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Martin Howy Irving (1831–1912)

by G. C. Fendley

This article was published:

Martin Howy Irving (1831-1912), professor, headmaster and civil servant, was born on 21 February 1831 at St Pancras, London, son of Edward Irving (1792-1834) and his wife Isabella, née Martin. His father was the famous Scots preacher who was declared a heretic by the Church of Scotland and founded the Irvingite or Catholic Apostolic Church; Thomas Carlyle called him 'the freest, brotherliest, bravest human soul mine ever came in contact with'. From King's College School, London, Martin won a Balliol College scholarship and matriculated in November 1848. He was the university junior mathematics scholar for 1850 and obtained first-class honours in classics and second-class in mathematics (B.A., 1853; M.A., 1856). He had signed the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England at matriculation, holding that subscription did not preclude his special witness as a member of the Catholic Apostolic Church, but he would not take holy orders as required for most Oxford fellowships. In 1854 he became classics master of the non-denominational City of London School.

In November 1855 Irving was chosen to succeed the first professor of 'Greek and Latin Classics with Ancient History' at the University of Melbourne. He arrived at Melbourne in 1856 and began teaching in July. Early next year his title was changed to professor of classical and comparative philology and logic. Although students were few, he delivered eighteen lectures a week in Greek, Latin, logic and English. In the final honours school he introduced rhetoric and aesthetics applied to English literature. In 1858 he successfully urged the examination for degree of students who were unable to attend lectures, but the council rejected his schemes for an associate in arts diploma for non-members of the university in 1857 and for the abolition of compulsory Greek for arts degrees in 1858. As an examiner of matriculation English, Greek, Latin, French and German he became an ally of schoolmasters advocating curriculum change.

In January 1871, with the offer of a higher salary and better accommodation for his large family, Irving became non-resident headmaster in charge of secular studies at Wesley College, Melbourne. A resident clerical president was responsible for religious education and the care of boarders. Under Irving the school achieved great success at public examinations. Numbers grew rapidly to a peak in 1873, not surpassed at Wesley until 1900. He deplored the low level of matriculation requirements and built a sixth form of boys staying at school after matriculation. He placed an Arnoldian stress on character formation and trust in the sixth form as 'a democracy of gentlemen'. In December 1875 he bought the Hawthorn Grammar School. Numbers doubled in his first year, new buildings followed and the school became one of the biggest in the colony. He continued to insist on English, arithmetic and Latin as studies most apt to develop 'the faculties of imagination and correct reasoning', but the school also offered Greek, mathematics, history, geography, chemistry and book-keeping. Games were stressed as 'an indication of a school's vigour'.

As a councillor in 1875-1900 and vice-chancellor from May 1887 to May 1889 Irving was an ardent university reformer. In the senate and council of the university he led a 'caucus', composed mainly of schoolmasters, who constantly challenged the administration of the chancellor, Sir Redmond Barry. In Barry's absence overseas, Irving attempted in vain to unseat the chancellor and not until Barry died in 1880 were new chairs instituted in natural philosophy, engineering, pathology, chemistry and English, French and German languages, while the addition at matriculation of natural science subjects and an honours standard marked the culmination of ten years' agitation. The 'caucus' caused Chancellor (Sir) William Stawell's resignation in 1882, but growing opposition to the influence of outside educational interests in the university delayed the appointment of a successor. Irving, a reluctant nominee, failed by one vote for the chancellorship in May 1887 when Dr Anthony Brownless was appointed in conservative reaction to the unstable years of factional strife.

Irving's equable temperament, administrative capacity, vitality and manifest probity inspired confidence. In 1872 he was offered the post of permanent head of the Victorian Department of Education. He was chairman of the Victorian board of the Australian Mutual Provident Society in 1878-84. Intended for the post of full-time, salaried vice-chancellor he was proposed by the University of Melbourne Council in 1888 but rejected by the professoriate. In February 1884 he was appointed one of the three foundation commissioners of the Public Service Board of Victoria, and left Hawthorn College in charge of his son, Edward. When the board was disbanded in 1893 Irving was granted a pension. He left Australia in 1900 and apart from a brief visit to Melbourne in 1906 lived in England. A devoted adherent of the Catholic Apostolic Church he died on 23 January 1912 among his fellow believers at Albury, Surrey.

Large and athletic, Irving had a commanding presence. James Froude, who had known his father, described 'the same finely-cut features, the same eager, noble and generous expressions' in the son but found him 'calmer and quieter'. Irving had won his college and the university sculls in 1852, and founded the University of Melbourne Boat Club in 1859, stroking the fours. He was a founder of Victorian amateur rowing. An expert rifle shot, he encouraged the sport in schools. He joined the Volunteer Rifles in 1862 and was lieutenant-colonel in command of the First Battalion Victorian Militia in 1884-90. He had married Caroline Mary Brueres in 1855; they had four sons and five daughters. She died in 1881 and on 6 July 1882 Irving married Mary Mowat; they had one son and three daughters. Two daughters of the first marriage, Margaret and Lilian, were principals of Lauriston Girls' School, Armadale, while a son, Godfrey George Irving (1867-1937), became deputy quartermaster general in the Australian army.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Lang, Victorian Oarsman (Melb, 1919)
  • E. Nye (ed), The History of Wesley College 1865-1919 (Melb, 1921)
  • G. Blainey et al, Wesley College. The First Hundred Years (Melb, 1967)
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 Dec 1871, 15 Dec 1875, 23 Dec 1876
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 Dec 1871, 20 Dec 1876, 25 Jan 1912
  • Professorial Board, Senate and Council minutes (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

G. C. Fendley, 'Irving, Martin Howy (1831–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 19 April 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]


21 February, 1831
London, Middlesex, England


23 January, 1912 (aged 80)
Albury, Surrey, England

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