Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

John Anderson Hartley (1844–1896)

by G. E. Saunders

This article was published:

John Anderson Hartley (1844-1896), educationist, was born on 27 August 1844 at Old Brentford, Middlesex, England, the eldest son of Rev. John Hartley, Wesleyan minister, and his wife Sarah, née Anderson. He was educated in 1853-60 at Woodhouse Grove School near Bradford, Yorkshire, and taught there in 1860-67 before graduating from the University of London (B.A., 1868; B.Sc., 1870). He became second master at the Methodist College, Belfast, and in 1870 married Elizabeth Annie Green, sister-in-law of his headmaster, Rev. Robert Crooke, LL.D. In that year he was appointed headmaster of Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, where he arrived on 20 January 1871. The college had opened in 1869 and he was its second headmaster. Under him it became firmly established, its first students matriculating at the University of Melbourne in 1872. He achieved a major change in the college's management when the position of resident governor was abolished in 1875 and full authority over the school was vested in the headmaster.

In May 1871 Hartley was appointed to the Central Board of Education which administered the public schools of the colony. His interest and initiative were soon recognized; his repute survived his resignation from the board after dispute with the government and on 16 March 1874, after reappointment, he was elected chairman. Many of his recommendations were incorporated in the 1875 Education Act. Appointed president of the Council of Education on 1 December 1875, Hartley resigned his headmastership. The abolition of the council in 1878 centralized the administration of the Education Department further with Hartley as inspector-general of schools. Aided by the optimism generated by prosperity, he acted vigorously to create an efficient and centralized school system under his close direction. His autocratic methods aroused opposition and in 1881-83 a royal commission inquired into his administration. Exonerated and unrepentant, Hartley denied effective powers to the boards of advice set up to provide local participation in the administration of the department.

After studying European systems of elementary education, Hartley revised the curriculum in 1885 to broaden its scope but depression and retrenchment undermined his achievement. Desperately justifying expenditure to a parsimonious legislature, and knowing that higher education was impractical, he strove to improve the standard of education in the elementary schools. In 1885 he founded the Education Gazette to carry his ideas to teachers and edited it until 1896. He travelled the country speaking to teachers' associations on the new methods, prepared arithmetic books and teachers' manuals, produced primers and reading charts, designed copy books and in 1889 founded The Children's Hour and in 1891 the Adelaide Poetry Book as supplementary reading for children.

Hartley was a founder of the University of Adelaide. Appointed to the executive council of the Adelaide University Committee in October 1872 and to the first council of the university in November, he worked on the committee preparing a scheme for professorships and lectureships. In June 1877 he was appointed to the first senate. He was active on the council and defended its prerogatives against senate attempts to acquire greater powers. On the finance, education and library committees and on the faculties of arts and science his influence was important in framing regulations and statutes. The public examination system introduced in 1886 was largely his inspiration, ending the domination of classical studies and binding the secondary schools more closely to the university. He served as vice-chancellor in 1893-96.

Over the years he held many other positions. Societies associated with the schools enjoyed his patronage. In 1895 he was appointed to the first council of Roseworthy Agricultural College. He was president of the board of management of the Public Teachers' Provident Fund, on the board of management of the Public Service Provident Fund and a founder of the Public Service Association, initiating and editing its journal. A member of the board which founded the Adelaide Children's Hospital, he and his wife worked on its committees. He remained true to his Wesleyan upbringing and served on committees of the Wesleyan Conference. He regarded no position as a sinecure. This remarkable activity ended sadly. On 8 September 1896, while riding home from his office on his newly-acquired bicycle, he collided with a horse ridden by a butcher's boy. He died from head injuries on the 15th, survived by his wife and an adopted daughter, Muriel. He left an estate valued at £3400.

Stern and austere, Hartley's idea of relaxation was to walk to his office figuring out complicated mathematical problems. He won respect from all but affection from only a few. His acts of kindness did not overcome the awe with which he was regarded. By nature he was autocratic and his Wesleyan faith and sense of mission inculcated in him a rigorous sense of duty which tolerated no failing in his subordinates. The education system he had founded was admired in other colonies, and men he had inspired, like William Neale in Tasmania and Alfred Williams in South Australia, were to attain prominence. The Hartley studentship at the University of Adelaide is his only memorial, other than the department which he founded and which still bears traces of the imprint he gave it.

Select Bibliography

  • G. E. Saunders, John Anderson Hartley and Education in South Australia (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1958)
  • G. E. Saunders, Public Education in South Australia in the Nineteenth Century (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1968).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. E. Saunders, 'Hartley, John Anderson (1844–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 June 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]


27 August, 1844
Old Brentford, Middlesex, England


15 September, 1896 (aged 52)
South 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.