Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Arthur Davitt (1808–1860)

by Warwick Eunson

This article was published:

Arthur Davitt (1808-1860), educationist, was born in Drogheda, Ireland, son of James Davitt and his wife Mary. According to his own account, he became 'an excellent classical scholar' in Ireland and for the next twenty years was 'A Professor of Modern Languages in Paris, at Sens and other colleges on the continent'; in 1842 he 'underwent a general examination at the Sorbonne … and received his degree with the highest distinction'. A footnote adds that a prerequisite of this examination was a bachelor's degree. In 1845 in Jersey he married Marie Antoinette Hélène Léontine (Ellen) Heseltine (1820-1879) of Dublin; they had no children. In 1847 he was appointed inspector of schools for the Athy district under the commissioners of National Education, Ireland. In 1851-54 his wife taught drawing in the Irish National Board's Model School for Girls in Marlborough Street, Dublin.

They arrived at Melbourne on 31 July 1854 to take up a joint appointment with the National Board of Education, Davitt as principal of the Model and Normal Schools and his wife as superintendent of the female pupils and trainees. The Model Schools for boys, girls and infants were opened on 18 September. In 1859 a financial recession led to the closure of the training institution and the dismissal of the Davitts. Davitt died on 24 January 1860 at the National Hotel, Moorabool Street, Geelong. Mrs Davitt taught at various Victorian schools for the next fifteen years. She died at Fitzroy on 6 January 1879.

In his pamphlet, Origin and Progress of the National System of Education: Its Real Principles, and Special Adaptability to the Circumstances of a Mixed Community (Melbourne, 1856), Davitt answered charges against the National system and its suitability for Victorian needs. In 1855 he had been criticized on pedagogical grounds for his unwillingness to temper the Irish system to the viable social structure. His caution was to be expected in a community split by the rivalries of the National and Denominational systems, and there is ample evidence that he liberalized and enriched the studies of his pupils and students. The Training College opened in May 1855, with twelve students and in 1856 the first residents were admitted. When Davitt left 169 teachers had been trained, 130 of them deemed worthy of classification for National schools' appointments. The system of classification devised by Davitt and Inspector Orlebar had significant similarities to the complex one still operating in Victorian schools. Davitt also initiated the system of paid monitors in 1854 and pupil teachers in 1857. Despite his heavy responsibility he established industrial classes for adults and in 1857 some of his trainees were able to attend lectures at the University of Melbourne.

Unfortunately the Davitts were involved in frequent quarrels with their staff and much correspondence passed between the board and the principal whose worsening health sapped the composure he might have displayed. Mrs Davitt's 'overbearing self-esteem' apparently increased her husband's difficulties. The commissioners several times rebuked Davitt for a 'deficiency on your part which is not consistent with harmonious working'. His dismissal may have arisen from such deficiencies rather than from reduction of the education grant for 1859. Yet he often exhibited a tolerance and understanding more commendable than those of his associates. Many of the differences were trivial and today would never reach the central authorities, but at that time the officers of the National Board occupied rooms in the Model School. Davitt's founding and development of the Model Schools and Training College became significant in 1870; adequate teacher training was then urgently needed and the authorities revived his establishment.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Allan, The Old Model School: Its History and Romance 1852-1904 (Melbourne, 1934)
  • E. Sweetman, History of the Melbourne Teachers' College and its Predecessors (Melbourne, 1939)
  • National Board of Education, letters and papers, 1854-59 (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

Warwick Eunson, 'Davitt, Arthur (1808–1860)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Drogheda, Louth, Ireland


24 January, 1860 (aged ~ 52)
Geelong, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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