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Ernest Percy Eltham (1892–1964)

by Andrew Spaull

This article was published:

Ernest Percy Eltham (1892-1964), educationist, was born on 15 September 1892 at Boolar(r)a, Victoria, third son of Andrew Mathew Eltham, a labourer from England, and his native-born wife Mary Virginia, née Forrest. In 1900 the family of seven moved to Bendigo where Ernest attended Violet Street State School. When his father was blinded in one eye in an accident, Ernest was obliged to work—at the age of 12—as a junior pay-clerk to a mining company. He studied at night, won a scholarship to the Bendigo School of Mines, completed a diploma of electrical engineering and was awarded the school's gold medal.

In 1912-18 Eltham was an instructor in engineering at the Working Men's College, Melbourne. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in March 1917, but was discharged after two months at the request of the Victorian Education Department. Seconded to the Department of Defence in September 1918, he was sent to England to learn about machine-gun manufacturing. In 1921 he joined the Education Department as principal of Footscray Technical School. At the W.M.C. he had come to the notice of Donald Clark, chief inspector of technical schools, who was impressed by Eltham's enthusiasm for vocational education and his interest in new fields of engineering.

With Clark's patronage, Eltham became senior inspector of technical schools in 1922. At Scots Church, Melbourne, on 25 September 1923 he married Phyllis Elise Sydney Graham. He studied part time at the University of Melbourne (B.E.E., 1925) and won a Blue in cricket. In 1928-34 he was founding chairman of the Apprenticeship Commission of Victoria.

Eltham was appointed to succeed Clark in 1930. The director of education, Martin Hansen, who had never forgiven Clark and his inspectors for saving the secondary technical schools from closure, downgraded the position and insisted that Eltham's appointment be probationary. Having asked Eltham to prepare five reports on technical education administration in six months, he declared them barren of practical suggestions and relieved Eltham of his post. Next day cabinet overturned Hansen's decision and confirmed Eltham in a permanent appointment and in the presidency of the Apprenticeship Commission.

Confronting the financial stringencies of the Depression, Eltham persuaded the government to adopt emergency measures, including mergers between some technical schools and the offer of free courses. He also successfully endeavoured to obtain equipment from local manufacturers and grants from unemployment funds, but was less effective in his plans for day-training of apprentices. A study tour of Europe and North America in 1935-36 had convinced him that such a policy was fundamental to the revival of Victorian secondary industry and he published his findings in his Report on Technical Education Systems in Other Countries (1936).

Eltham supported the proposal of David Drummond, minister for education in New South Wales, that the Federal government should subsidize technical education as part of its defence arrangements. Impatient with the Commonwealth's indifference, in 1938 Eltham and (Sir) John Jensen, controller of munitions supply, devised a scheme for the vocational training of defence workers. In November 1939 Eltham was appointed director of training in what became in June 1940 the Commonwealth Technical Training Scheme. The Federal government took over the States' technical colleges to provide under Eltham's leadership short-term, intensive training for members of the armed forces and for civilian employees in defence industries.

In 1947 Eltham resigned from the Victorian Education Department (from which he had taken leave) to remain as director of industrial training in the Department of Labour and National Service. A member of the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Committee, he had published the Educational Rehabilitation of Men and Women of the Services (1945) and now took responsibility for technical training under the C.R.T. scheme. His later efforts to enhance the status of vocational education waned in the 1950s with the immigration of skilled labour. Eltham was influential in vocational-education planning overseas, especially in Malaya. Although he retired in 1958, he continued to advocate training as the key to sustained industrial growth.

Tall, silver-haired and unassuming, Eltham never forgot his humble origins. He was accessible and enthusiastic in promoting education and apprenticeship training. Far-sighted and dedicated, he had a broad view of public education which he forcefully articulated on many State and Federal committees. Throughout his busy life he maintained his interest in sport and belonged to the Victoria Golf and Sandringham Bowling clubs. He died on 16 December 1964 in East Melbourne and was cremated; his wife and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (Canb, 1958)
  • Education Department (Victoria), Vision and Realisation, L. J. Blake ed (Melb, 1973)
  • A. D. Spaull, Australian Education in the Second World War (Brisb, 1982)
  • S. Murray-Smith and A. J. Dare, The Tech (Melb, 1987)
  • Educational Magazine, May 1966
  • B. Parker, The Life and Contribution of Ernest Eltham: Technical Education (M.Ed., minor thesis, Monash University, 1982)
  • Eltham papers (University of Melbourne Archives and National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Andrew Spaull, 'Eltham, Ernest Percy (1892–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 September, 1892
Boolarra, Victoria, Australia


16 December, 1964 (aged 72)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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