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Sir Cyril Jackson (1863–1924)

by Wendy Birman

This article was published:

Sir Cyril Jackson (1863-1924), inspector-general of schools, was born on 6 February 1863 at Kentish Town, London, son of Laurence Morris Jackson, stock-broker, and his wife Louisa Elizabeth, née Craven. Educated at Charterhouse and New College, Oxford (B.A., 1885), he was called to the Bar in 1893 at the Inner Temple but never practised law. Instead, he studied post-primary education with the object of improving educational opportunities for the socially disadvantaged. In 1885-95 he worked for the Universities' Settlement Association in London's East End and lived at Toynbee Hall. He was simultaneously on the management board of the Northey Street Boys' Club, central secretary of the Children's Country Holiday Fund and, from 1891, a member of the London School Board.

Influenced by the Liberal reform programme in the 1890s, Jackson explored the 'New Education' movement, studied Hebartian logic and was attracted by the ideas of Pestalozzi and Froebel, accepting the proposition that children learn better by reason and understanding than by repetitive memorization. By 1895, with his wide theoretical and practical background, Jackson was known as a gifted educator. Despite promise of a brilliant London career, he accepted appointment in December 1896 as inspector-general of schools in Western Australia. His educational philosophy was not original but he insisted that his practical ideas were experimental and sought 'an opportunity of putting into practice ideas, untrammelled by any vested interests worth speaking of, and no old system to break down'.

Jackson reached Western Australia at the peak of an economic boom that had attracted continuing immigration. As school enrolments had doubled in 1896 more buildings and vigorous recruitment of teachers were imperative. During 1897 he travelled through Western Australia and to the eastern colonies to make comparative evaluations of schools. He concluded that too many were cramped and uncomfortable. Besides inferior buildings, uneven teaching standards revealed a disquieting lack of understanding of basic pedagogical principles. In his reports he denounced the out-moded 'pupil teacher' training system, deplored inadequate teacher salaries, expressed dismay at the absence of state secondary schools, technical colleges and continuation classes, and was appalled at the paucity of government scholarships to private secondary schools. In short he roundly damned the existing system and proposed guide-lines for reform. He clashed immediately with the Education Department's permanent secretary O. P. Stables on the issue of direct access to the minister and resigned when E. H. Wittenoom, as minister, reprimanded him for outspoken public criticism of state schools. The resignation was only withdrawn after the intervention of Premier Sir John Forrest. When Wittenoom was replaced as minister in May 1897, the office of permanent secretary was abolished and Jackson became actual permanent head of the department. His relations with succeeding ministers, particularly George Randell, were cordial and productive but he was reported to have stood up to Forrest in 1898 over impending cuts in the education vote.

Jackson's 1898 curriculum reformed the methods of teaching rather than the subjects taught. He commended the 'object lesson' of Pestalozzi and recommended the Froebelian principles of harmonizing the child's 'sense, perception and bodily activity'. His detractors thought him too radical and one critic deplored the 'spasmodic somersaults' of his 'aerobatic department'. The Teachers' Union conference of 1899 condemned the new arithmetic syllabus and in 1900 pressed for uniform textbooks, but Jackson refused to yield. By now, he had won over public opinion and his scheme had been published in the English Teachers' Aid.

The major reforms launched by Jackson included the reorganization of elementary education with special provisions for infant teaching; the establishment of Perth Technical School, Claremont Teachers' Training College and continuation classes; and the promotion of James Street School as a teaching model-school. Compulsory school-age legislation was passed, the salaries and status of teachers were improved and the Education Circular was published regularly. Jackson succeeded in enticing well-qualified teachers from England and the eastern States and sought specialists to supervise manual training, needlework and domestic science. Although prepared to listen to 'grass-roots' lobbies and to delegate to specialists when appropriate, Jackson believed firmly in central authority and sometimes generated strong opposition. His early attempt to form a commercial and agricultural college at Katanning was obstructed in 1902 by professional agriculturalists J. M. A. Despeissis, A. Crawford and P. Wicken. His bid to control the proposed Coolgardie School of Mines was likewise frustrated by the political machinations of the minister for mines Henry Gregory; Jackson withdrew from the committee to select the school's first principal.

Keenly analytical and boundlessly energetic, Jackson subscribed to the Protestant ethic of rewarded effort and, although he possessed substantial private means, abhorred any form of financial speculation. A devout Anglican, he yet never swerved from his commitment to secular education. Widely remembered for his camaraderie, he could still administer a swift, stinging rebuke when provoked by a subordinate speaking out of turn in his cups. Although given himself to occasional impulsiveness, he was a strict disciplinarian and a stickler for protocol. He remained intensely loyal to his colleagues, as Bishop Gibney discovered in 1900 when he cast aspersions on the capability of the departmental inspectors.

In later years, plagued by insomnia, Jackson became increasingly difficult to work with. At Bassendean he lived in style at Daylesford, a commodious, if architecturally curious, house where he was attended by a team of domestic servants, including an Indian valet and a Chinese gardener. He was financially generous to those less fortunate and was well known in his local community as a member of the West Guildford Road Board. Physically slight, Jackson wore a thick moustache and was always well groomed. A connoisseur of porcelain and fine furniture and an accomplished organist and pianist, he delighted in a rollicking sing-song with a group of young people. Determined that his work should be continued in the same vein, Jackson took exhaustive steps before his departure to secure the appointment of C. R. P. Andrews as his successor.

It was a timely coincidence for Jackson personally that he was on leave in England during the passage of the British Education Act of 1902. His Western Australian contract, due to expire, would undoubtedly have been renewed but he had achieved his colonial goal by establishing a sound state system and had other aspirations at home. Refusing an attractive South African offer, he finally left Western Australia on 3 March 1903 in the Indic, bearing a gold watch presented by the Teachers' Union in recognition of his contribution to the profession. Chief inspector to the Board of Education in London until 1906, he became an investigator for the royal commission on the Poor Law. His briefs then multiplied: many appointments to commissions and statutory committees followed. His interest in local government continued as representative for Limehouse on the London County Council in 1907-13, and as alderman in 1913-16 and 1919. He chaired the council in 1915, twice chaired its education committee and also led the municipal reform party. For services during World War I he was appointed K.B.E. in 1917. His publications included Unemployment and Trade Unions (1910), Outlines of Education in England (1913), The Religious Question in Public Education (1911) (with M. Sadler and A. Riley) and many articles in encyclopaedias and journals.

Jackson was often consulted by the Western Australian government and obligingly acted briefly as agent-general in 1910-11. He also lent weight to the advisory committee which selected Hugh Gunn as organizer of the University of Western Australia. Only two days before his death he discussed with the agent-general, (Sir) Hal Colebatch, a project of the Young Australia League in Western Australia. Despite many sea trips, he had long been ill and died suddenly from cerebral haemorrhage on 3 September 1924 at his country house, Ballards Shaw, Limpsfield, Surrey, where he was buried. He was unmarried. His portrait hangs in the Royal Academy of Arts, London. The Cyril Jackson Senior High School at Bassendean, Western Australia, was named in his honour in 1964.

Jackson claimed that his success in welding the best elements of contemporary educational systems into a cohesive whole and creating a viable scheme for Western Australia was his proudest achievement. Having steeled himself to be firm and hard-hitting and to ignore personal inclinations to let things be, he fulfilled his role with distinction.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Turney (ed), Pioneers of Australian Education, vol 2 (Syd, 1972)
  • D. Mossenson, State Education in Western Australia, 1829-1960 (Perth, 1972)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Western Australia), Education Department annual report, 1897-1902
  • Education Department (Western Australia), Education Circular, July, Dec 1900, May 1901, and Education, 1 (1952)
  • West Australian, 8 Mar 1898, 7 July 1899, 2 May, 4 Sept 1900, 28 Feb, 2 Mar 1903, 13 Sept 1924
  • Times (London), 5, 6, 8 Sept 1924
  • files 97/843, 1903, 2790, 1900/504, 635, 1902/419, 647 (Education Dept, Western Australia).

Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'Jackson, Sir Cyril (1863–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 June 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

Life Summary [details]


6 February, 1863
London, Middlesex, England


3 September, 1924 (aged 61)
Limpsfield, Surrey, England

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