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William Still Littlejohn (1859–1933)

by Weston Bate

This article was published:

William Still Littlejohn (1859-1933), headmaster, was born on 19 September 1859 at Turriff, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, son of Wilson Littlejohn, watchmaker, and his wife Margaret, née Gordon. After local schooling he went to Aberdeen Grammar School in 1872 and then to the University of Aberdeen, where he studied classics, mathematics, science and philosophy and played Rugby. He won many prizes and graduated M.A. in 1879, having worked extremely hard and sagaciously, despite poverty and poor eyesight.

By temperament and upbringing he was a religious man, but serious doubts stopped him entering the ministry. A pointer to his rationality was his acceptance of Darwin's theory of evolution as a credible mechanism within creation. 'Surely', he wrote, 'it is no degrading view of God to superintend and govern all these activities'.

Littlejohn obtained teacher registration in 1879 and taught at Clydesdale College, Hamilton, then tutored privately. Before leaving to join his family in New Zealand in 1881, he kindled a lifelong interest in the outdoors by tramping, or riding a velocipede, great distances across Scotland. From 1882 to 1898, as an assistant master at Nelson College, he developed his teaching skills and philosophy. Friendly but firm, enthusiastic and very energetic, he succeeded in making hard work fun and put reasoning far above rote-learning. He pioneered experimental methods in science and loved geological excursions. Among his first pupils was Ernest (Lord) Rutherford. With a huge, boyish laugh, he threw his 5 ft 11 ins (180 cm), 12½ stone (80 kg) frame into the scrum for the school's Rugby team and batted and bowled with skill and perseverance at cricket. He studied military manuals and made the Nelson College Cadet Corps famous for its drill.

In 1885 Littlejohn proposed to Jean Berry, a teacher whom he had met during his university days. Despite a long silence she migrated and married him in Wellington on 25 December, to become the most powerful influence in his life.

Appointed principal at Nelson from 1898, Littlejohn set about transforming the school. Within five years there were four times as many boarders and twice as many day-boys. He drove staff and pupils hard, but within a humane curriculum, making English the main subject, emphasizing translation in languages, experiment in science and stressing the stimulus of the library, museum and extra-curricular activities. To increase participation, he divided the school into groups of thirty for Rugby and twenty-two for cricket.

But for his wife he might never have moved from Nelson. She organized the application which brought him the headmastership of Scotch College, Melbourne, in 1904. Before accepting, he insisted upon extensive improvements, especially the provision of laboratories. And he went on building. School enrolments (240 when he arrived) jumped by about fifty per year. In 1914, with over 500 pupils, the council decided to move from cramped quarters at East Melbourne to an extensive site among Melbourne's expanding middle class at Hawthorn, where by 1923 there were 1200 on the roll. To keep in touch, Littlejohn accepted a prodigious workload, which took a physical toll. Threatened with blindness in 1911, he had to take a year overseas and was ill for six months in 1917.

To Graham McInnes, who recalled his 'crisp white beard, curly white hair, rimless pebble-lens glasses and totally unreconstructed Scottish accent', Littlejohn seemed 'an administrative dynamo driven by evangelical Scots fervour'. He believed that a school should be large to give challenging experiences and to allow specialization across the broad curriculum. His appetite for academic success, expressed in high salaries for senior subject-masters and ruthless streaming, ensured that Scotch excelled at public examinations. In 1927 his boys won twelve of the eighteen exhibitions. They were prepared by three exams each term, their masters spurred on by 'Old Bill's' assiduous scrutiny of form averages and his sudden classroom visits. His deputy considered that Littlejohn could take any class in any of the twenty subjects on the curriculum. That capacity, and his knowledge of educational literature, ensured the respect of his staff. Whether standing in the 'quad', watchmaker's son's watch in hand to ensure punctuality by roaring at offenders, or 'shouting to God and at us' during morning assembly when he prayed for better performances in exams and at games and asked for better Christian lives, he effectively dramatized his role. He lived for the school and expected his staff and pupils to be fulfilled within it.

A fellow headmaster who called Littlejohn 'a mark fiend' was probably correct about the inappropriateness of that exam factory for boys in the ruck of the school for whom, as for their masters, the system was often demoralizing; but he may not have understood the broad, balancing humanity that made Scotch a nursery of liberal thinkers. Apart from introducing a prefect system and getting boys to run the library, museum and many societies, Littlejohn founded the Scotch Collegian and entrusted it to student editors and poets who, true to his vision, made it a notable magazine. Many of them became prominent in journalism and letters.

As on all private Church schools, World War I made an immense impact. Formerly a captain in the New Zealand militia, zealous for discipline and intensely patriotic, Littlejohn supported recruitment. During the conscription controversy of 1916, 600 Scotch boys sang at one of Billy Hughes's rallies. In the memorial hall of the new school, to whose original motto 'Deo et Litteris' he caused 'Patriae' to be added, mourning the dead became a ritual on Anzac and Armistice days.

With his intense focus on Scotch and education, he had little time for social life. He relaxed by walking in the bush and often fished in New Zealand with Sir John MacFarland. His only club was the Old Scotch Collegians'. From 1905 to 1926 he was a very active member of the board of public examinations (schools board) of the University of Melbourne and from 1915 to his death was on the university council. He was a member of the faculty of education and a chairman of the Headmasters' Conference of Australia. For his services to education his old university awarded him a doctorate of laws in 1929.

Littlejohn died at the school on 7 October 1933, after murmuring, 'Kneel', to his wife and a daughter and whispering a prayer. He was cremated. His wife, two sons and three daughters survived him; three of his children became doctors. A portrait by W. B. McInnes hangs in the Scotch College memorial hall.

Select Bibliography

  • A. E. Pratt, Dr. W. S. Littlejohn (Melb, 1934)
  • The First Hundred Years (Melb, 1952)
  • G. McInnes, The Road to Gundagai (Lond, 1965)
  • G. McInnes, Goodbye, Melbourne Town (Lond, 1968)
  • Melbourne Studies in Education, 1982, S. Murray-Smith ed (Melb, 1983)
  • Scotch College (Melbourne), Annual Report
  • University of Melbourne, Calendar, 1905-33
  • Argus (Melbourne), 9 Oct 1933
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Oct 1933
  • Council minutes, 1915-33, and Schools Board minutes, 1905-26 (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Weston Bate, 'Littlejohn, William Still (1859–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 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]


19 September, 1859
Turriff, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


7 October, 1933 (aged 74)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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