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Margaret Hamilton Brown (1858–1952)

by Dean W. Berry

This article was published:

Margaret Hamilton Brown (1858-1952), headmistress, was born on 20 May 1858 at Lutton Place, Edinburgh, eldest daughter of James Brown, music seller and shopkeeper, and his wife Mary, née Home, a trained teacher. In 1863 Mary followed her husband to South Australia with her two daughters. Margaret was educated at Miss Bridgman's private school in Morphett Street, and also attended Adolph Leschen's Gymnastic Institution. She studied at the teachers' Training College in 1877 and completed her qualifications by pupil-teaching at North Adelaide Model School in 1878-83 where she proved herself 'a teacher of ability', of 'more than ordinary skill'.

Her father being unable to provide fully for his five daughters and three sons, Margaret was encouraged by her mother to start, in 1884, a governess class for small boys and girls in their North Adelaide home. Her youngest sister, Mary Home Brown (1878-1968), born on 16 May 1878, known as Mamie, and three others were pupils. Next year the family moved to Medindie and Margaret opened the Medindie School and Kindergarten. Probably the first kindergarten in South Australia, it was established on the progressive free principles of Friedrich Froebel: special infants' equipment was imported from Germany.

The enterprise developed as a girls' school in size and range of classes and was moved to a larger property on Northcote Terrace, which Miss Brown boldly bought for £2500 in 1893 and later named The Wilderness. Boarders were accepted, her sister 'Wynnie', who developed prowess in interstate tennis, helped with sport and infant teaching, and the whole family co-operated in the venture. The second daughter Kate Cormack also trained as a teacher. The school discouraged snobbery, uniforms were not worn and drama and vigorous sport were provided. Mortgage payments were heavy and classrooms often makeshift: they included the family dining-room, converted stables and an old tram-car in the luxuriant garden. All the sisters helped with teaching: Margaret took English and history, Annie became housekeeper and matron. The brilliant Mamie won a scholarship to the University of Adelaide (B.Sc., 1902) and returned to teach mathematics and Latin. Her reply to a suitor offering marriage was 'Thank you very much indeed, but … I must say that I prefer literature'. She was an adventurous cyclist and became an alert, firm and quick-witted teacher with a sense of humour. Margaret invariably maintained a serene equanimity in the class-room. As she aged she concentrated on keeping the accounts and the educational direction of the school passed to Mamie.

Mamie was influenced in the 1920s by the theories of Charlotte Mason who advocated masterly inactivity for teachers and self-direction, close reading and concentration for students. The importance of teaching from the best literature rather than condensed textbooks was emphasized. In 1928 The Wilderness School adopted Mason's methods and joined the Parents' National Educational Union of Great Britain. In 1923 a library had been established, and in 1936 a small laboratory, but science teaching was never strong. Senior students did well in university matriculation examinations from this school where 'the sacredness of personality' was respected.

The Brown sisters' energy had successfully built a highly regarded girls' school, with 360 pupils by 1946, out of the small beginning commonly adopted by many single women as a means of livelihood in the nineteenth century; it had become the longest-established independent girls' school in the State. In 1948 its ownership was vested in a company to ensure continuation beyond the life of the founders; that year Margaret was appointed O.B.E. She died on 5 December 1952 and from her small estate bequeathed a Mary Home Scholarship for free tuition at the school.

In 1958 Mamie retired but continued to live at the school and serve as a governor. All the sisters dressed in long skirts, mainly black, but Mamie wore grey to camouflage the chalk. In 1964 her portrait was painted by William Dargie and hung in the school hall. When she died on 1 December 1968 it was remarked that all pupils had felt 'the love, the humour, the honesty, the humility and complete lack of hypocrisy' by which the Brown sisters had lived.

Select Bibliography

  • E. George, The Wilderness Book (Adel, 1946)
  • M. Scales, John Walker's Village (Adel, 1974)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 1 Jan 1948, 10 Dec 1952, 2 Dec 1968
  • PRG 156/1-5 (State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Dean W. Berry, 'Brown, Margaret Hamilton (1858–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 May 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]


20 May, 1858
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


5 December, 1952 (aged 94)
South Australia, Australia

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