Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Andrew Johnson (1861–1933)

by Alison Alexander

This article was published:

John Andrew Johnson (1861-1933), educationist, was born on 27 October 1861 at Clisbow, Unst, Shetland Islands, Scotland, son of James William Johnson, fisherman, and his wife Andrina Ross, née Henderson. The family migrated in 1870 to New Zealand, where John attended school at Waipori and became a pupil-teacher at 14. He then attended the Dunedin Teachers' Training College and Otago University (B.A., N.Z., 1890; M.A., 1891). After various teaching posts he became headmaster of Timaru School in 1896 and was also literary editor of the New Zealand Journal of Education.

In 1905, following the enquiry conducted by W. L. Neale, a reconstruction of the Tasmanian education system was begun. Improvements included the establishment of a teachers' training college in Hobart. Johnson was appointed principal and began work in 1906, at first in the Technical School, then in the new Philip Smith buildings on the Domain, opened in 1911. He took a keen interest in changing ideas in education, especially the 'New Education', which he saw as placing the teacher in the role of elder brother whose task was to perfect the mental growth and development of the pupil, not just to impart knowledge. Johnson disliked reliance on rote learning and examinations; he advocated that the pupil learn by observation; that handwork should be taught as well as headwork; and that the child be seen as an individual with rights and a personality to be respected. He imparted his ideas with great success, giving his students a sense of the greatness of the vocation of teaching. At first the college was little more than a secondary school, but after the inception of high schools in 1913 it assumed its proper role. Johnson was an able administrator and from the start the college ran smoothly.

Johnson's great love was literature, especially poetry, and although he lectured in other subjects, including Latin and mathematics, and supervised practice teaching, he excelled in his English lectures. He aimed to make his students love and appreciate poetry through inspiration: he would read a poem aloud and leave this to make an impact. He possessed a warm personality; each month all the students were invited to his home for an evening, while he encouraged walks and picnics, properly chaperoned (sometimes by himself), socials, dancing, singing, swimming and football. He preferred to influence by praise rather than by criticism, and his quiet, dignified, courteous and occasionally stern manner commanded respect. However, he had some difficulty dealing with crises: once when students engaged in forbidden, riotous initiation ceremonies which outraged public opinion Johnson suspended them, only to have to rescind this decision the next day. He also had occasional clashes with the Education Department, and, as a romanticist, enjoyed a prolonged newspaper debate in the Mercury with the rationalist professor of English at the university, A. B. Taylor; Johnson aimed for untrammelled appreciation of literature by students.

His students included the later prime minister, J. A. Lyons and his wife (Dame) Enid. On his retirement in 1931 the Bulletin commented that Johnson was one of the most successful teachers of teachers in Australia, with not only 'sound scholarship, wide experience and a passionate enthusiasm for his job', but also the asset of 'a speaking voice of that peculiarly sympathetic, almost caressing, quality' typical of Shetland and Orkney Islanders. Johnson wrote the Tasmanian section of G. S. Browne's Education in Australia (London, 1927) and, with C. E. B. Fletcher, edited an anthology of poetry for use in schools. In 1906 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Tasmania, before which he read a paper on the 'New Education' (1906) and another on developments in experimental pedagogy (1913). For seventeen years Johnson lectured in education at the University of Tasmania and until 1932 he was a member of the university council. Other interests included tennis, golf, and bushwalking. A Presbyterian, he was conservative in both religion and politics. His wife, Laura Elizabeth, née Kingston, whom he had married on 23 December 1889 at South Dunedin, New Zealand, died in 1919; she was musical, artistic, patriotic and an enthusiastic philanthropist. Johnson died on 21 January 1933 in Hobart, survived by a son and two daughters. A portrait by Lucien Dechaineux is displayed in the Southern Teachers' Centre, Hobart.

Select Bibliography

  • Mercury (Hobart), 23 Jan 1933
  • Otago Daily Times, 24 Jan 1933
  • Bulletin, 1 Mar 1933
  • private information.

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Citation details

Alison Alexander, 'Johnson, John Andrew (1861–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 May 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]


27 October, 1861
Unst, Shetland Isles, Scotland


21 January, 1933 (aged 71)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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