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William James Adey (1874–1956)

by Brian Condon

This article was published:

William James Adey, by Hammer & Co. , 1930

William James Adey, by Hammer & Co. , 1930

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6183

William James Adey (1874-1956), educationist, was born on 27 May 1874 near Clare, South Australia, son of Charles George Adey, farmer, and his wife Ann, née Ritchie. He was educated at state primary schools at Redhill and Milbrook, then at Houghton (where he became a pupil-teacher) and Sturt Street, Adelaide. He attended the Grote Street Training College in 1894 and—under special arrangements—the Melbourne Training College in 1907; he passed several subjects part time in 1909-15 at the University of Adelaide, but never graduated. On 17 December 1910 at North Adelaide he married Mabel Edith Dyer (d.1915) and, on 7 May 1921 at Walkerville, Constance Margaret Weston, a teacher.  

Adey was to occupy every rung in the departmental ladder. From 1895 he was a primary teacher at Quorn, Clare, at the inner-city Sturt Street and then the Adelaide Continuation schools. In 1909-19 he was the founding headmaster of Adelaide High School, the Education Department's first such school. He left it to become inspector of high schools in 1919-20. He was superintendent of secondary education for the next nine years and, finally, director of education in 1929-39. He retired at full age, having seen the state schools through the Depression years.

A second choice as director of education, Adey was appointed with an explicit charge to limit himself to carrying out the design of his predecessor W. T. McCoy—and only that. Adey was hard pressed to achieve even that much, but distinguished himself by a notable and sustained defence against unwarranted contractions of popular education. No innovator and no intellectual, Adey was none the less universally respected for his administrative and teaching ability, and liked for his evident humanity—he was affectionately nicknamed 'Plugger'. He continued to enjoy the esteem of his contemporaries, including even his subordinates, while pursuing policies with whose specifics none of them could have totally agreed.

Adey will be remembered for his part in the 1931 committee of inquiry, appointed to consider cutting the cost of public education. He concurred in the first progress report, which largely enshrined his own policy of saving money by accelerating the consolidation of small primary schools—belt-tightening, without structural change to the system. He dissented from the second progress report, in which his fellow members proposed fees, contractions in post-compulsory schooling, and greater control over entry to high schools, Adey's pride and joy. He opposed the amalgamation of country high schools and insisted that fees be low, with exemptions for those of limited means. When fees were later introduced he minimized the operation of their worst inequalities.

Adey was not an original educational thinker, and his educational writings are not memorable. Following overseas writers, he was somewhat in advance of his local community in seeing the future of secondary education in the single high school, multilateral if highly stratified—a vision not realized for some thirty years. He was very much of his time in stressing education for service, and very much of a type in hoping that education might temper the monotony of work in industry by training the worker to exploit his leisure.

Before and after retirement, he was active in community service: he was a council-member of the University of Adelaide in 1929-50; for many years he presided over the Soldiers' Children Education Board; in 1939 he chaired a government committee inquiring into delinquent and other children in the care of the state, which reported critically and humanely; in 1940-42 he was a member of the Libraries Board of South Australia. He enjoyed cricket, tennis and golf in his spare time. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1935.

Survived by his second wife, and their daughter and two sons, Adey died at his home at Burnside on 23 May 1956, and was buried in the North Road cemetery, Nailsworth.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Condon (ed), Newspaper Clippings Books … Department of Education, 1926-39 (Adel, 1973-76)
  • C. M. Thiele and R. Gibbs, Grains of Mustard Seed (Adel, 1975)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1931, 2 (69), 1937, 2 (54), 1939, 2 (44)
  • Education Gazette (South Australia), 15 June 1956
  • Observer (Adelaide), 17 July 1920
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 16, 21 Apr, 28 May, 19 July 1937, 28 May 1956
  • L. Trethewey, A Study of the Educational Administration of W. J. Adey (Advanced Diploma in Teaching dissertation, Torrens College of Advanced Education, South Australia [University of South Australia]).

Citation details

Brian Condon, 'Adey, William James (1874–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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