Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Topp, Charles Alfred (1847–1932)

by Peter Gill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Charles Alfred Topp (1847-1932), educationist and civil servant, was born on 22 March 1847 at Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England, third son of Samuel Topp, merchant, and his wife Sarah, née Clapham. He arrived in Melbourne with his parents in the Royal Charter on 17 March 1858. He was educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1867; M.A., LL.B., 1869), and admitted to the Bar in 1869 but did not practise. In September he was appointed assistant inspector of schools under the Board of Education. On 1 January 1873 at a salary of £450 he became one of the first nine inspectors for the new department under the provisions of the 1872 Education Act. By 1884 he was senior inspector of schools and that year became superintendent of the Training Institution and principal of the Training College in Spring Street, taking up his duties in March 1885. At the end of 1889 the new residential Training College in Carlton was opened under his control.

As a metropolitan district inspector Topp had given evidence to the 1882-84 royal commission on public education; like most teachers he emerged as a cautious supporter of the payment by result system, though advocating a less rigid approach. In 1888 Topp and Inspector-General John Main were asked by Charles Pearson to compare the efficiency of the school systems of South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria. They reported in March 1889 in a careful, even-handed way; in Pearson's view, it was 'a most searching investigation' and he used it in explaining subsequent legislation to replace the Victorian system by fixed salaries.

In January 1890 Topp became chairman of the reconstructed Board of Public Health, and in the next two decades won distinction as a versatile and efficient departmental head. In May 1894 he became under-secretary of the Chief Secretary's Department. He supervised parliamentary elections and was also returning officer for Victoria for elections in 1897 to the Australasian Federal Convention, for the referenda on the draft Constitution bill in 1898 and 1899, and for the Commonwealth general elections in 1901. He served at various times as commissioner of audit and in 1901 was a member of the Public Service Board; under the provisions of the Audit and Public Service Acts of 1901 he became in January 1902 the first public service commissioner in Victoria. He was awarded the Imperial Service Order in 1903. After his retirement on 30 April 1908 he continued to serve until 1917 on the Indeterminate Sentences Board in Melbourne and on wages boards.

Topp was also warden of the Senate of the University of Melbourne in 1886-90 and member of council in 1890-96; he was active in the 1880s in the foundation of a chair in biology and in the establishment of degrees in science. His interest in the natural sciences was practical as well as promotional. In 1887 he was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society of London on the nomination of Sir Ferdinand von Mueller. He was president of the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria in 1889-91, gave papers on natural history subjects and was a member of the committee of the Royal Society of Victoria in 1889-92 and of its associated Port Phillip Biological Survey Committee, active in 1887. He also contributed to the Melbourne Review.

At South Yarra on 25 July 1877 Topp had married Euphemia Shields, and became brother-in-law to Robert Ellery and Paul MacGillivray. He died at East Malvern on 13 July 1932 of cerebral thrombosis and was buried in the Boroondara cemetery, survived by his wife and a daughter and predeceased by three daughters and a son. His estate was valued for probate at £3400.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • E. Sweetman, History of the Melbourne Teachers' College and Its Predecessors (Melb, 1939)
  • Education Dept (Victoria), Vision and Realisation, L. J. Blake ed (Melb, 1973)
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 5 May 1894
  • Australasian, 4 Dec 1897
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 July 1932
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 July 1932
  • Bulletin, 20 July 1932.

Citation details

Peter Gill, 'Topp, Charles Alfred (1847–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/topp-charles-alfred-4735/text7861, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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