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Charles Albert Fenner (1884–1955)

by Lynne Trethewey

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Charles Albert Edward Fenner (1884-1955), by unknown photographer, c1926

Charles Albert Edward Fenner (1884-1955), by unknown photographer, c1926

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 4086

Charles Albert Edward Fenner (1884-1955), educationist, geographer and author, was born on 18 May 1884 at Dunach, Victoria, fifth of eight children of German-born Johannes Fenner, poultry-farmer, publican and miner, and his wife Mary, née Thomas, from Adelaide. He remained at the local school as a monitor until he was apprenticed to the printer of the Talbot Leader. After five years he joined the Victorian Education Department as a pupil-teacher and in 1903 became principal of two part-time bush schools. Two years later he won a scholarship to Melbourne Teachers' College whence he matriculated to the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., Hons I, 1912; Dip. Ed., 1913).

Fenner resumed teaching at Sale High School and Mansfield Agricultural High School, where he was headmaster. On 4 January 1911 he had married Emma Louise Hirt, a teacher, at Christ Church Cathedral, Ballarat. From 1914 he lectured in geology and mineralogy at the Ballarat School of Mines, where he was later principal, and completed research for the degree of D.Sc. (1917). In 1919 his work 'Physiography of the Werribee River area' won the Sachse medal and ten years later he won the David Syme research prize, an honour also awarded in 1949 to his second son Frank.

From 5 November 1916 Charles Fenner was superintendent of technical education in South Australia. The Register introduced him as 'a leading educational authority … a grand organizer and teacher' with 'fine powers of lucid expression'. Although theoretically in an ideal position to influence the department's activities, he was frustrated by having to work within a pre-established framework, by the financial constraints of a world war and the Depression, by political procrastination, by opposition to his proposed reforms and by ill health. His plans for a unified technical education system were undermined by the autonomous South Australian School of Mines and Industries and by delays, until 1940, in expanding secondary technical education on the model of Thebarton Technical School (opened 1924).

Fenner encouraged innovation, an example being an individual freedom scheme of learning introduced in 1927 at Thebarton. Details of this were outlined by him and the headmaster A. G. Paull in their publication, Individual Freedom (1928). Fenner's criticisms of traditional schooling, summarized in his Individual Educational Requirements for Modern Citizenship (1940), were also influential in liberalizing the primary school curriculum. He supported the teaching of technical subjects in high schools and liberal subjects in technical schools. He established a vocational guidance and placement scheme and argued for raising the school leaving age. He was also responsible for technical training courses for unemployed youths during the Depression, and for reconstruction schemes following both world wars. He helped draft the 1917 Technical Education of Apprentices Act which, with its concept of compulsory, part-time, technical study for apprentices, set a precedent for other States. His own experience of the conditions and limitations of traditional apprenticeship provided a valuable guide for this Act, and he always retained 'a soft spot for the lad in overalls'.

Fenner was a figure of his time in stressing the views of education for citizenship, and technical education as a means of providing skilled labour to develop South Australia's industrial base. In other respects he was forward thinking: his proposals and educational articles were based on research on overseas and interstate trends, appraised in the light of local needs and conditions. In 1931 he was a delegate for Australian geographers at the centenary meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in London. In 1937 he investigated education on a world tour sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. While superintendent of technical education, Fenner had established a course in geography at the University of Adelaide in 1930, retiring to honorary lecturer in charge when he became director of education in 1939.

His directorship coincided with World War II. This exacerbated Fenner's impatience at being unable to effect changes that he had advocated for two decades; he increasingly sought refuge in writing. When he retired in 1946, on grounds of invalidity, he was disappointed to receive no token of his long service; although respected, and nicknamed 'Doc', he never commanded the affection in Education Department circles which his predecessor W. J. Adey had. When Fenner was first appointed superintendent, regret had been expressed that no South Australian was considered suitable for the job. Local prejudice no doubt contributed both to his difficulty in having his ideas accepted, and to Adey's appointment to the directorship in 1929, despite Fenner's broader and longer experience of high-level administration and his superior intellectual standing.

In retirement Fenner assisted the South Australian Museum in the study of tektites—a field in which he became an authority: he undertook the morphological classification of 10,000 specimens. He belonged to the Adelaide University Theatre Guild, the Dual Club and the Wongana Circle. His friend Ivor Hele painted a portrait of him, now held by his eldest son; a second portrait is at Croydon Park College of Further Education. He had always worked for the Royal Society of South Australia and the local branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia of which he was president in 1931-32; he edited the Proceedings for many years and inaugurated its Historical Memorials Committee. In 1947 the society awarded him its John Lewis gold medal.

Fenner's publications, collated in the Proceedings (1962), include nearly forty educational, historical and scientific research papers. His book A Geography of South Australia and the Northern Territory (1956) is a revision of two earlier volumes. He also published collections of essays, wrote articles in the Australasian under the pseudonym 'Tellurian', and was a contributor to and joint editor of The Centenary History of South Australia (1936). He died of hypertensive cerebro-vascular disease at Rose Park on 9 June 1955 and was buried in the Centennial Park cemetery. He was survived by his wife, their daughter and four sons.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), no 44 for 1917, 1918, 1922, 1924, 1930, 1932, and no 54 for 1946
  • Education Gazette (South Australia), 17 July 1917, 15 June 1946, 15 July 1955
  • South Australian Teachers' Journal, 3 (1917), no 2
  • Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia, 56 (1955), 63 (1962)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 6, 22 Sept 1916
  • Observer (Adelaide), 22 Sept, 21 Oct 1916
  • K. Karim, The Development of Government-Directed Apprentice Training in South Australia, 1917-1940 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1964)
  • L. Trethewey, Post-Primary Technical Education in South Australia, 1915-1945 (M.Ed. thesis, Flinders University, 1977)
  • Education Dept (South Australia), correspondence files, no 909, 1926, no 1594, 1929 (State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Lynne Trethewey, 'Fenner, Charles Albert (1884–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 July 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

Charles Albert Edward Fenner (1884-1955), by unknown photographer, c1926

Charles Albert Edward Fenner (1884-1955), by unknown photographer, c1926

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 4086

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Tellurian

18 May, 1884
Dunach, Victoria, Australia


9 June, 1955 (aged 71)
Rose Park, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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