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William Catton Grasby (1859–1930)

by John Ramsland

This article was published:

William Catton Grasby (1859-1930), by unknown photographer, c1890

William Catton Grasby (1859-1930), by unknown photographer, c1890

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 37455

William Catton Grasby (1859-1930), agricultural journalist and educationist, was born on 2 October 1859 at Balhannah, South Australia, third son of William Grasby, farmer and Methodist lay preacher, and his wife Frances, née Catton; both were from Yorkshire. On his parents' mixed farm Grasby developed an interest in agriculture and horticulture. He was largely educated at home by his father and developed a love of literature and European culture; at 13 he became a pupil-teacher for six years, but later described this system as barbarous. In 1881 he travelled in Europe. He then taught in state primary schools where he introduced libraries and nature museums and experimented with nature study, drawing and science. At Payneham in 1887 he founded the Boys' Field Club for Saturday nature excursions. He became profoundly dissatisfied with the Education Department policies.

In 1889, Grasby studied educational innovation in North America, Britain and Europe and published his findings in Teaching in Three Continents (1891); the first major work of comparative education published by an Australian, it was well reviewed in London. He then campaigned to improve the local state school system at a time when reforms were unlikely because of recession. The polemic Our Public Schools (1891) outlined his proposals: kindergartens; manual, agricultural and horticultural training for primary schools; the abolition of school fees, payment of teachers by results and the pupil-teacher system. He advocated employing adult teachers with at least two years full-time, pre-service training, free state secondary schools and agricultural colleges, and changes in school building and furniture design. The pamphlet was hotly discussed by teachers and in newspapers. Grasby also edited the twelve issues of the journal the Educator (1893-94). Although his reform campaign achieved no tangible result, it foreshadowed innovations in most Australian States by the 1920s.

In 1892-94 Grasby was director of agronomy and manual training at the progressive Way College, Unley, where his teaching methods won repute. He attended a government conference on agricultural education in 1892 and chaired the committee appointed to implement its recommendations. In 1894-96 he taught at Roseworthy Agricultural College and from 1894 was a member of the Central Bureau of Agriculture. On 13 October 1896 he married Hannah Propsting, a Tasmanian Quaker. He then toured Mediterranean countries as honorary government commissioner reporting on fruit-growing techniques. His observations of cincturing currant vines in Greece assisted the South Australian dried fruit industry. He returned to Way College in 1897-98, frequently speaking publicly on agricultural matters, often for the agricultural high school movement. In 1900 he gave valuable and humane evidence to the Victorian royal commission on technical education and recommended a system of agricultural high schools which was subsequently adopted. In 1896-1904 Grasby owned and edited the Australian Garden and Field. He had stood unsuccessfully for the colonial and Federal parliaments in 1887 and 1890 and in 1903.

In 1904 he reported prophetically on agricultural and fruit-growing possibilities for the Western Australian government and from 1905 he was the agricultural editor of the Western Mail and West Australian. He gained a huge following for his weekly advice column for farmers, 'Mutual Help', and taught agriculture at Perth Technical School and Guildford Grammar School. In 1912 he published an important textbook, Principles of Australian Agriculture. He advocated tertiary education for Western Australia, in 1912-14 was a member of its university's first senate, and sat on the extension lectures committee (later the Workers' Educational Association). He helped to found the State's Kindergarten Union in 1911, was on its executive, lectured on nature study in the union's first training programme and examined candidates for its training colleges. He was an admirer of Froebel.

With his friend Charles Harper, Grasby developed the first Western Australian wheat varieties: 'Gresley' and 'Wilfred'. He was an ardent conservationist, and in his chapter in Sir James Barrett's Save Australia (1925) attacked the killing of animals for scientific collections as 'inimical to the survival of fauna'. He was a fellow of the Linnean Society of London, and president of the Royal Society of Western Australia in 1929-30.

In 1928 Grasby had retired; he died at his East Guildford home on 26 October 1930 of diabetes and gangrene of the leg, survived by his wife, a daughter and son, and was buried in the Anglican section of Guildford cemetery. (Sir) Walter Murdoch wrote of him that he 'combined a rare simplicity of character with a rare sagacity of intellect'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Turney (ed), Pioneers of Australian Education, vol 2 (Syd, 1972)
  • N. Hall, Botanists of the Eucalypts (Melb, 1977)
  • Way College Boomerang, Sept 1896, July 1897, Dec 1900
  • Boys' Field Club (Adelaide), Proceedings, 1893-1902
  • Royal Society of Western Australia, Journal, 17 (1930-31)
  • South Australiana, 18 (1979), no 1
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 Jan 1893, 27 Oct 1930
  • West Australian, 27, 29 Oct 1930
  • J. Ramsland, The Life, Work and Contribution of William Catton Grasby (manuscript, University of Sydney Library)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Ramsland, 'Grasby, William Catton (1859–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Catton Grasby (1859-1930), by unknown photographer, c1890

William Catton Grasby (1859-1930), by unknown photographer, c1890

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 37455

Life Summary [details]


2 October, 1859
Balhannah, South Australia, Australia


26 October, 1930 (aged 71)
Guildford, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.