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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Roach, Bertie Smith (1864–1944)

by Elizabeth Kwan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Bertie Smith Roach (1864-1944), teacher and writer, was born on 12 December 1864 at Penwortham, South Australia, eldest of twelve children of Henry Roach, butcher, miner and farmer, and his German wife Sophia, née Wege, nurse to Joanna and Robert Barr Smith's children. Bertie was educated at Moonta and, after a stint on the Yorke Peninsula Advertiser, from 1879 was a pupil-teacher for four years at Moonta Mines Public School. After spending 1883 at the Training College and the University of Adelaide, he was an intellectually demanding and innovative teacher in public schools from Orroroo to Naracoorte. On 1 January 1889, in the Bible Christian Church, Crystal Brook, Roach married Edith Guard Keen; they had two daughters and two sons.

Roach was one of a group who sought reform of South Australian education; committed to the New Education, they deplored the emphasis given to the 'mechanical' subjects of writing and drawing above the more 'intellectual' history, geography, literature and Nature study. They wanted to replace rote-learning with child-centred observation, and wished Australia rather than Britain to dominate the curriculum. Alfred Williams led them but Roach, an old friend, was a crucial supporter. By 1903 he was a delegate from the Adelaide Teachers' Association to the South Australian Public Teachers' Union and was soon vice-president. His friend and fellow Freemason, A. H. Peake, championed their cause in parliament and in 1906 appointed Williams director of education.

Roach immediately became editor of the Children's Hour, a monthly paper for second to fifth-year primary pupils. Begun in 1889 by John Hartley, the paper enriched children's diet of 'Royal Readers'. Williams's direction that it be the key primary school textbook allowed it to convey New Education ideas; and it was a cheap vehicle for Australian material when there were few suitable textbooks. Roach was already a significant contributor, with his series on Australian explorers, begun in 1899. He extended his articles to include Australian literature, geography and Nature study, showing children it was a mistake to 'think that to be a hero, and to do deeds which poets may write about, or artists make pictures of, you must live in other lands'. Children and their parents, especially in 'back country farmhouses', eagerly awaited each issue. However, the balanced Australian/ British curriculum which Williams and Roach developed faltered after World War I.

Roach was editor until he retired in 1931. He also lectured in literature and history (from 1908) at the Continuation School (later the University Training College); he was inspector of schools from 1915. In 1919 he was considered for the directorship of education but his Anglican, rather than Methodist, background and his part-German parentage counted against him. Respected as a genial and knowledgeable figure in South Australian intellectual circles, he was treasurer of the Royal Society of South Australia and of the local branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, a council-member of the Institutes Association in 1914-35, and president (1933-35) of the board of governors of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery. He published in The South Australian Naturalist, the Geographical Society's Proceedings, The Centenary History of South Australia, as well as the Children's Hour and the Education Gazette. When his best friend Fred Johns died, Roach completed An Australian Biographical Dictionary.

Roach delighted in his book-lined study. He was adored by his grandchildren for his gentle humour and understanding of young people and their individuality. Predeceased by his wife, he died on 25 May 1944 and was cremated. Three children survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Report of the Minister Controlling Education, Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1885-1931
  • Education Gazette (South Australia), 1885-1931
  • Mail (Adelaide), 6 Nov 1920, p 2
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 26 May 1944
  • E. H. Kwan, Making ‘Good Australians’: The Work of Three South Australian Educators (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1981)
  • Roach papers and books (privately held).

Citation details

Elizabeth Kwan, 'Roach, Bertie Smith (1864–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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