Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Bee (1864–1941)

by G. E. Sherington

This article was published:

James Bee (1864-1941), headmaster, was born on 23 December 1864 at Oamaru, New Zealand, son of James Bee, clerk, and his wife Marion Dickson, née Guthrie, both Scottish-born. He was educated at Oamaru Grammar School where he became a pupil-teacher in 1878. In 1884 he won an exhibition and attended the University of Otago (B.A., N.Z., 1887; M.A., 1888) and Dunedin Training College where he gained a teacher's certificate in 1887. A good athlete, he played Rugby for a New Zealand team against New South Wales in 1884 and 1886. On 8 January 1890 at Hoopers Inlet near Dunedin, he married Wilhelmina Young, who was to provide strong encouragement throughout his career. He was senior mathematics master at Wellington College for eighteen years and continued his studies at Victoria University College (B.Sc., N.Z., 1902; M.Sc., 1905).

In January 1907 Bee was appointed headmaster of the Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne. An innovator, he soon introduced physics and chemistry into the curriculum and had a properly equipped laboratory built; this led to a generation of medical and scientific women. As the enrolment grew, he added commercial and domestic science courses and encouraged sport. A musician as well as a fine sportsman, Bee proved himself a 'first-rate teacher and born educator, as interested in the welfare of the least as of the most gifted girls and vividly aware that book-learning is only a part of what there is to be learnt at school'. An elder of the Cairns Memorial Presbyterian Church, he was a councillor of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Victoria and a member of the Schools Board of the University of Melbourne.

In July 1913 Bee was appointed principal of Scots College, Sydney, in succession to Rev. A. A. Aspinall. Enrolment had fallen very low, while the reorganization of New South Wales education in 1910-12 presented the prospective challenge of an expanding state high school system. He was supported by Rev. R. G. MacIntyre, chairman of the college council, who foresaw the possibilities arising from the development of Sydney's eastern suburbs. Under their guidance a new class-room block was built, boarding accommodation increased and land bought for playing fields. The college benefited from the growing demand for secondary education and the increased support for such schools during and after World War I. Enrolment grew from 54 pupils in 1914 to 305 in 1924.

Bee espoused an educational philosophy based on the English public school tradition adapted to the Australian environment. He encouraged the teaching of science and mathematics and emphasized character-building through team sport (he acted as his own sportsmaster), development of school spirit and loyalty to the Empire. He was a firm disciplinarian and, while generally popular, somewhat distant in his relations with staff and pupils. After MacIntyre retired in 1920, Bee lost his close relationship with Scots College Council. The school continued to expand in the 1920s but he resented council intrusion into college affairs; with the onset of the Depression his last years as principal were rather difficult, but in 1932 he was president of the Headmasters' Association of Great Public Schools of New South Wales. He had been an elder of the Woollahra Presbyterian Church from 1921.

Bee retired in 1934 and died of coronary occlusion at his home at Rose Bay on 30 October 1941; he was cremated. He was survived by his wife, one of their twin sons and three daughters; the other son had been killed in action in World War 1. His estate was valued for probate at £2558. As a young man he had worn a magnificent flamboyant moustache, 'a strangely dashing ornament for the face of a serious, gentle and rather shy man'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. C. Beaglehole, Victoria University College (Well, 1949)
  • M. O. Reid, The Ladies Came to Stay (Melb, 1960)
  • K. Fitzpatrick, PLC Melbourne (Melb, 1975)
  • Scotsman, June 1914, Feb 1924, Feb 1929, Nov 1934
  • ‘The Scot we know’, Scottish Australasian, Sept 1919
  • Wellingtonian, Dec 1941
  • C. Turney, ‘The advent and adaptation of the Arnold Public School tradition in New South Wales’, Australian Journal of Education, 10 (1966), 11 (1967)
  • M. R. L. Bee at Scots (Scots College Archives, Sydney)
  • private information.

Citation details

G. E. Sherington, 'Bee, James (1864–1941)', 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

Life Summary [details]


23 December, 1864
Oamaru, New Zealand


30 October, 1941 (aged 76)
Rose Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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