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Alexander Leeper (1848–1934)

by J. R. Poynter

This article was published:

Alexander Leeper (1848-1934), educationist and publicist, founder of the collegiate system in the University of Melbourne, was born on 3 June 1848 in Dublin, son of Alexander Leeper, D.D., Anglican curate, later chaplain to the lord lieutenant of Ireland, and his wife Catherine, daughter of William Henry Porter, president of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. A brilliant boy, Leeper won prizes and exhibitions at Kingstown School, Trinity College, Dublin (B.A., 1871; LL.D. (hon.), 1884), and St John's College, Oxford. After a youthful flirtation with moderate Irish nationalism, he settled into 'four passionate loyalties': 'the Church, the Classics, the Act of Union, the British Empire'.

Leeper first visited Australia in 1871, tutoring the sons of (Sir) George Wigram Allen in Sydney and falling in love with their sister Adeline Marian, then 16. In 1872 he applied unsuccessfully for the Melbourne chair of classics. In 1874, driven by incipient tuberculosis and drawn by love for Adeline, he returned from Oxford to Sydney before accepting an appointment at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, where in a few months in 1875 he founded the school library and helped to create The Melburnian and Liber Melburniensis. Leeper and Adeline were briefly engaged in 1875 but could not overcome her father's objections until 1879 when they married on 30 December at Glebe, Sydney. They had two daughters and two sons.

In 1876 Leeper had been appointed principal of Trinity College, founded by the Church of England in 1872 to be the first college affiliated with the University of Melbourne. He took over 'farming' the infant institution and its five students from G. W. Torrance, determined to develop a new Australian form of collegiate life. 'A pertinacious, anxious, busy, bustling person, full of immense enthusiasm for a hundred things at once', Leeper and his vice-principal (Sir) Winthrop Hackett gained university affiliation in 1876, began tutorials in 1877, opened a new building in honour of bishops Perry and Moorhouse and established a theological school in 1878. Leeper so rapidly established an academic role for Trinity that after his reappointment in 1881 as first warden his predecessor was almost forgotten.

Though Trinity's tutorial programme was broad in subject-matter, Leeper's passion for classical studies was evident in his own teaching and writing. He published, with H. A. Strong, A Guide to Classical Reading Intended for the use of Australian Students (1880) and a translation of Thirteen satires of Juvenal (1882). In 1881 he produced the first Latin play mounted in Victoria. His college was also a school for citizenship, where strict rules of conduct (including compulsory chapel) were tempered by the close relationships possible between resident tutors and students. But Trinity's financial base remained precarious, and the continuance of the collegiate system was only ensured with the opening of Ormond College under (Sir) John MacFarland in 1881 and of Queen's College under E. H. Sugden in 1888. The three colleges and their formidable, if rarely consonant, heads came to dominate the university academically and in large degree politically, with Leeper's service on the University council (1880-87 and 1900-23) outdistanced only by MacFarland's. To his chagrin, Leeper never succeeded in matching Ormond's endowments, though he won a new building and other benefactions from Sir William Clarke and his brother Joseph, and in 1890, from Janet, Lady Clarke, a new home for Leeper's most daring innovation, collegiate university residence for women.

In 1883 Trinity had become the first college in Australia to admit non-resident women to college lectures. A trip abroad in 1884 convinced Leeper that women should be allowed accommodation in the same colleges as men. Despite Bishop Moorhouse's fears that squatters would withdraw their sons if 'penniless' girls were admitted, Leeper was permitted in 1886 to set up, in Parkville, a hostel for women (dubbed, inevitably, Hostiles). He opposed, however, the siting of Lady Clarke's new building in the college grounds, and insisted that while Trinity women might attend tutorials and communion services, social contact between the sexes must be severely restricted.

Ambiguities in the new policy led to serious conflict with the Council of Trinity College Hostel (later Janet Clarke Hall) which wanted constitutional separation from Trinity and the right to enrol non-residents from other colleges; Leeper and the Trinity council insisted that the hostel was an integral part of Trinity and its principal merely a deputy of the warden. After heated public dispute the principal and the council resigned in 1892, and Leeper 'farmed' the hostel to a married Trinity tutor until 1901.

While Leeper was preoccupied with the hostel his informal and none-too-consistent mode of discipline in Trinity broke down. In 1890 discontents dismissed by the council as trivial flared into crisis. The warden's effigy was burned, and in September two expelled ringleaders (one (Sir) Stanley Argyle) left college in a spectacular procession of twenty-four hansom cabs carrying thirty-four sympathizers, leaving only twelve depressed survivors in residence. Amid much clamour a committee of the Church assembly conducted a public investigation, concluding that 'sundry irregularities, rash promises and serious errors of judgement had been proved against the Warden', and severely criticizing Leeper's financial management. The Trinity council greatly resented the committee's strictures and after further public dispute the bishop and the diocesan council buried the matter in 1897 by simply 'removing from the books all reference to the Trinity College Enquiry of 1890'.

Leeper's second twenty years as warden were more peaceful, and many students recorded respect and even affection for the tall, gaunt 'Bones', impulsive and authoritarian though he remained. Causes outside the college roused his energies, as in the campaign against the reappointment of G. W. L. Marshall-Hall as Ormond professor of music in 1900. Incompatibility of opinion and temperament appeared when Marshall-Hall provided the music for Leeper's production of Alcestis in 1898; Leeper did not want his musically promising daughter to study under a man of questionable reputation. He nevertheless abstained from the first agitation, emerging to 'make a stand for righteousness' only in 1900 when he organized a petition against reappointment. A Norman Lindsay cartoon depicted him as the murderer of Justice. Marshall-Hall was to resume the chair briefly in 1915, Leeper's opposition then proving as ineffectual as it was vehement.

Leeper's bitterest prejudices were political. He had little interest in Australian politics, his outlook remaining Imperial and his accent Irish. Australian nationalism, even in forms as trivial as the kangaroo stamp, repelled him. His commitment against Home Rule became ever more strident, Asquith's bill of 1912 provoking him to lead the local Ulster and Loyal Irish Association to defend the integrity of the Empire, 'the main bulwark of civil and religious liberty in the world'.

The outbreak of war in 1914 raised these passions to a pitch of xenophobia. In the university council he campaigned for the dismissal of two German members of staff and prevented their reappointment after 1915. As a member of the Council of Public Education he moved in 1916 for the deregistration of Lutheran schools. In 1915 and regularly thereafter he urged the university council to campaign vigorously for recruiting, and in 1916 persuaded synod to support conscription. Leeper claimed that the referendum 'No' vote represented merely the views of 'the shirkers, the pro-Germans, the Sinn Feiners, the Mannixites, the I.W.W. traitors, the pacifists, and the cranks' against the 'imperious moral obligation to defend the Empire'. In 1917 he railed against student shirkers; in 1918 his hatreds concentrated on the St Patrick's Day procession during which Dr Mannix appeared to pay respect to the Sinn Fein and refuse it to the king. With Herbert Brookes, Leeper organized the Citizens' Loyalist Committee and chaired a large meeting of 'Loyalist Melbourne'.

In other matters Leeper was usually more moderate, if seldom mild. From 1899 and 1900 he was a council-member of Melbourne Grammar and of Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School, which he had persuaded the Church to establish by acquiring the existing Merton Hall. The Classical Association of Victoria, formed in 1913, was an abiding involvement, while his selective interest in modern literature found him producing a Browning play, organizing the Shakespeare Society, and admiring the novels of George Eliot, if little more modern. Active in Church affairs, in Trinity's theological school and as a lay canon of St Paul's Cathedral and a member of synod, he habitually defended the rights of the laity against the presumptions of bishops and, remarkably, favoured the ordination of women, though even he could scarcely envisage a woman bishop. His intervention to prevent a High Church appointment to the archbishopric in 1918 caused resentment, and he was isolated in Church affairs for a time. He felt even more bitterly the aftermath of his retirement from Trinity in March 1918, when his successor (Sir) John Behan foiled his intention to remain on the college council; only once thereafter did he set foot in the college he had ruled for forty-two years. He was also disappointed by his defeat in the university council elections of 1923.

Leeper's principal interest in retirement was the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery, of which he was a trustee in 1887-1928, becoming president in 1920. He had assembled a notable library for Trinity, which was named in his honour on his retirement. 'A firm believer in the immense educational influence of the Public Library', he fought to raise the status of librarians. He defended the conglomerate of library, gallery and museums in Swanston Street against separatists, and although his primary interest was in the library he took his duties as the trustees' nominee on the Felton Bequests' Committee (1920-28) very seriously. While occasionally pernickety in library and gallery matters, he was an influential advocate of the importance of such institutions to any enlightened society.

Leeper died at his home in Kensington Road, South Yarra, on 6 August 1934, and his ashes were buried at South Head cemetery, Sydney, beside his first wife Adeline (d.1893). Notable portraits by Rupert Bunny hang in Trinity and Janet Clarke Hall, and the National Gallery of Victoria has another by John Longstaff. A portrait by B. C. Edwell and a drawing by John Shirlow are held by the family.

On 17 February 1897 Leeper had married Mary Elizabeth Moule. The second marriage produced two daughters and one son Geoffrey Winthrop, first professor of agricultural chemistry in the University of Melbourne. The two sons of the first marriage made their careers in the British Foreign Office.

Alexander Wigram Allen Leeper (1887-1935) was born on 4 January 1887 and educated at Melbourne Grammar School, the University of Melbourne and Balliol College, Oxford. He entered the Foreign Office in 1918 after publishing The Justice of Rumania's Cause (London, 1917). In 1924 as first secretary he was seconded to advise S. M. (Lord) Bruce on reorganization of the Department of External Affairs. The Leeper report is an important document in the history of Australian foreign policy, arguing for closer effective co-ordination with British policy by creating the position of liaison officer in London, which R. G. (Lord) Casey was the first to occupy. First secretary in Vienna in 1924-28, and a counsellor in the Foreign Office in 1933, Leeper was appointed C.B.E. in 1920 and C.M.G. in 1935. His unfinished History of Medieval Austria was published in 1941.

Sir Reginald (Rex) Wildig Allen Leeper, C.B.E., C.M.G., K.C.M.G., G.B.E. (1888-1968) had a distinguished career as a British diplomat and as the 'architect' of the British Council.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, A History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1936)
  • W. K. Hancock, Country and Calling (Lond, 1954)
  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • E. D. Lindsay, The Felton Bequest, an Historical Record 1904-1959 (Melb, 1963)
  • R. Rivett, Australian Citizen
  • Herbert Brookes 1867-1963 (Melb, 1965)
  • G. McInnes, The Road to Gundagai (Lond, 1965)
  • L. B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria, 1861 to 1968 (Melb, 1970)
  • J. A. Grant (ed), Perspective of a Century (Melb, 1972)
  • T. Radic, G.W.L. Marshall-Hall, Portrait of a Lost Crusader: An Introduction to the Marshall-Hall Collection of the Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne (Perth, 1982)
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Apr 1934, 2 Jan 1935
  • Argus (Melbourne), 7, 8 Aug 1934, 2 Jan 1935
  • Herald (Melbourne), 3 Feb 1968
  • Queen's College Archives (Melbourne)
  • Trinity College Archives (Melbourne)
  • University of Melbourne Archives.

Citation details

J. R. Poynter, 'Leeper, Alexander (1848–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 June, 1848
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


6 August, 1934 (aged 86)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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