Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Joseph Coates (1844–1896)

by E. W. Dunlop

This article was published:

Joseph Coates (1844-1896), schoolmaster and cricketer, was born on 13 November 1844 at Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England, son of Joseph Coates, cordwainer, and his wife Ellen, née Smith. At Huddersfield College Coates gained medals for mathematics and classics in 1863, and matriculated to the University of London. Despite printed statements that he was a graduate of London or Oxford, there is no evidence that Coates undertook university studies or claimed to have done so. Instead he migrated to New South Wales to become one of the original two assistant masters under Thomas Johnstone, first headmaster of Newington College, Sydney.

In February 1873 Coates left Newington to serve the Council of Education as an assistant at Fort Street School. After transfers to public schools at West Maitland in 1874 and William Street in 1875 he became headmaster of Fort Street in June 1876 on a salary of £200. He resigned in December, briefly visited England and in 1877 succeeded Dr Howe as headmaster of Newington College at a salary of £450. During his six years there the college moved in 1880 from Newington, the old mansion of John Blaxland on the Parramatta River, to its site in Stanmore, and the enrolment trebled in three years. Under Coates's guidance the college established a high reputation for sport and for scholarship. He was the first captain in its cadet corps, and it is claimed that in 1869 Newington became the first Australian school to play Rugby football. Coates played in both the football and cricket teams. In September 1883 he successfully applied for the headmastership of the newly-established Sydney Boys' High School on a salary of £600. The school opened in October 1883 but, as Coates could not leave Newington until the end of the year, John Waterhouse deputized for him at Sydney.

Of the six public high schools begun in 1883 only three survived their early years, and the success of Sydney Boys' High School was due in large measure to Coates's dedication, leadership and inspiration. Several country boys were able to attend the school only because he took them as boarders in his own home. Despite a reputation as a stern disciplinarian he was highly esteemed and respected by his pupils, who responded to his deep knowledge of boys and to his rare gift for teaching. With his high ideals he had a commanding personality, unusual competence as an organizer and an enviable power to judge ability in others, a trait which assured the loyal co-operation of his staff. He attached very little importance to formal school rewards. 'All through life', he said, 'the virtue lies in the struggle, not the prize'.

Much of Coates's prestige with the boys derived from his prowess as a sportsman. To him a school was much more than an academy, and both at Newington and the High School he gave every encouragement to sport, arranging matches with other schools and outside bodies. As captain of the New South Wales cricket team Coates played some thirty-two matches against other colonies and England. A sound batsman and fine slow bowler, he is credited with the introduction of the 'yorker' in this country. He was a founder and benefactor of the New South Wales Cricket Association and an original life member of the Sydney Cricket Ground.

In 1892 Sydney Boys' High School moved from the old St James's building in Elizabeth Street to a new site at Ultimo. It was the first building in New South Wales designed specifically for a high school but, although Coates was certainly consulted in its planning, the extent to which his advice was accepted is not known. Soon after the move his health began to fail; he became partly paralysed from locomotor ataxia and had to retire in June 1896. After two severe strokes he died on 9 September 1896 at his home in 24 Moore Park Road, and was buried in the Church of England cemetery at Rookwood. He was survived by his wife Rebekah, daughter of John Gardiner, a squatter of Gobolion station near Montefiores, whom he had married in 1880, and by two of their three children. One of his few memorials is a small collection of books from the original Sydney High School, kept apart as the Joseph Coates Library.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Colwell, The Illustrated History of Methodism (Syd, 1904)
  • W. Wiedersehn (ed), An Outline History of the Sydney High School: Its Records and Achievements, 1883-1933 (Syd, 1933)
  • L. E. Gent (ed), The Fort Street Centenary Book (Syd, 1949)
  • D. S. Macmillan, Newington College 1883-1963 (Syd, 1963)
  • E. W. Dunlop, ‘The Public High Schools of New South Wales, 1883-1912’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 51, part 1, Mar 1965, pp 60-86
  • E. W. Dunlop, ‘A Note on Joseph Coates’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 54, part 1, Mar 1968, pp 65-66
  • ‘Joseph M. Coates, Headmaster (1877-1883)’, Newingtonian, jubilee edition, 1913, pp 30-31
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Sept 1896
  • K. Cable, History of Sydney High School (typescript copy at Sydney High School Old Boys' Union)
  • Council of Education papers (New South Wales Dept of Education)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

E. W. Dunlop, 'Coates, Joseph (1844–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 November, 1844
Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England


9 September, 1896 (aged 51)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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