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Ellen Ida Benham (1871–1917)

by Helen Jones

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Ellen Ida Benham (1871-1917), educationist, was born on 12 March 1871 at Allen's Creek, Kapunda, South Australia, third of eleven children of William Hoare Benham, solicitor, and his wife Aimie, née Huggins. She went from Kapunda Model School to the Advanced School for Girls, Adelaide, where she was influenced by the headmistress Madeline Rees George. She studied at the University of Adelaide from 1889 (B.Sc., 1892). After becoming headmistress of Christ Church day school, Kapunda, for two years, she studied in Europe in 1895. She returned to teach science at Dryburgh House School, Adelaide, in 1896-1900, and later at Tormore House School under Caroline Jacob and concurrently at the Advanced School.

Ellen, like most of her brothers and sisters, followed her father's botanical interests. In 1901 the ailing professor of natural science engaged her to give his botany lectures; on his death that year the University of Adelaide confirmed the appointment, thus making her its first female academic. She reorganized the botany curriculum, extending the study of native flora and including field visits. An authority on the identification of plants, in 1906 she was appointed to classify a major collection presented to the university herbarium by the South Australian government.

To extend her knowledge of higher education, Ellen Benham went to England in 1908, teaching at Winchester High School and gaining the Oxford Diploma of Education in an unusually short time. She resumed teaching at Tormore and the university in 1909 and helped found the lively Women Students' Club in which she held office; in 1914 she was a foundation member of the Women Graduates' Club. Owing to illness she reduced her schoolteaching in 1910 and resigned from Tormore at the end of 1911, teaching part time at Akaroa School in 1912. Her university teaching ended that year with the foundation of a chair of botany.

In December 1912 Ellen Benham purchased Walford School, Malvern, South Australia. Her educational aims were based on the pursuit of excellence applied with a judicious combination of idealism and common sense. She had large, well-ventilated class-rooms, gave open-air lessons, and refused to accept 'entertainments or visiting' as an excuse for omission of homework. She consulted parents in order to establish 'the right adjustment of work to the physical and mental powers of the children', and believed that the student's abilities could be extended by the formation of habits of self-reliance, accuracy and thoroughness. She sought to develop each girl's capacity 'to become a useful and effective woman in whatever position she may have to fill'. At Walford she taught botany and physiology, raised academic standards, chose well-qualified staff and offered a balanced curriculum including callisthenics and sport. Influenced by Tormore and by English practices, she introduced hockey and tennis matches, sports days, informal cricket and the prefect system. She appointed an Anglican chaplain, emphasized esprit de corps and gave the school a motto: Virtute et veritate.

Miss Benham died of hepatic abscess in Adelaide on 27 April 1917 and was buried in Kapunda cemetery. The Benham Wing, incorporating science and class-room facilities, perpetuates her name at Walford Anglican School for Girls.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Jones and N. Morrison, Walford, a History of the School (Adel, 1968)
  • R. R. Chivers, The Benham Family in Australia (Black Forest, South Australia, 1970)
  • Tormorean, 1900-12
  • Kapunda Herald, 14 May 1917
  • Education Committee, Minutes, 1901-12, and registry files for E. Benham, 1901-12 (University of Adelaide).

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Citation details

Helen Jones, 'Benham, Ellen Ida (1871–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 June 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

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