Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Jane Foss Barff (1863–1937)

by Ursula Bygott

This article was published:

Jane Foss Barff (1863-1937), educationist, was born on 24 October 1863 at Sydney Observatory, daughter of Henry Chamberlain Russell, astronomer, and his wife Emily Jane, née Foss. Educated by a Miss Hooper, in 1878 Jane passed the junior public examination, and in 1881 the senior, each time sharing the Fairfax prize for the best pass gained by a female. Matriculating in 1883, she joined the second group of women to enrol at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1886; M.A., 1889).

Although few girls were taught science at school, Jane in her first year obtained first-class honours in chemistry, experimental physics and classics, and second-class in mathematics. She graduated with first-class honours in classics and second-class in mathematics, then travelled to England and Europe, spending time at Cambridge visiting Girton and Newnham women's colleges. Returning to Sydney in 1887, she taught mathematics at Ascham, later teaching at Mlle Soubeiran's Kambala and privately. Her M.A. was the first in Sydney for a woman.

Jane promoted the cause of female graduates and undergraduates. Involved in early fund-raising for the university's Women's College, she was elected to its first council and served continuously until 1937. In May 1892 she and Louisa Macdonald formed the Sydney University Women's Association; Jane succeeded Louisa as president in 1893. Though she was by nature and position more conservative in her views than Louisa there was a lasting friendship between them. In 1891 Jane had been a founding member of the Sydney University Women's Society. Members worked at Newington asylum for aged women, the Woolloomooloo girls' club and at Harrington Street night school for girls, where in 1891-96 classes were under Jane's supervision.

Succeeding Helen Phillips, in 1892 Miss Russell was appointed tutor to women students at the university, the sole female post on the teaching staff, at an annual salary of £250. Possessing high ideals and strong principles, she enjoyed a good relationship with students and staff. What she saw as unseemly behaviour would earn the student a sharp reprimand, even if it occurred on the tennis court. She resigned to marry Henry Ebenezer Barff, the university registrar and librarian, on 6 September 1899 at Holy Trinity Church, Sydney. They had two children.

Macdonald described her dignified friend at an evening entertainment in 1900, where Jane wore 'a handsome black brocaded satin trimmed with jet'. Mrs Barff was involved in moves which led in 1913 to the Sydney University Women's Settlement; she was president in 1914-15 and 1919-24. Also interested in public affairs, she was a member of the National Council of Women and a proxy convener of the standing committee on emigration and immigration, subjects on which she wrote a comprehensive report for the 1914 quinquennial conference in Rome. A deeply committed Anglican, she was a council-member of the Mothers' Union and of St Catherine's Church of England School for Girls and a strong advocate of religious education for young people.

After her husband's death in 1925 Mrs Barff continued her public activities. She died at her Rose Bay home on 10 June 1937 and was buried in Waverley cemetery, survived by her daughter. Her Women's College friends instituted a prize in her memory.

Select Bibliography

  • W. V. Hole and A. H. Treweeke, The History of the Women’s College Within the University of Sydney (Syd, 1953)
  • U. Bygott and K. J. Cable, Pioneer Women Graduates of the University of Sydney 1881-1921 (Syd, 1985)
  • R. Williams, The Settlement (Syd, 1988)
  • C. Turney, U. Bygott and P. Chippendale, Australia’s First: A History of the University of Sydney, vol 1 (Syd, 1991)
  • R. Annable (ed), Biographical Register: The Women’s College Within the University of Sydney, vol 1, 1892-1939 (Syd, 1995)
  • J. Beaumont and W. V. Hole, Letters from Louisa (Syd, 1996)
  • University of Sydney Archives, Record, 4, no 1, May 1976, p 3
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 14 Apr 1915, p 6.

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Citation details

Ursula Bygott, 'Barff, Jane Foss (1863–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Russell, Jane

24 October, 1863
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


10 June, 1937 (aged 73)
Rose Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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.

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