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Wilson, John Bracebridge (1828–1895)

by P. L. Brown

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

John Bracebridge Wilson (1828-1895), headmaster and naturalist, was born on 13 September 1828, only son of Rev. Edward Wilson, rector and artist, of Topcroft, Norfolk, England, and his wife Lucretia, née King. His uncle was Lieutenant-General Sir Archdale Wilson (1803-1874). His schooling was certified by Rev. W. E. Scudamore, rector of near-by Ditchingham, and he matriculated in 1848 to St John's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1852). After graduating he apparently spent several years in painting, journalism, research and travel. Finally, at Toulouse, he faced 'the grand question — what is to be done?' With a friend Rugeley Collyer, he decided to sail for Melbourne to establish a school or, if disappointed, to open a store at the diggings. 'Once in Australia I will amass an adequate fortune, or I will never return'.

Wilson reached Melbourne on 24 November 1857 in the Guy Mannering. By April 1858, after three months service, he was third master, under Rev. George Vance, of Geelong Church of England Grammar School when it moved into its first proper quarters. A year later he was second in a staff of ten. In February 1860 he wrote to his mother: 'I shall I think be wise to make it the chief object of my ambition to take a prominent position in the Educational progress of this country'. Next June the school collapsed financially, but helped by a colleague Thomas Hutton, Wilson kept some forty boys together by renting three weatherboard cottages. He conducted this 'High School' so well that, after a necessary reconstitution managed by (Sir) Charles Sladen, he was appointed headmaster of a renewed Geelong Grammar School. In February 1863 he returned to its bluestone buildings with some fifty-eight day-boys and two boarders. On 7 April at Geelong he married Oriana Maria (d.1911), daughter of Horatio Nelson Rowcroft (1806-1878), a Geelong newspaper editor and brother of Charles Rowcroft.

Wilson's headmastership coincided with a revival and expansion of the English public school system. His first speech-day report announced his principles: teaching to university standards; religion with toleration; athletics for enjoyment and character-building; discipline, based upon trust, justice and kindness, expectant of truth and obedience. He was, he wrote, 'convinced that the majority of boys are not naturally inclined to be idle, when properly handled and properly taught'. At first, although well supported by Sladen and by Rev. George Goodman, Wilson laboured largely alone. His letter-books show his problems and reveal his vigour of mind and body, vision, determination, integrity, sympathy, justice, common sense, care for detail, and controlled, explosive wrath. Wrongdoing, real or imagined, lit the fuse, when Wilson's exclamatory beard, kindling blue eyes and slightly shaken head presaged a detonation which scorched offenders. But he was always fair, would apologize when mistaken, and soon forgot simple transgressions, even later when gout distressed him. He was well set up in his prime, just under 6 ft (183 cm) tall, and usually wore a frock coat with a dark-flowered vest. Although, unlike James Cuthbertson, he did not make chums of his boys, he was their loved and respected 'Chief' and watchful, unselfish guardian.

A sound classical scholar, mathematician and linguist, Wilson had a natural taste for natural science and practical affairs. Like other contemporary headmasters, he aimed at Arnold's ideal of the Christian gentleman. He echoed the fifteenth Psalm, but moved easily in the world of facts, and knew the real from the fanciful. As his staff became more reliable, and he became older, he was seen less about the school. But he still held it together, knew every boy, and was ready to help, without condescension, any who brought him a problem in natural history.

Wilson developed strong links with the University of Melbourne and its M.A. was conferred on him in 1876. He became well known as a marine biologist, and in 1882 was elected a fellow of the Linnean Society, London. He rejoiced in a succession of yachts and usually spent the school vacations in pioneer dredging about Port Phillip Heads for shellfish, seaweeds, sponges, and similar marine life, which were preserved and examined in the large well-arranged aquarium at his Sorrento cottage, Atherstone, and distributed to naturalists for further study. The Royal Society of Victoria, and museums in Australia and Britain received valuable collections from him. As scientist, Wilson was chiefly an exact collector and broad classifier, but he associated easily with men such as Sir Frederick McCoy, Sir Ferdinand Mueller, Arthur Dendy, Arthur Henry Lucas and (Sir) Baldwin Spencer. He published several articles in scientific journals. As naturalist, his lasting bequest to the school was the Saturday ramble.

Wilson died of gout on 22 October 1895 at Geelong, survived by his wife and two of his three daughters. He was buried in the Eastern cemetery, Geelong.

Select Bibliography

  • Corian, Sept 1971
  • Wilson letter-books and school records (Geelong Grammar School)
  • family information.

Citation details

P. L. Brown, 'Wilson, John Bracebridge (1828–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-john-bracebridge-4869/text8139, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 November 2017.

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

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