Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Edwin Johnson (1835–1894)

by Cliff Turney

This article was published:

Edwin Johnson (1835-1894), schoolteacher and civil servant, was born on 2 January 1835 at Liverpool, England, son of Samuel Johnson and his wife Elizabeth, née Crabtree. Educated at the Liverpool Quakers School, he was apprenticed at 14 as a pupil-teacher. About 1853 he won a Queen's scholarship to Kneller Hall, Twickenham Training College, under Rev. Dr Frederick Temple, later archbishop of Canterbury, who recommended him for employment by the New South Wales Board of National Education in 1854. Johnson reached Sydney in 1855 and was appointed assistant master at the William Street National School. In 1857 he married Rebecca, née Hanly. In that year he also brilliantly passed the teacher-classification examination and as a result was invited by William Wilkins to lecture on elementary mechanics at the Fort Street Model School. Johnson became headmaster of a new model school at Deniliquin in 1861 and inspector of schools in the Hunter River district in 1863.

His advice was often sought by Wilkins. Both were influenced by the Swiss educator, Pestalozzi, and believed that teaching should be adapted to the natural stages of the child's development and that all teachers should study psychology. Johnson was quick to criticize bookish, dull and stereotyped teaching, and emphasized 'cultivation of the intelligence' and teaching the child 'to discover for himself'. He also advocated infant schools and encouraged the local Teachers' Mutual Improvement Society. In 1867-77 he was inspector of schools in the Sydney district and supervised the training department at the Fort Street Model School and on-the-job training of assistant inspectors. He advocated in vain a residential teachers-training college but introduced half-time schools in sparsely populated districts. He also promoted amendments in the instruction of pupil-teachers, extended infant schools and introduced military drill to improve school management and discipline. In 1870 his wife died in childbirth leaving him with an infant daughter and six other children.

Johnson sought promotion to senior inspector in 1877 but was transferred to the Cumberland district. His administrative talent was recognized in 1880 when Wilkins nominated him for chief inspector with the new Department of Public Instruction. In that post he played an important part in working out educational details of the new administration. In 1884 he succeeded Wilkins as under-secretary and combined loyalty to the previous regime with some readiness to introduce change. Known for his 'affable and genial' disposition and flexible views, Johnson did much to extend a formal English approach to kindergarten work and to establish school savings' banks, the Public Schools Athletic Association and a scheme whereby some students could work for arts degrees at the University of Sydney while at training college.

In 1887 Johnson took 'extended leave' to visit Britain and North America. He gained 'a thorough insight into all that was being done in those countries in the advancement of primary and technical education'. On his return he added cookery, agriculture and manual training to the primary school curriculum and technical and scientific studies to high school courses. On 8 April 1894 he died of cancer at his home in Summer Hill. He was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery and survived by a son and six unmarried daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Board of National Education, Annual Report (Syd, 1855-65)
  • Council of Education, Annual Report (Syd, 1866-69)
  • Reports of the Minister of Public Instruction (Syd, 1881-95)
  • New South Wales Educational Gazette, 1 May 1894
  • S. B., 'The Late Under-Secretary', New South Wales Educational Gazette, 1 June 1894, p 3
  • Board of National Education, fair minute books 1855-66 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Council of Education, Secretary's private out-letter book, 1867, 1874-75, and minute books, 1871-80, and miscellaneous in-letters, 1867-75 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Cliff Turney, 'Johnson, Edwin (1835–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 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]


2 January, 1835
Liverpool, Merseyside, England


8 April, 1894 (aged 59)
Summer Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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