Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William John Clunies Ross (1850–1914)

by Bruce Mitchell

This article was published:

William John Clunies Ross (1850-1914), science teacher, was born on 31 March 1850 in London, son of Robert Clunies Ross, sea captain, and his wife Harriet, née Allen. Robert came from the Shetland Islands and, with his brother John, traded in their own ships with Australia, the Dutch East Indies and Singapore; both were involved in acquisition of the Cocos Islands in 1827, where John settled. In 1864 William visited Australia in one of his father's ships. After working in a counting-house in London, he studied science at the Royal School of Mines, South Kensington, and from 1878 at King's College, University of London (B.Sc., 1880); he became an associate of the college and a fellow of the Geological Society in 1882.

Clunies Ross migrated to Australia about 1884 and that year attracted attention with a popular lecture in Sydney on the Metallurgy of Silver, published next year. On 1 February 1885, while in Hobart, he was appointed resident science master at Bathurst, New South Wales, by the Board of Technical Education. He had to establish a branch technical school and in the first year taught mineralogy, chemistry, geology, physiography and geometrical drawing; next year he added mathematics, physics and botany. Attendances improved in 1888 when a building was rented and all classes were held in one place. By 1890 a technological museum was opened. Clunies Ross also gave popular lectures on the Jenolan Caves and astronomy.

The vote for technical education was halved in 1893 and several classes were dropped briefly, but continued growth led to the erection of new buildings in 1898 and record enrolments in 1902. In January 1904 he became lecturer in charge of chemistry and metallurgy at Sydney Technical College. Total enrolments grew rapidly until 1913 when school pupils were removed from the courses.

When Clunies Ross moved to Sydney he joined the Royal and Linnean societies of New South Wales. He published over twenty scientific articles, many in the Australian Technical Journal and the Technical Gazette of New South Wales. He also addressed the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science three times. His early articles were mostly on the geology of the Bathurst region and based on field-work and careful observation. He believed that chemistry was an art as well as science, and his later articles revealed a deep interest in the whole field. His educational ideas were unashamedly old fashioned: he criticized excessive use of discovery and experimental techniques in instruction.

On 29 December 1887 Clunies Ross married Hannah Elizabeth Tilley with Congregational forms at her home in Sydney; her brother William, in the late nineteenth century, opened the Tilly Institute in Berlin for teaching languages. Their youngest son Ian left a warm reminiscence of their family life: his father sober, religious, widely read, pipe-smoking, bearded, scorning doctors and dentists, admiring Disraeli and Scott, and blending social egalitarianism with political conservatism; his mother Australian-born and proud of a supposed noble ancestry, admiring Gladstone and Dickens, fiercely status conscious and insisting on private schools for the children.

Clunies Ross died of cancer on 7 November 1914 at his Ashfield home and was buried in the Congregational section of Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife and four sons.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Clunies-Ross, Memoirs and Papers, F. Eyre ed (Melb, 1961)
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Journal, 49 (1915)
  • Technical Gazette of New South Wales, 5 (1915), pt 2
  • Board of Technical Education, correspondence register and minutes 1884-85 (State Records New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Bruce Mitchell, 'Clunies Ross, William John (1850–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 17 June 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]


31 March, 1850
London, Middlesex, England


7 November, 1914 (aged 64)
Ashfield, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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