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Albert Gordon (Bon) Austin (1918–1990)

by Barbara Falk

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Albert Gordon (Bon) Austin (1918-1990), professor of education, was born on 20 September 1918 at Brunswick, Melbourne, son of Albert Ernest Austin, a New Zealand-born potter and lay preacher with the Churches of Christ, and his Victorian-born wife Minnie, née Plain. The Austins had adopted a daughter in 1908. Educated at Brunswick East State School, and at Coburg and Melbourne High schools, 'Bon' became a student-teacher in 1936 and that year joined the Melbourne University Rifles, Citizen Military Forces. After attending (1938-39) the Teachers’ College, he was appointed to Murtoa Higher Elementary School.

On 15 June 1940 Austin enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. A mature poem he published in the Teachers’ College journal, Trainee (December), revealed the conflicting emotions with which he embarked for the Middle East. In June 1941 he was commissioned as a lieutenant and in March 1942 posted to the 2/24th Battalion. He led his platoon in the assault against Tel el Eisa Ridge, Egypt, on 22 July. His superior officers in 'C' Company having been hit, he took command. When ordered to withdraw his men, he remained behind and tended the wounded, becoming a casualty himself with a bullet in the leg. He was awarded the Military Cross.

Returning to Australia, Austin served with his unit in New Guinea from September 1943 to January 1944. He was promoted to captain (July 1944) and performed intelligence duties in Australia (1944-45) and on Bougainville (March-August 1945). On 12 February 1944 at Wesley Church, Melbourne, he had married Sylvia Amelia Smith, a stenographer. His AIF appointment terminated on 10 September 1945. War service had transformed him. Five ft 7 ins (170 cm) tall, he held himself erect and grew a moustache; his clear, confident speech left little trace of his austere upbringing and days as a student-teacher. He resumed teaching and attended the University of Melbourne (BA, 1948; Dip.Ed., 1949; B.Ed., 1954; M.Ed., 1956) on a Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme scholarship.

In 1950 Austin was transferred to University High School and appointed part-time lecturer in method of social studies in the university’s faculty of education. His marriage was amicably dissolved that year. At Scots Church, Melbourne, on 20 January 1951 he married Helene Iris Chalmers, a fellow schoolteacher. Although an inspiring classroom teacher, he resigned in 1956 and became a full-time university lecturer. His faculty was held in low esteem in the university and was torn apart by disagreements over educational theory. Austin, an empiricist, began researching the history of education to promote the academic respectability of the discipline and also to fill a gap in Australian history.

Despite a heavy teaching program, he produced George William Rusden and National Education in Australia 1849-1862 (1958), Australian Education 1788-1900 (1961) and Select Documents in Australian Education 1788-1900 (1963). Australian Education was a meticulously researched and elegantly written account of the development of public education, concentrating on the tug of war between church and state. In 1963 he was awarded a senior Imperial Trust Fund fellowship, which took him to London. His edited volume The Webbs’ Australian Diary 1898 (1965) was an outcome of this visit. In 1966 he shared the Encyclopaedia Britannica award for education. Teaching, researching and writing brought him fulfilment.

In June 1966 Austin was appointed professor and dean of education. Endowed with neither taste nor talent for administration, he found this work an unwanted burden. He chaired the council of the Melbourne State College, the board of management of Melbourne University Press and the council of University High School. Within his faculty, he supported the establishment of the centre for the study of higher education (1967) and the introduction of Gwyn Dow’s innovative 'Course B' for trainee-teachers. He was courteously formal in his professional relationships in the faculty, but wit and informality distinguished 'Bon’s table' at University House.

Having suffered poor health throughout his tenure as head of education, Austin retired in 1978 and moved to Fairhaven. The academic board praised him for his humanity, helpfulness, tact and generosity, and affectionate minutes of appreciation from colleagues cheered him. He died on 20 August 1990 at Fairhaven and was cremated. His wife and their two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Murray-Smith (ed), Melbourne Studies in Education (1979)
  • J. R. Poynter and C. Rasmussen, A Place Apart (1996)
  • B. Falk, The Figure in the Foreground (2002)
  • D. S. Garden, Teacher Training in Carlton (PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 1992)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Barbara Falk, 'Austin, Albert Gordon (Bon) (1918–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 September, 1918
Brunswick, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


20 August, 1990 (aged 71)
Fairhaven, Victoria, Australia

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