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James Bonwick (1817–1906)

by Guy Featherstone

This article was published:

James Bonwick (1817-1906), teacher, author, historian and archivist, was born on 8 July 1817 at Lingfield, Surrey, England, eldest son of James Bonwick, carpenter, and his second wife Mary, née Preston. Soon after James's birth the family moved to Southwark, London, where he was educated at the Borough Road School in 1823-32. He began his teaching career in 1833 and had charge of several primary schools. While at Liverpool in 1837 he was influenced by a Baptist clergyman who converted Bonwick to Nonconformity and pledged him to the temperance cause. He returned to schools in London in 1838 and in May 1841 he and his wife were selected to manage the proposed normal school in Hobart Town, the chief school of Sir John Franklin's new Board of Education.

Bonwick arrived in Hobart on 10 October 1841 and took charge of the school next January. He resigned two years later because of the poor conditions and established his own boarding school in Hobart, moving it to Glenorchy in June 1847. At this time he produced the first of his many valuable school textbooks. Bonwick also associated with George Washington Walker in the formation of the Hobart Town Total Abstinence Society in 1842 and the Van Diemen's Land Total Abstinence Society in 1846, serving as secretary to both. Through Walker's influence he also became interested in the study of the Aboriginals. No less influential was his association with Henry Melville, who captivated Bonwick with his knowledge of Freemasonry and mysticism. Thereafter Bonwick inclined towards religious eclecticism even to the extent of a brief contact in London with the mystic, Madame Blavatsky.

In mid-1849 he unsuccessfully applied for the inspectorship of schools won by Thomas Arnold and, when an attempt to re-establish his school in Hobart in September failed, Bonwick left in February 1850 for Adelaide. There he opened a private school and identified himself with the cultural life of the city as a lecturer, secretary of the first Australian branch of the Young Men's Christian Association, and a founder of one of the earliest Australian teachers' associations.

Heavily in debt for building expenses, Bonwick left for the Victorian goldfields in February 1852. After a brief stay at the diggings he returned to Melbourne and worked as a lecturer and then proprietor of the Australian Gold Digger's Monthly Magazine, and Colonial Family Visitor. When publication ceased in May 1853 he opened a land agency, in conjunction with which he toured the diggings for a time as a lecturer for the Colonial Reform Association, a radical body pledged to 'unlocking the lands'. At the same time he helped to found the Victorian Liquor Law League which aimed to introduce prohibitory legislation. The land agency proved a failure and in January 1855 Bonwick opened a boarding school near Kew, but early next year had to close it because of poor health. For a time he lived by his writing, and published Discovery and Settlement of Port Phillip (1856) and other works. In June 1856 he was appointed an inspector for the Denominational Schools Board and for the next three years was engaged in this arduous work, which included two extensive horseback tours of western Victoria. He retired after a serious coaching accident in September 1859, received £300 in compensation and in November left for England.

Bonwick returned to Melbourne in July 1862 and at St Kilda opened another school which became very prosperous, having an enrolment of over 150 boys. He continued historical and anthropological work in his spare time, publishing John Batman (1867), Curious Facts of Old Colonial Days (1870), Daily Life and Origin of the Tasmanians (1870) and The Last of the Tasmanians (1870). In 1869 Bonwick made another visit to England, leaving the school in charge of his son William. The school was mismanaged and Bonwick had to return and arrange a lease in September 1871. He journeyed to England by way of New Zealand and the United States, and briefly visited Melbourne in August 1875 to arrange the final sale of his St Kilda property. Through the influence of Richard Daintree he was appointed an immigration agent to lecture in England for the Queensland government in June 1874; the appointment was repudiated in March 1875. He visited Australia in 1881 and while in Brisbane was again appointed a lecturer by the Queensland government; he toured England from January 1882 to April 1883. Meanwhile he began searching in London for early Australian source material; First Twenty Years of Australia (1882) and Port Phillip Settlement (1883) embodied this research. The wealth of material Bonwick discovered suggested to him the possibility of transcribing it for use in the colonies, similar to a scheme adopted by the Canadian government.

Bonwick's first offer to transcribe was made to the Queensland government, and he was appointed in June 1883 to do this work for a year. Small batches of transcripts were then made for South Australia in 1885 and the Melbourne Public Library in 1886. From January 1887 to 1893 he transcribed for Tasmania and from April 1887 to 1902 for New South Wales. These latter transcripts were used as the basis of the two-volume History of New South Wales from the Records (1889-94), and many of the transcripts themselves were printed in the eight volumes of the Historical Records of New South Wales (1892-1901); they were again used by Dr F. Watson, without due acknowledgment, as the basis for the first fifteen volumes of series I of the Historical Records of Australia (1914-26). The value of nearly all these transcripts is now somewhat limited, either because they have been printed or because the originals have been microfilmed. After ceasing transcription work in 1902 Bonwick published An Octogenarian's Reminiscences, but enjoyed only a short retirement before he died at Southwick, near Brighton, Sussex, on 6 February 1906.

On 17 April 1840 Bonwick married Esther Anne, a teacher, daughter of Rev. Barnabas Beddow, Baptist minister at Exeter. Of their seven children, two died in infancy, the eldest son died before Bonwick, two settled in England, and the other two left descendants in Victoria.

James Bonwick was amiable and quickly made many friends. He was full of nervous energy and had a passion for work, as revealed by his wide range of publications and the huge bulk of transcripts personally copied by him. More than sixty publications can be attributed to him and they reveal the major characteristic of his mind: breadth but no depth. Besides history, geology and anthropology were his most persistent interests, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1865 and of the Anthropological Institute in 1869; yet in those fields he was more a competent and industrious amateur than an original thinker. Though he often gave evidence to select committees on education his philosophy was derivative and based on an overbearing belief in the moral regeneration which educational facilities could achieve. The best of Bonwick's historical works show an extensive, methodical search for facts, but are unimaginative and lack digestion or analysis. Even his religious experience was thinly spread over many shades of Nonconformity and verged on mysticism. With his energy went a peculiar inability to manage his financial affairs, so that despite his extensive publishing ventures Bonwick died relatively poor. His importance is twofold: as a teacher he was a pioneer of new methods which placed stress on the pupil's observation and experiment rather than rote learning; as a historian his great work was as a discoverer and transcriber of factual records, a labour which laid the foundations for later serious study and never received due recognition. Portraits are in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and the Royal Historical Society of Victoria.

Bonwick's younger brother, Walter, was born on 21 November 1824 at Southwark, London. He was educated at the Borough Road School and trained there as a teacher. He developed his talent as a music teacher while working in provincial schools. In 1852 he was admitted as a sizar at St John's College, Cambridge, but did not take out a degree. He left for Victoria in 1854 and early next year was appointed one of the first singing masters by the commissioners of National education; he held similar positions under the Board of Education in 1862-72 and the Education Department from 1872 until his death in 1883. He published several collections of popular songs and The Australian School Song Book (1871?).

Select Bibliography

  • [E. A. Beddow], Appreciations of James Bonwick (West Norwood, c1906)
  • G. Featherstone, Life and Times of James Bonwick (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1968), and for bibliography
  • manuscript catalogue under James Bonwick (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Denominational Schools Board records (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • Bonwick transcripts (State Library of New South Wales, State Records of South Australia, Archives Office of Tasmania, Royal Historical Society of Queensland and State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Guy Featherstone, 'Bonwick, James (1817–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Bonwick, c.1887

James Bonwick, c.1887

State Library of Queensland, 19098

Life Summary [details]


8 July, 1817
Lingfield, Surrey, England


6 February, 1906 (aged 88)
Southwick, Sussex, England

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.