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Donald Clark (1864–1932)

by S. Murray-Smith

This article was published:

Donald Clark (1864-1932), educationist, was born on 17 February 1864 at Ashby, Victoria, son of John Clark and his wife Jessie, née McRae, both of whom had been born at Inverness, Scotland. Clark was the third of seven children, and at the time of his birth his father was working as a labourer on the Geelong-Ballarat railway. It was a strictly Presbyterian home. Donald was tutored by Rev. A. Stewart, 'an old student of Lord Kelvin's'. He early decided on an engineering career, but apprenticeship was irksome, and in 1883 he found employment as a surveyor's assistant. In 1886 he enrolled as an engineering student at the University of Melbourne, doing some coaching to help with his fees, and was active in the Science Club and the Engineering Students' Society. Clark graduated B.C.E. in 1889.

Professor W. C. Kernot advised him to apply for the foundation directorship of the Bairnsdale District School of Mines at £300 a year. In January 1890 Clark commenced a long and spirited struggle to establish the school, combating both local indifference and what he saw as the 'antagonistic' attitude of the Department of Education. The mining and science classes which were supposed to be the school's raison d'être languished, as did Clark's experimental farm. But he succeeded in establishing a multi-purpose school of some distinction in a period of great stringency for technical education, teaching long hours himself. Perhaps most remarkable was his success in eventually developing a core of studies in mining and metallurgy, together with a treatment plant for refractory ores. Some of his students moved into positions of responsibility in the mining industry.

Clark became personally acquainted with all the major minefields of Australia and New Zealand, acted as a consultant and expert witness to the industry, and wrote extensively for the mining press; he published Australian Mining and Metallurgy in 1904 and Gold Refining in 1909. In 1905 he patented a process for the treatment of gold slimes by the nitre cake method; he carried out experimental work on the 'flotation process', and received his university's first master of mining engineering degree in 1907 for a thesis on the refining of gold.

Clark was restless in Bairnsdale, and applied for the directorship of the Geological Survey in Victoria in 1904, without success. In 1907 he was appointed director of the Bendigo School of Mines and Industries. In his three years there he reorganized and raised the level of courses, doubled enrolment of full-time students and brought a treatment plant into operation. He also established successful junior classes to bridge the gap between elementary schools and the school of mines.

In 1909 Clark asked the director of education Frank Tate to support his application for a position in Queensland. Tate replied: 'We have reached the stage when all parties in the Assembly are pledged to technical education', adding that when the key position became available 'you have a remarkably strong record both as a University man, a practical man, and a teacher'. In 1910 Clark held a lectureship in metallurgy in the University of Melbourne, and in 1911 was appointed as the first chief inspector of technical schools.

'My first visit to our Technical Schools filled me with something akin to despair', Clark wrote in one of his three important booklets on technical education: Reminiscences of Technical Education in Victoria (1923), The Future of Technical and Industrial Training in Australia (1927) and Some Notes on the Development of Technical Instruction in Victoria (1929). At first happy to collaborate with Tate in developing a system of state high schools, which would incorporate an 'industrial' stream to feed his technical schools, Clark quickly became disillusioned. He objected strongly to the development within the high schools of a dichotomy, 'the professional and the industrial, the sheep and the goats'. He fought for, and obtained the attachment of junior technical schools to nearly all senior schools. Subsequently junior technical schools were established as alternatives to high schools in many areas, an extension Clark had not had in mind. Though only partly successful as 'feeder' schools, the 'junior techs' became an integral part of the Victorian post-primary education structure, and have increasingly developed a reputation as an 'alternative' system, less centralist and less educationally constricted than the high schools. This is as Clark would have wished it, and is his most significant memorial. Although periodically under challenge, the system flourishes in Victoria, alone among the Australian States to have a bipartite system of state secondary education. On Clark's retirement in 1930 there were twenty-six junior technical schools with 6600 students.

Clark firmly believed that the nation's prosperity rested on the education of its workers, and his regime also saw a considerable expansion of senior technical education, from eighteen schools with enrolments of 4300 in 1911 to twenty-nine with 18,000 in 1930. Clark accomplished much in rationalizing courses within and between institutions, and encouraging full-time and day courses. He also expanded trade courses, established specialized trade schools and was always an effective propagandist for technical education. Perhaps the most impressive tribute to his uncompromising stance in defence of vocational education and for recognition of technical education as a system in its own right was the freedom of action he won for himself within the department. He has been called a 'bonny fighter', would not abandon a cause even if it had ceased to be ministerial policy, and was prepared to go outside normal public service channels, to politicians or pressure groups. Tate had misgivings about Clark's policies, but he judged it wiser to accept his area as a detached command.

Clark was increasingly acrimonious in debate with opponents but an effective and tireless leader of his own troops, and he built into technical education in Victoria a sense of morale and mission. However, his last years in the department were clouded by bitter internal disputes, first with Tate but especially with Tate's successor, M. P. Hansen, with whom there was no meeting-ground. Clark retired in 1930, a year later than he should, for his year of birth he always gave as 1865. In 1916 he had been appointed to the Advisory Council of Science and Industry, and in the same year he reported to the South Australian government on technical education in that State.

Donald Clark had married on 29 September 1890 a young teacher Robina Stodart; there were seven children, all born at Bairnsdale. He was remembered as an undemonstrative, morally strict but affectionate father, and the family as happy and close-knit. His friends were mostly from the mining world, his interests in natural history, golf and shooting. He much enjoyed getting away for brief periods with his dog to his farm at Thorpdale. Healthy and a non-smoker, he liked his Scotch, was a keen clubman and was regarded as fair but austere on the job, relaxed and fond of a good story outside.

Clark died on 7 April 1932 at his home in East Malvern, three months after his wife, and was buried in Brighton cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • L. J. Blake (ed), Vision and Realisation, vol 1 (Melb, 1973)
  • Industrial Australian and Mining Standard, 14 Apr 1932
  • S. Murray-Smith, A History of Technical Education in Australia … (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1966)
  • G. A. Reid, Teachers and Bureaucracy … (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1974)
  • Bairnsdale School of Mines, reports to council, 1891-1906 (Bairnsdale Technical School)
  • Bendigo School of Mines, reports to council, 1907-09 (La Trobe University, Bendigo campus).

Citation details

S. Murray-Smith, 'Clark, Donald (1864–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 13 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


17 February, 1864
Ashby, Victoria, Australia


7 April, 1932 (aged 68)
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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