Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Tong-Way, Samuel John (1894–1988)

by Juliet Flesch

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Samuel John Tong-Way (1894-1988), teacher, community leader and soldier, was born on 25 August 1894 at Ballarat East, Victoria, eldest of four surviving children of Chinese-born parents John Tong Way (Lau Tong Way), missionary, and his wife Mary, née Kong. His father had migrated to the Victorian goldfields around 1885; he later worked as a missionary with the Methodist and Presbyterian churches and was ordained in 1903. Samuel was educated at Golden Point State School and Ballarat Agricultural High School (1910-11). He joined the staff of Dean Higher Elementary School, Maryborough, in 1912, transferring the same year to the Humffray Street State School in Ballarat. In 1914 he was one of only fourteen teachers accepted into the Melbourne Teachers’ College for a newly established secondary teaching studentship.

Graduating in 1917 (Dip.Ed.), Tong-Way worked briefly at Clunes and Daylesford higher elementary schools before joining the Australian Imperial Force. He had tried to enlist in 1916, but was rejected, initially because of his Chinese ethnicity and later on medical grounds. On 6 June 1917 he was accepted, joining the Australian Army Medical Corps and departing for Britain in May 1918. At 5 ft 3 ins (160 cm), Tong-Way was too short for stretcher bearing and he transferred to the 5th Divisional Signal Company in France after the Armistice. His brother Hedley (b.1896) also served in this company.

In March 1919 Tong-Way was granted nine months leave with pay to study physics and chemistry at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London. He also attended courses in Latin and history at the University of Oxford and pedagogy at the London Day Training College. Returning to Australia in February 1920 he completed his studies at the University of Melbourne (BA, 1921).

Tong-Way’s preference for country schools was soon evident. During his years at Yarram Higher Elementary School (1921-28) he followed what was to become a lifelong pattern of establishing lasting relationships with students and immersing himself in the life of the local community. He played cricket, bowls, golf and tennis. He was on the committee of the local Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia, a member of the Masonic Lodge and on the board of management of the Presbyterian Church.

From 1927 Tong-Way was head teacher at schools in Won Wron, Red Cliffs East, Wandin Yallock and Jeparit. On 21 May 1931 at Ringwood Presbyterian Church he married Emily Violet Wilkinson, who was also a teacher. As head teacher (1937-47) at Merbein State School, Tong-Way set up one of the first children’s libraries in Victoria. Funded by the Australian Natives’ Association, the Fruit Growers’ Association and Mildura Shire, the library serviced all the primary schools in the district and offered weekly library classes.

Transferring to Bendigo in 1948, Tong-Way was head teacher of Violet Street (1948-53) and Gravel Hill (1953-59) state schools before retiring in 1960. Described by Education Department officials as ‘zealous, progressive and thorough’, he also continued his involvement in all aspects of community life–as he expressed it in an interview with Morag Loh in 1982: ‘I took as my stand that I was a citizen of the country. I had fought for the country and therefore I should work for the country as well’. Survived by his two children but predeceased by his wife (1979), Tong-Way died on 10 May 1988 at Bendigo and was buried with Uniting Church forms in Kangaroo Flat cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • The Education Department’s Record of War Service, 1914-1919 (1921)
  • D. Garden, The Melbourne Teacher Training Colleges (1982)
  • J. Flesch and P. McPhee, 150 Years: 150 Stories (2003)
  • Age (Melbourne), 11 May 1988, p 22
  • M. Loh, interview with Samuel Tong-Way (ts, 1982, State Library of Victoria)
  • B2455, item TONG WAY SAMUEL JOHN (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Juliet Flesch, 'Tong-Way, Samuel John (1894–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tong-way-samuel-john-14875/text26064, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 29 April 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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