Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Williams, Susannah Jane (1875–1942)

by Patricia Horner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Susannah Jane Williams (1875-1942), classical scholar and educationist, was born on 15 September 1875 at Castlemaine, Victoria, second daughter of Edward David Williams, a grocer from Wales who later entered the Legislative Assembly, and his native-born wife Jane, née Jones. Having attended (Sir) James McCay's Castlemaine Grammar School, Susie was a resident at Trinity College Hostel, University of Melbourne (B.A., 1897); she was Annie Grice scholar (1894-95) and gained first-class honours in classics and comparative philology. In England, at Newnham College, Cambridge (1897-1900), she produced brilliant work, but completed the classical tripos with an upper second; during one vacation she had toured Greece and Asia Minor and in 1897-98 read archaeology at the University of London.

Back home, Miss Williams tutored in classics at Trinity College, University of Melbourne, and from 1902 taught English and classics at Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School, becoming chief of staff in 1908. From 1914 she again tutored at Trinity; her teaching was enhanced by her beautiful voice. In 1919, as acting principal at Trinity College Hostel, she directed expansion and refurbishing.

In June that year Miss Williams succeeded Louisa Macdonald as principal of the non-denominational Women's College, University of Sydney; with forty students it was the largest and oldest university women's college in Australia. Some councillors had feared that an Australian would limit its 'cultural outlook', but all had been impressed by her credentials.

As principal, Miss Williams acted on her belief that able women should attend university, in accommodation equal to men's, with good food and exercise, and with civilized surroundings. Although funds were short, the college expanded to house seventy students. Its somewhat Edwardian atmosphere dissipated as regulations were relaxed; students took over administrative duties and were encouraged in extra-scholastic activities and community work.

Vice-president of the Sydney University Social Service Society, president of the Sydney University Women Graduates' Association and a committee-member of many university associations, Miss Williams was a practising Congregationalist who arranged through the Sydney University Christian Union for students to study and discuss public questions. She was founding president of the Women Justices' Association of New South Wales and also served on the national board of the Young Women's Christian Association, the executive committee of the National Council of Women of New South Wales and the board of the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children.

'Of distinguished appearance', Miss Williams seemed reserved and intellectually intimidating to some students, but her kindness was unreserved. Her conversation was wide-ranging, cultured and stimulating. On her retirement in 1935, she left her successor a buoyant institution; its new wing (1937) was named after her. She cut short a visit to England in 1936 when pressed to become temporary principal of University Women's College, Melbourne; she remained there until 1938. Suffering from progressive muscular atrophy from 1940, she shared a Melbourne cottage with her old friend Emma Christina ('Dolly') Tonks. Susie Williams died on 27 May 1942 at Castlemaine and was cremated; her portrait by W. B. McInnes is held by University Women's College.

Select Bibliography

  • W. V. Hole and A. H. Treweeke, The History of the Women's College Within the University of Sydney (Syd, 1953)
  • E. I. Lothian, University Women's College, University of Melbourne (Melb, 1955)
  • L. Gardiner, Janet Clarke Hall 1886-1986 (Melb, 1986)
  • University of Sydney Union, Union Recorder, May-June 1942
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Apr 1920, 7 Oct 1922, 6 June 1925, 24 Feb 1926, 21 Mar 1930, 8 Nov 1933, 15 Dec 1938
  • Sydney Mail, 13 Nov 1929
  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 Oct 1936
  • Trinity College Hostel 1919: An Unofficial Record (manuscript, held by Janet Clarke Hall, University of Melbourne)
  • S. J. Williams diaries (privately held).

Citation details

Patricia Horner, 'Williams, Susannah Jane (1875–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/williams-susannah-jane-9118/text16081, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 1 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014