Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Arnold (1823–1900)

by P. A. Howell

This article was published:

Thomas Arnold (1823-1900), educationist, was born on 30 November 1823 at Laleham, Middlesex, England, the second son of Rev. Thomas Arnold and his wife Mary, née Penrose. His father became headmaster of Rugby School in 1827 and regius professor of modern history at Oxford in 1841. Thomas was educated at Winchester, Rugby and University College, Oxford (B.A., 1845). As a schoolboy he appropriated his father's creeds, but as an undergraduate he became a sceptic. In 1846 he was elected to a foundation scholarship at University College but his liberal idealism induced him to forsake a cloistered life. He entered Lincoln's Inn, and began to visit the destitute, but their degradation made him despair that such misery could be alleviated. He ceased reading law after three months and became a précis writer in the Colonial Office, where his distress increased. 'I have servants to wait upon me', he wrote to J. C. Shairp. 'I am fed and clothed by the labour of the poor, and do nothing for them in return. The life that I lead is an outrage and a wrong to humanity'.

On account of his pantisocratic principles, the sense of impotence which haunted his ideas for reform, and a longing for solitude and time for peacefully communing with his Maker, he decided to emigrate. He chose New Zealand, where his father had bought land, and arrived at Wellington in May 1848 in the John Wickliffe. He found living in seclusion far from easy, and he was not a successful farmer. When Governor Sir George Grey offered him his private secretaryship, he declined because his radicalism could not be reconciled with official policy. His views gradually modified as he found that colonial society had similar faults to that in England and he missed his old friends and intellectual life. When invited to start a private school at Nelson he accepted, but had trouble collecting his pupils' school fees.

Having heard of the foundation of the Hobart Town High School, Arnold sought information from his friend Captain C. E. Stanley, who was private secretary to Lieutenant-Governor Sir William Denison, but Stanley had already been planning a more exalted future for him as permanent head of the public education system in Van Diemen's Land. Denison was impressed by what he was told of Arnold and eager for the prestige of securing a son of Arnold of Rugby for the position. He passed over the strong field of local applicants and offered Arnold the post of inspector of schools, with a salary of £400. Arnold was jubilant. He reached Hobart Town on 14 January 1850 and took up his appointment next day. Of the 75 schools in the colony receiving government aid, 59 were Anglican, 4 Catholic, and 8 non-denominational on the principles of the British and Foreign School Society; there were also two infant schools and the Queen's Orphan Schools. Teachers at the public day schools had only a pittance from public funds, local subscriptions and school fees. The government contribution to their salaries was calculated under the penny-a-day system. Arnold's first annual report was a sweeping indictment of the whole scheme.

Arnold's labours in Van Diemen's Land demonstrated that a mind well trained in Oxford 'Greats' could apply itself effectively in any administrative task. In the first four years his major obstacle was Denison, who as lieutenant-governor was determined to keep public expenditure at a minimum. His arbitrary temper often made him despotic to his officials and, though he earnestly wished to improve the education system, he was impatient with plans and ideals which did not tally with his own. While Arnold never strayed far from his liberalism, Denison held an absolutist and monistic theory of sovereignty, which found expression in his schools bills of 1848, 1852 and 1853. These were rejected by the Legislative Council. Though Arnold worked hard to ensure their success, Denison resented his personal coolness towards them. Arnold criticized them chiefly because they proposed government control over every detail of school administration yet repudiated government responsibility for contributing to the cost of education. Arnold bombarded the colonial secretary with requests but Denison rejected most of them because of the cost and when he did promote the foundation of a Normal School, he gave it a meagre budget and the low salaries paid to teachers attracted few trainees.

Not until the end of 1853, when Denison abandoned hope of success with his schools bill, was he prepared to consider any substantial increase in the education vote. Then, in the face of hostility to the penny-a-day system from the churches and a select committee of the Legislative Council, he established a Board of Education and washed his hands of the subject. This board of all the members of the Executive and Legislative Councils had Arnold as its secretary. Denison ordered it to establish schools on lines akin to the National system in operation in Ireland and New South Wales, and stopped grants to denominational schools in March 1854. The board received Arnold's suggestions favourably, and great progress was made in the next two years. Public expenditure on education trebled and he was free to be more creative. His examination system for qualifying and classifying applicants for teaching positions, and his periodic tests for promotion in the department were both novelties in the Australian colonies. All permanent teachers received at least £100 a year, and houses were provided for masters. New schools were built and provided with essential equipment. The regulations which he drafted for the Board of Education were embodied, with minor alterations, in the Public Schools Act of 1868, which remained in force until replaced by the Education Act of 1885. His schemes for stipendiary monitors and pupil teachers remained the sole means of training teachers for the state schools until the opening of the Philip Smith Training College in 1906. A grateful Legislative Council increased his salary to £500 in 1854 and to £680 in January 1856. His departure in July 1856 was long lamented by the teaching profession.

In March 1850 Arnold met Julia Sorell, and was immediately attracted by her. Julia's background was not a happy one. According to Tasmanian legend she was alleged to have seduced Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Eardley-Wilmot; though this was improbable, it precipitated his recall. Her father William Sorell, registrar of the Supreme Court, was the eldest son of Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell. Her mother Elizabeth, daughter of Anthony Kemp, in a curious parallel of Colonel Sorell's behaviour, had permanently forsaken her spouse and legitimate children. Julia had an 'undisciplined and tempestuous nature', and had been engaged twice before she met Arnold. He married her on 13 June 1850 in St David's Cathedral.

While in Van Diemen's Land Arnold solved the problems which had plagued him since his undergraduate days by seeking guidance from Bishop Robert Willson who received him into the Catholic Church in St Joseph's pro-Cathedral on 12 January 1856. Julia was dismayed. She had grown up in a Protestant environment and acquired an aversion to Catholicism. Her fear of her husband's new-found faith never abated, and she sometimes threatened to leave him because of it. Elements of 'High Churchism and latitudinarian Dissent' joined forces in denouncing the step he had taken, and demanded his immediate resignation from office. Arnold's children and later writers believed he was forced to resign on account of his conversion but, according to Arnold, the new governor, Young, who alone had power to request his resignation, gave him no cause to think that his conversion was incompatible with the retention of his offices. The Legislative Council increased his salary ten days after the news became public, and only one member of the Executive Council expressed displeasure at his change of belief. The reasons why Arnold quit the colony are complex. Before leaving New Zealand he had written: 'I look upon Hobart Town as one step on the road to England'. He yearned to see his family and friends again, and quoted Horace's aphorism that crossing the seas changes one's skies, not one's mind. The outcry which greeted his conversion emanated from a few anonymous bigots, but helped to hasten his decision to return to England. In May 1856 he was granted leave for eighteen months on half-pay. He sailed with his wife and children in July.

On his arrival in England, Newman offered him the chair of English literature at the contemplated Catholic university in Dublin. The Irish hierarchy resented the appearance of yet another English convert at the college and took a year to ratify the nomination. Arnold became Newman's devoted friend and stood by him in times of crisis. In 1862 he resigned and followed Newman to Edgbaston, becoming the first classics master in the Birmingham Oratory School. Three years later, after a long illness, a return to extreme liberalism alienated him from the church. He moved to Oxford (M.A., 1865), took pupils, and made his mark as a student of English literature and history. He was the favoured candidate for the chair of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford in 1876, but his election was prevented when he reaffirmed his allegiance to the Catholic Church. In 1882 he was elected one of the first fellows of the Royal University of Ireland, and accepted the chair of English language and literature at University College, Dublin.

Despite his wife's extravagances and passionate temper, he remained devoted to her. A cripple for her last eleven years, Julia died in 1888. Of their four sons and four daughters, William Thomas became a journalist and historian; Mary Augusta achieved fame as the novelist, Mrs Humphry Ward, and her daughter, Janet Penrose, also became an author, continued her mother's benevolent works, and married the historian, G. M. Trevelyan. Arnold's third daughter, Julia Frances, married Leonard Huxley, and became the mother of Sir Julian Sorell Huxley, biologist and writer, and the novelist Aldous Huxley. After Arnold's conversion his daughters followed their mother's religion, while his sons were brought up as Catholics until he temporarily left that Church in 1865.

After 1856 Arnold was often beset by economic and mental distress. He found consolation in 'hard work for history and letters, in family affection, above all in religion'. His restlessness of mind invariably sent him running into trouble, not away from it. When he achieved certitude on any matter of conscience no possible consequence of holding that belief, not even the imposition of hardships on himself or those dearest to him, could make him deviate or shrink from acting in accordance with it. During his last years he was in Ireland, teaching, examining, and writing. In 1890 he married Josephine, daughter of James Benison, of Slieve Russell, County Cavan. He died in Dublin on 12 November 1900, and was buried at Glasnevin cemetery.

Arnold's publications include editions of Wyclif and of Beowulf, histories and anthologies of English literature, religious works and school textbooks. His published reminiscences, Passages in a Wandering Life (London, 1900), and his letters to his family and friends, preserve a valuable record of life in Van Diemen's Land in the 1850s.

Select Bibliography

  • Howell, Peter Anthony, Thomas Arnold the Younger in Van Diemen's Land, Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Hobart, 1964.

Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'Arnold, Thomas (1823–1900)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


30 November, 1823
London, Middlesex, England


12 November, 1900 (aged 76)
Dublin, Ireland

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