyterian Church of Victoria, Proceedings of the General Assembly, 7 May 1945
  • Australian Journal of Education, 14, Mar 1970
  • Truth (Melbourne), 4, 11 May, 28 Sept 1935
  • R. C. Petersen, Experimental Schools and Educational Experiments in Australia, 1906-48 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1968)
  • D. R. Gibbs, John Thomas Lawton (1878-1944) (M.Ed. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1978)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Desmond Gibbs, 'Lawton, John Thomas (1878–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lawton-john-thomas-7123/text12289, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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