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Sir Francis Anderson (1858–1941)

by W. M. O'Neil

This article was published:

Francis Anderson, by Henry M. Ashby Co.

Francis Anderson, by Henry M. Ashby Co.

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22410688

Sir Francis Anderson (1858-1941), philosopher and educationist, was born on 3 September 1858 at Glasgow, Scotland, son of Francis Anderson, manufacturer, and his wife Elizabeth Anna Lockart, née Ellison. Educated at Old Wynd and Oatlands public schools, at 14 he became a pupil-teacher, a tutelage he detested. In 1876 he matriculated at the University of Glasgow (M.A, 1883), where he had a distinguished career; he won the prize for the outstanding graduate of his year, and was awarded the Clark philosophical fellowship which entailed assisting Professor Edward Caird for two years. He taught English literature during the absence of the professor concerned and studied in the theological faculty with the intention of entering the ministry, but was apparently not ordained. Nevertheless, in 1886 he migrated to Melbourne to become an assistant to Rev. C. Strong in his Australian Church.  

Instead of returning to Scotland as he had intended, Anderson in 1888 was appointed a lecturer in logic and mental philosophy at the University of Sydney. Soon he was also giving the evening course in English, for which he was paid extra. In 1890 he became first Challis professor of logic and mental philosophy, despite strong competition from notable British applicants. Anderson was to write very little on the subject he professed, but was to be remarkable as a teacher and educational reformer. In a pamphlet published in 1903, On Teaching to Think, he set out his aims—to make his students use their brains and to bring out the best in them. In his lecture-room 'questions were asked and discussion encouraged'. Whatever subject he lectured on, 'his exposition was always delightful; his early training in the classics, his beautiful voice, his dramatic sense, all joined to produce a profound effect upon his classes'. 'Hating dogma himself', wrote G. V. Portus, 'he would not be dogmatic to others. Fighting bureaucracy outside, he encouraged criticism from his students within'.

Anderson's philosophical position was 'Christian Idealist', predominantly Hegelian, but tempered by the earlier traditional Scottish line of thought which emphasized the self and moral values. His lectures soon settled into a pattern: a first course of logic and psychology, followed by a second and third ringing annual changes on the triad, ancient philosophy, modern philosophy, and social, moral and political philosophy. He covered an enormous range in all three of the advanced courses; in the first two his descriptions stressed the historical and critical approach. In his examination-papers he raised important issues in their historical settings and looked critically at the proposed solutions; despite his Christian Idealism, he seemed to be tolerant of other views. In his third advanced course, he ranged well outside philosophy, as conventionally defined, and concentrated on the relations between philosophy, religion, science and society; he managed to include ethics, education, economics, politics, and sociology in which he was keenly interested. It was perhaps too broad-ranging. His former students testify to his passionate yet critical pursuit of the truth. The more remote observer, viewing what little evidence remains, might see him as no doubt passionate, no doubt stimulating, but nevertheless somewhat restricted by his preconceptions in the pursuit of the truth. In philosophy he seems to have left too much unquestioned. In 1897 he was president of the mental science section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Brisbane, and in 1907 presided over its social and statistical science section in Adelaide; he read a paper, Sociology in Australia: A Plea for its Teaching, to the Sydney meeting in 1911 and published it next year.

Through his work for the Kindergarten Union of New South Wales, he had met Maybanke Susannah Wolstenholme, née Selfe, who was thirteen years his senior; on 2 March 1899 at Balmain they were married according to Congregational rites. In respect of education in New South Wales, Anderson left little unquestioned and little unanswered; Maybanke encouraged him. In a stirring address on 26 June 1901 to the annual conference of the New South Wales Public School Teachers' Association, he smote the public school system hip and thigh. He castigated the pupil-teacher system of training and the role of the teachers' colleges, and alleged that too few future or present teachers attended the university, even part time. He complained about the over-scholastic and rigid curricula of the primary and of the emerging secondary schools and the relative absence of study of the natural, physical and social sciences; he criticized the predominance of 'drill' and 'cramming' in teaching and the absence of 'inquiry'. He deplored the role of the school inspectors who, instead of encouraging innovation, assessed teachers in terms of their conformity to established norms. His audience was enraptured: 'Women were standing on chairs waving their handkerchiefs and parasols, men were stamping and shouting and shaking hands with perfect strangers'. The authorities at first derided his attack, a reaction which led him to write a number of newspaper articles in the Daily Telegraph and a pamphlet on The Public School System of New South Wales. Finally the Knibbs-J. W. Turner royal commission was appointed in 1902 to examine his criticisms. After a study tour overseas, it found largely in support of Anderson and his proposed reforms, many of which were implemented after Peter Board became director of education.

One of Anderson's ambitions was to convert teaching into a profession in the best sense of that term. In 1909 he used the three slogans: 'Train the Teacher, Trust the Teacher and Pay the Teacher'. By this time, with Board's aid, he had broken the back of the old pupil-teacher system, the Teachers' College was established and its first principal Alexander Mackie in 1910 also became professor of education in the university.

Anderson had proposed reforms in the university such as the broadening of its matriculation requirements to include English, a foreign language, mathematics and a science, and a new chair in economics (attained in 1913) accompanied by chairs of politics and sociology, for he believed that economics should not be taught in purely financial and commercial terms without a political and social context. He also promoted more intensive study of psychology, believing it to be perhaps the one essential component in the education of teachers. He handed over the first course to his assistant H. T. Lovell and encouraged him to develop an advanced psychology course as an alternative to the regular second-year philosophy subject.

A fellow of the senate in 1914-16 and 1919-21, and dean of the faculty of arts in 1914-15 and 1920-21, Anderson promoted adult education through the University Extension Board and, as chairman of the joint committee for tutorial classes from 1916, defended the participation of the Workers' Educational Association of New South Wales. He resigned his chair at the end of 1921 and was made emeritus professor. He declined an offer to have his portrait painted; instead, at his suggestion his work was commemorated by two mural panels by Norman Carter for the philosophy lecture-room. In 1922 he helped to found the Australasian Association of Psychology and Philosophy and that year published for it a monograph, Liberty, Equality and Fraternity; he was first editor of its Journal in 1923-26. His 'Notes from the editor's chair', as well as the material he accepted from local and overseas authors, revealed the breadth of his interests. He was president of the local League of Nations Union for many years, although he had doubts about the capacity of the league to enforce peace, and was chairman of the Council of Social Service of New South Wales until 1941.

At the end of 1926 the Andersons visited Britain and Europe; Maybanke died in Paris next year. After his return to Sydney Anderson married Josephine Wight (d.1953) on 20 January 1928 at St Saviour's Cathedral, Goulburn, and again visited Europe. He was made an honorary LL.D. by the University of Glasgow in 1927 and was knighted in 1936. Anderson died at his home at Woollahra on 24 June 1941, and was cremated with Anglican rites; he was childless. His estate was valued for probate at £1527.

Select Bibliography

  • G. V. Portus, Happy Highways (Melb, 1953), and ‘Francis Anderson—professor and citizen’, Hermes, Nov 1921
  • Australian Journal of Science, 4 (1941-42)
  • H. T. Lovell, ‘In memoriam’, Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy, 19 (1941)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 June 1901, 15 Nov 1921.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

W. M. O'Neil, 'Anderson, Sir Francis (1858–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Francis Anderson, by Henry M. Ashby Co.

Francis Anderson, by Henry M. Ashby Co.

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22410688

Life Summary [details]


3 September, 1858
Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


24 June, 1941 (aged 82)
Woollahra, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.