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Alexander Cairnduff (1815–1880)

by E. L. French

This article was published:

Alexander Cairnduff (1815-1880), schoolmaster, was born in Belfast, Ireland. Deciding early on his career, he gained the certificates of the Ulster Teachers' Association and at 21 became tutor to the family of Robert Patton of Denaghadee, Hogstown. In June 1838 he moved to Belfast as master of the daily school connected with the Seamen's Friend Society, and next year became librarian at the Belfast Mechanics' Institute, and began attending classes at Belfast College. Presbyterian by upbringing, he was Sunday school superintendent at the Berry Street church.

He left Belfast in June 1843 to serve as assistant schoolmaster, on a salary of £200, at Pentonville prison, London, where reforms had lately been adopted through Quaker influence. He also studied at University College, and after fourteen months was appointed religious instructor of a proposed labour depot in Hobart Town for Pentonville convicts. With his wife Margaret he sailed in the Sir George Seymour, arriving at Hobart in February 1845. The depot was not ready, so Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Eardley-Wilmot appointed him religious instructor at Port Arthur. In 1846 he was moved to the coal-mines probation station in February and to the station at Long Point, Maria Island, in August. Humble and humane of purpose, he scorned the futility of instructing convicts by 'dull mechanical routine' and governing them by 'blind, naked strength'. His enlightened methods won repute. In the Sir George Seymour 151 male adult convicts presented him with a thankful address for his care, and his methods attracted the attention of James Backhouse and George Washington Walker, who used his information to stoke the fires of reform in England.

While at the coal-mines he applied to Bishop Francis Nixon for ordination. He was refused because, as a religious instructor, he came under the control of the superintendent of convict chaplains and Nixon would not ordain anyone outside his jurisdiction. Cairnduff then requested appointment as chaplain to the Presbyterian convicts, but they were too few to warrant it. After consultation with the moderator, Rev. Dr John Lillie, Cairnduff was taken on trial as a home missionary. He was licensed in November 1847 and sent to assist Revs John Anderson and Robert Russell, first in the district of Evandale, Nile and Esk Vale, then in Campbell Town and Upper Macquarie. He next assisted Rev. James Bell at St John's Church, Hobart. When Bell died in September 1852 he briefly became locum tenens and took classes at the high school. In 1854 he acquired the Cambridge House Academy, renaming it the Hobart Town Academy and opening it as a boarding school. He resigned his licentiate in September 1855. Though contemporaries often styled him Reverend, the minutes of the two presbyteries prove that he was not ordained. On issues of polity his sympathies were Free, and he became chairman of the Southern Anti-State Aid Association in 1859.

For the next sixteen years he devoted himself to teaching and the cause of private schools. When education commissioners in 1859-60 suggested that private schools were a system of 'fraud and quackery', Cairnduff, in a rare moment of indignation, publicly criticized their report, pointing out that more than half the colony's children were educated in private schools. The additional financial support proposed by the commission for the endowed schools would, he argued, place the private schools at a further disadvantage. The truth of this was evinced gradually as he fought a losing battle for pupils. About 1870 he closed the Hobart Town Academy and moved to St Mary's Seminary, a private school under the patronage of the Roman Catholic bishop, Dr Murphy. In 1875-76 he taught classics and mathematics at A. Ireland's Collegiate School, Hobart. He died on 12 September 1880 after a long illness.

His last years had been saddened by misfortune. His wife Margaret died on 17 March 1866 at the age of 66. Next November his second wife Sarah Ann, née Cato, died at the age of 35. His third wife Rachel, née Stevens, whom he married on 1 January 1867, died on 14 April 1871, at the age of 26. After an adopted daughter died, they had twins, of whom the son died in infancy. His fourth wife Annie Eliza, née Banks, whom he married on 7 October 1871, outlived him; they had three sons.

It was Cairnduff's fate to have to labour without the advantage of such insignia of status as ordination or a university degree. He never quite received either the reward or recognition from the Tasmanian community that his untiring industry on behalf of its immigrant convicts and its youth undoubtedly deserved.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Cairnduff, The Testimonials of Alexander Cairnduff (Hob, 1845)
  • High School of Hobart Town, Report (Hob, 1849)
  • J. Heyer, The Presbyterian Pioneers of Van Diemen's Land (Launceston, 1935)
  • Colonial Times (Hobart), 24 Oct 1844, 14 June 1853, 31 Mar 1854, 8 Dec 1855
  • Tasmanian Morning Herald, 2 July, 30, 31 Aug 1860, 25 Mar 1867
  • Mercury (Hobart), 12 Jan 1871
  • Christian Witness, 10 June 1875, 25 May 1876
  • Minutes of the Presbytery of Van Diemen's Land and of the Free Church Presbytery of Tasmania (Law Agent, Presbytery of Tasmania)
  • CSO 22/133/2385, 24/183/6692 (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • Walker papers (University of Tasmania).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

E. L. French, 'Cairnduff, Alexander (1815–1880)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Belfast, Antrim, Ireland


12 September, 1880 (aged ~ 65)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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.

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