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William Timothy Cape (1806–1863)

by V. W. E. Goodin

This article was published:

William Timothy Cape is a minor entry in this article

William Cape (1773-1847), schoolmaster and settler, was born in Ireby, Cumberland, England. In 1805 he married Mary Ann Knight of Tenterden, Kent. For some years in London he managed the banking firm of Brown, Cobb & Co.; when it failed in 1816, friends set him up as a tea importer. In 1821 he decided to emigrate to Australia.

Passages were booked in the Thalia for Cape, his wife, and seven children, William Timothy, Richard, John, Henry, Mary Ann, Eliza, and Emily, but the captain deliberately sailed without them. The family followed in the Denmark Hill and in May 1822 arrived in Hobart Town where Cape found that his goods, unloaded from the Thalia, had been looted. With his eldest son he pushed on to Sydney to sue, successfully, the defaulting captain. He returned to Hobart for his family, and after the death of Isaac Wood, founder of the Sydney Academy, he took it over in April 1823. Soon afterwards, the large school building begun by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in Castlereagh Street was completed, and on 1 April 1824 Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane opened it as the main Sydney public school with Cape as master. With help from his elder children, the school was efficiently organized by Cape on the Madras system, which had by then been officially adopted. His plans to make it a grammar school were quashed by Archdeacon Thomas Scott in 1825; though disgruntled, Cape conducted the school until 1827.

He then concentrated on his land grants north of Brisbane Water, already extensively improved. He was the first to settle and to bring cattle and sheep into the Wyong district. He was permanently lamed by a severe accident in 1828 and from then to his death on 19 November 1847 he lived in Sydney. Cape published useful weather tables in the Sydney press from 1826 to 1840.

Richard, the second son, had an adventurous career as a trader in the South Pacific. The third son, John, was a pioneer merchant of Launceston; his son, Rollo Albert, held important administrative positions in Sydney.

The eldest son, William Timothy Cape (1806-1863), was born on 25 October 1806 at Walworth, Surrey. He was in the sixth form at Merchant Taylors' School, London, and was intended for the Church of England ministry, when his father decided to migrate with his family to Australia.

William Timothy assisted at the Sydney Academy in 1823 and served at the Sydney Public School from April 1824. By 1826 his desire to teach classics and the higher branches of study manifested itself. He became 'under master' at the Sydney Public Free Grammar School on 12 July 1826. Unfortunately the school failed. However, his great teaching qualities had already been recognized, and on 1 July 1827, though only 20, he assumed control of the Sydney Public School. The Clergy and School Lands Corporation showed its understanding and appreciation of Cape by establishing a separate class for higher study. Next year the lower classes were moved out so that Cape would have greater opportunities of providing 'Classical and Commercial Education'. By the next year his reputation was so firmly grounded that on 3 July 1829 he opened his own academy in King Street. But the need for a full-scale secondary school continued and led to the erection on a government land grant in College Street of a substantial building, still in use as part of Sydney Grammar School, to be known as the Sydney College. In December 1834 Cape was unanimously selected as its first headmaster. Operations began on 19 January 1835 with sixty of Cape's own pupils forming the major portion of the enrolment. During 1841 Cape came into conflict with the trustees. He accused them of adopting an extravagant building programme while the staff was inadequately paid. At the end of the year he was farewelled at an enthusiastic gathering. Early in 1842 he opened Elfred House Private School erected on an 1831 four-acre (1.6 ha) grant in Glenmore Road, Paddington. Proof of his high reputation came in the 1840s; the Sydney College closed while Cape's school not merely survived but was soon filled, and from then to his retirement in 1856 he turned away almost as many as were admitted.

Cape was a strict disciplinarian and a strong driving force in the classroom. A vigorous, punctual, consistent worker himself he demanded the same attributes from his scholars. But he was no cold, aloof martinet. Rather he displayed a warm personality, and endeared himself by his kindly interest in the welfare of each student. This interest and friendship was continued into adult life, aided particularly by recreational walking tours. His fine character and the wholesome sanity of his ideas made a constructive and fruitful impact upon his scholars. He told them they would be the future leaders in the community, but if they were to lead they must also serve, as gentlemen, leading by example. So there was no place for snobs or sectaries or bigots. He was the living embodiment of his own ideals. Although necessarily his pupils were drawn from the wealthier elements of the community, he did not identify himself narrowly with them. He served the poorer section by assisting in the foundation of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in 1833 and gratuitously helped that institution with lectures and administration till he left Australia. But perhaps his broadmindedness and common sense and freedom from domination by theories or current fashions is best seen in his attitude towards the religious question and the schools. At the time when intolerance and aggressiveness were at their highest, Cape invited Bishop John Polding to take part in the public examinations at Sydney College. When he had taken charge there he himself had written beautiful prayers for the opening and closing of the day's work. But he found some would not accept them. Seeking a satisfactory solution he talked with Rev. John Joseph Therry but reached no agreement and dropped the prayers. Questioned by a parliamentary committee about religious observances in schools he replied: 'Then you would have that objectionable arrangement of scholars of a different faith separating from the rest'. So before there were any National secular schools in the colony Cape had been led to adopt the system as a result of his own experience and thought. He presented to the Board of National Education his valuable collection of documents on education.

Less the student than the man of affairs, Cape set an example in service to the community. Any worthy cause met with his generous support. He became a trustee of the Australian Subscription Library, and even a councillor of the Sydney District Council in 1844. Among the many pupils who followed his lead were James Martin, William Forster, John Robertson, James Dowling and Thomas Browne (Rolf Boldrewood).

The break-up of Cape's domestic circle vitally affected his life, and also gave the opportunity for the expression of the exceptional esteem in which he was held by all sections of the community. On 13 July 1854 his eldest daughter, Eliza Jane, married a squatter, Gideon Scott Lang. Cape decided to holiday in England. Within twenty-four hours of the announcement he was presented with a valedictory address signed by almost 100 members of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts. On 29 August 1856 his second son, Francis Henry, of Pembroke College, Oxford, and student of the Middle Temple, died aged 21. Cape retired from teaching. On 16 January 1858, his wife Jane, daughter of William Jaques of the Survey Department, whom he had married on 9 April 1831, died aged 46. Cape plunged into public activities. He had only to express willingness to accept and the position was his. In rapid succession he became a fellow of St Paul's College, a magistrate, member of parliament for Wollombi, and commissioner of the Board of National Education. They did not bring solace. He took his younger children to England in 1860 to complete their education and died in London on 14 June 1863, the best known and best beloved of Australia's early teachers. The first memorial in St Andrew's Cathedral was erected to his memory but was destroyed during reorientation in 1941.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Swancott, Brisbane Water Story, vol 4 (Woy Woy, 1955)
  • C. Swancott, Blue Gum Flat to Budgewoi (Woy Woy, 1963)
  • S. H. Smith, ‘William Timothy Cape and Other Pioneers of Secondary Education in Australia’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 5, part 5, 1919, pp 201-25
  • Cape papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

V. W. E. Goodin, 'Cape, William Timothy (1806–1863)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 13 July 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

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