Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Alexander James Kilgour (1861–1944)

by Bruce Mitchell

This article was published:

Alexander James Kilgour (1861-1944), headmaster, was born on 29 May 1861 in Edinburgh, son of Alexander James Kilgour, watchmaker, and his wife Mary Jane, née Henley. He accompanied his parents and sister to Sydney about 1868 and was educated at Fort Street Model School, becoming a pupil-teacher. His first teaching appointment was in 1882 at Brombin Public School on the north coast. At Ennis, Port Macquarie, he married Elizabeth Dawes on 23 July 1884. After six months training that year, he was sent to Goodooga. Transferred to Bowenfels in April 1886, he was promoted by examination in July and took charge of Braidwood Public School in September.

His first city appointment was to Plunkett Street, Woolloomooloo, in January 1901, where the previous headmaster had 'reigned by means of anarchy'. Kilgour promptly transformed the school: 'the pupils there learned manners and everything else' and he established his reputation as a rigid disciplinarian who, unconventionally, did not use the cane. His became the champion school for military drill. Kilgour attended evening classes at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1894; LL.B., 1904) and in 1900 achieved the top teaching classification. He was headmaster of Neutral Bay in 1901-03 and of Chatswood in 1904.

Early next year Kilgour was chosen against strong competition to succeed J. W. Turner as headmaster of Fort Street. Although in charge of the primary and both boys' and girls' secondary schools, with little time for teaching, he concentrated on the senior boys' classes preparing for the public examinations. He was 'fundamentally a Latinist', and 'his teaching was excellent, though his standards were inflexible' — he had 'no tolerance for slackers and dullards'. Professor A. R. Chisholm described him in his mid-forties: 'He wore spectacles whose lenses were sliced horizontally along the middle; and, being moderately tall, he looked down over these with a quiet dignified authority that made any resort to corporal punishment inconceivable. His dark hair, like his beard and moustache, was closely cropped; his forehead rather receding and his head rather small for a man with such good brains'. With Peter Board's reorganization, he became headmaster in 1911 of Fort Street Boys' High School, and in 1916 supervised its move to a new building on Parramatta Road at Petersham.

Kilgour became a legend in his lifetime for the scholastic excellence of Fort Street and for his dedication to discipline and hard work. He was able to build and hold a staff of outstanding men including Walter Selle, George Mackaness, C. B. Newling and Samuel Lasker. Closely interested in all his pupils, he urged the ablest into law and medicine and for others found places in commerce. Those who testified to his inspiration and influence include Professor John Hunter, H. V. Evatt, Sir Garfield Barwick, Sir Percy Spender and Chisholm.

On retiring from Fort Street in 1926, Kilgour was headmaster of Strathfield Grammar and Preparatory School for Boys for five years; when it amalgamated with Trinity Grammar School he became classics master. He visited Britain in 1936. On his eightieth birthday his portrait by Norman Carter was unveiled at Fort Street. He died in hospital at Newcastle on 26 December 1944 and was cremated with Anglican rites. Two sons and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • L. E. Gent, The Fort Street Centenary Book (Syd, 1949)
  • A. R. Chisholm, Men Were My Milestones (Melb, 1958)
  • C. B. Newling, The Long Day Wanes (Syd, 1973)
  • C. Morris, ‘The School on the Hill’ (Syd, 1980)
  • Teachers records (NSW Dept of Education, Sydney) and school files (State Records New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bruce Mitchell, 'Kilgour, Alexander James (1861–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 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]


29 May, 1861
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


26 December, 1944 (aged 83)
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia

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