Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Marian Clarke (1853–1933)

by Robyn Claydon

This article was published:

Marian Clarke, 1899

Marian Clarke, 1899

Abbotsleigh Archives

Marian Clarke (1853-1933), headmistress, was born on 27 March 1853 at Banbury Mill, Neithrop, Oxfordshire, England, daughter of Thomas Clarke, miller, and his wife Elizabeth Ann, née Staley. One of thirteen children, she finished her education in Germany, and went to University College, Bristol, where in 1880 she passed the Cambridge higher local examination with honours in political economy, history and logic. In 1880-84 she taught at the High School for Girls, Manchester.

Marian Clarke arrived in Sydney in December 1884 to assist at Normanhurst, a school run by her sister Ellen. On 20 July 1885 she opened her own school, Abbotsleigh, in a small terrace house at Mount Street, North Sydney, and soon acquired a second house. She suffered from chronic laryngitis and, on medical advice, she moved the school to Parramatta early in 1888. By December 1895 she had eighty pupils.

Miss Clarke was a strict disciplinarian and her pupils soon took pride in belonging to a well-run school. She had advanced ideas on education, including design, gymnastics, carpentry and geometry in the curriculum, despite protests from parents. She taught languages and mathematics; whatever the subject, she insisted on a thorough grounding, and Abbotsleigh became very successful in public examinations. Unobtrusively religious herself, she encouraged her pupils in charitable work. She had a keen sense of humour, with a love of literature, music and painting. Aided by her 'beautiful, vibrant voice', she was 'one of the very few who knew how to read aloud, which she made a practice of doing', from English, French and German masterpieces.

Miss Clarke spent 1896 in England for family reasons, leaving her partner Miss Pringle in charge. On her return she found the number of pupils had dwindled to twenty-four. She dissolved the partnership in May 1897 and next year bought 1¼ acres (.5 ha) at Wahroonga and moved the school, 13 boarders and 10 day girls, there in October; numbers grew rapidly and additions were made to the original building. On 14 October 1901 a games field was formally opened and in 1910 Abbotsleigh was one of the first schools to celebrate Empire Day. In December 1913 she sold the school, which then had 40 boarders and 100 day girls, to Miss Margaret Murray.

Dr Agnes Bennett, a pupil at North Sydney, recollected Marian Clarke as a brisk woman, 'liked rather than loved', and her old friend Sir Mungo MacCallum wrote that 'with the warmest of hearts she had the sharpest of tongues'. Only her large black dog, Nero, was completely unafraid of her.

Marian Clarke was in England at the outbreak of World War I. She worked for the British Red Cross Society in hospitals and in 1916-19 was in charge of a hostel in Somerset for nurses recovering from fatigue. Her favourite relaxation had always been sketching. After the war she spent much time in Austria, North and South Africa, Spain, France and Italy, and studied painting under distinguished masters. Her talent flowered and at 71 she had the first of several of her pictures accepted by the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français, Paris. On her return to Sydney in 1928 she held an exhibition at a Bond Street gallery. She sold many of her pictures for charity.

Miss Clarke died on 2 July 1933 at her Macleay Street flat and was cremated with Anglican rites. She left her estate, valued for probate at £23,046, to her sisters. Her portrait by Tom Roberts is held at Abbotsleigh, which is now owned by the Church of England.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Burrows, History of Abbotsleigh (Syd, 1968)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 July 1933
  • records and reminiscences (Abbotsleigh Library Archives, Wahroonga, New South Wales).

Citation details

Robyn Claydon, 'Clarke, Marian (1853–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 May 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

Marian Clarke, 1899

Marian Clarke, 1899

Abbotsleigh Archives

Life Summary [details]


27 March, 1853
Neithrop, Oxfordshire, England


2 July, 1933 (aged 80)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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