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Alexander Morrison (1829–1903)

by E. L. French

This article was published:

Alexander Morrison (1829-1903), schoolmaster, was born on 3 February 1829 at Edinkillie, Morayshire, Scotland, sixth son of Donald Morrison, farmer, and his wife Catherine, née Fraser. Educated at the parish school, Elgin Academy and King's College, Aberdeen (M.A., 1851), he began teaching at Elgin Academy but soon became rector of St John's Grammar School, Hamilton, Lanarkshire, where he increased the enrolment in four years from 194 to 397. His eldest brother was a minister and others held teaching positions; they were well known to the Free Church's Colonial Committee which in 1857 was asked by the Free Church Presbytery of Victoria to select a principal for Scotch College, Melbourne, where the first head, Robert Lawson, had resigned. The committee approached two of Alexander's brothers in vain but Alexander accepted. In 1855 he had married Christina, daughter of Alexander Fraser. In the Essex he sailed with her, a son, a younger brother Robert and a female relation, arriving at Melbourne on 25 July 1857. His brother George later became first headmaster of Geelong College and Robert a master at Scotch College and vice-principal in 1869-1904.

The presbytery was embarrassed by a claim from the Colonial Committee for £1000 for travelling expenses, but Morrison paid them himself. Within three years the college enrolment rose from 56 to 284; it had passed 300 by 1870 and remained steadily above that number until 1892, when the depression cut it by a third, before recovering. For most of this time Scotch College was the largest church school in Australia. By his appointment terms Morrison collected all fees, paid running costs and remitted 5 per cent of the gross revenue in the first year and 10 per cent thereafter to the Presbytery's Education Committee for an improvement fund. The fund was inadequate for his plans and he made several personal loans for new buildings in 1858-73, a cricket ground in 1879 and tennis courts in 1901. In 1878 he advanced money at 7 per cent to permit renewal of an £8000 mortgage and in 1893-97 met all deficits. A director of the National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd in 1897-1903, he had helped in its amalgamation with the Mutual Assurance Society of Victoria in 1896. He had interests in Goldsbrough Mort and argued for its reconstruction in 1893. Victorian Scots were awed by the resounding success of the magisterial figure who backed his judgment with money.

Moves to alter the pervasive classicism of colonial secondary schools had been tentative in the 1850s; Morrison wanted change and set about making Scotch College in the image of Elgin Academy. He appointed qualified teachers of French and German, offered in 1859 to endow a modern languages exhibition at the University of Melbourne and succeeded in having French and German made matriculation subjects in 1862. He detached the teaching of English from classical studies, introducing in 1859 J. D. Morell's method of analysis of sentences and in 1860, for the first time in Australia, the study of English literature. He engaged Dr John Macadam to teach chemistry by practical demonstration and in 1873 the college had the first science laboratory in an Australian school. Between 1858 and 1865 Morrison made such 'extras' as book-keeping, drawing and music regular subjects. Despite his persistence the university did not make science a matriculation subject until 1881, music until 1892 and drawing until 1899. In the 1860s debate on liberal education he stood with the Taunton commissioners, arguing that mental faculties were 'better cultivated by variety than exclusiveness', contrasting the 'critical' scholarship demanded by classics and the descriptive discipline of modern studies, and warning against 'ministering to the ends of a vulgar and material utility'. A visit to Britain in 1875 convinced him that Victorian schools were as well adapted to the times as English grammar schools. Firm and compassionate, he found corporal punishment necessary, though his diaries attest that it distressed him. He taught classics with success and published A First Latin Course, which was revised in association with W. F. Ingram and republished in 1903. For him the college was a public not a sectarian school so in 1862 he organized classes in Hebrew for a large Jewish enrolment. In 1866 he served on the royal commission into public education; in 1873 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by the University of Aberdeen and in 1877 LL.D, ad eund., University of Melbourne.

In 1878 Dr J. E. Bromby moved successfully for Morrison to become a member of council. He agreed with the professors' claim to control of academic matters but was impatient with their toleration of irresponsibility and their conservatism. Exasperated at delay in publishing matriculation results in January 1882, he persuaded the vice-chancellor to publish within twenty-four hours on his own authority and publicly blamed the delay on Professor J. S. Elkington, who protested but got no support. Morrison opposed J. D. Kirkland's appointment to the chair of chemistry, and criticized the high standard of first year Greek which he claimed with justice was 'killing' the subject while the professors refused to replace Greek with a modern language. He opposed the appointment of local men to chairs without advertising overseas. In 1898 he moved Marshall-Hall's dismissal from the chair of music for publishing opinions 'incompatible with the University's neutrality on moral and religious questions'. For Professor Baldwin Spencer he could not do enough, pressing the council to allow him to join the Horn expedition to the Macdonnell Ranges in 1894 and securing £1000 from David Syme for Aboriginal research. On the finance committee he persuaded the government to modify reductions in its grant in the 1890s, negotiated the Wyselaskie bequest in 1885 and secured Francis Ormond's gift of £20,000 for a chair of music in 1887. In favour of admitting women to degrees, he opposed a request from female medical students for concessions. Fearing government resumption of Presbyterian land in the university reserve, he took the lead in the foundation of Ormond College in 1881.

Though a firm believer in the necessity of the 1843 Disruption, Morrison welcomed the union of Victorian Presbyterians in 1859. When the Presbytery of Melbourne proceeded against Dr Charles Strong in 1881 his Evangelical loyalty conflicted with his desire for some freedom of doctrinal interpretation. He opposed the presbytery's procedure as irregular. Strong later accused him of equivocation. When Strong's assistant, Rev. George Dods, was called to Scots Church in 1886 Morrison opposed it successfully in presbytery on the grounds of Dods's inadequacy for a prominent pulpit, his weak adherence to certain doctrines and his complicity in the congregation's abortive secession in 1883. The Argus denounced Morrison and he was threatened with legal action.

Morrison's public interests were the Aborigines Protection Board of which he was vice-chairman in 1887-89, the Blind Asylum, the Teachers Training College and Federation for which he prayed earnestly. He encouraged games but did not play himself; he relaxed at his Mount Martha home, 'Craigie Lea', and later at the Australian Club. Though prone to conjunctivitis he was a voracious reader. Predeceased by his wife on 13 April 1883, he died from heart failure on 31 May 1903, survived by all but one of his children.

A portrait by R. H. Dowling in 1885 is at Ormond College.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Mitchell, Spoils of Opportunity (Lond, 1938)
  • N. Adams, Family Fresco (Melb, 1966)
  • National Mutual Life Assn of Australasia, A Century of Life (Melb, 1969)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1867, 4 (27), 1901, 3 (36), 1903, 2 (20), 1904, 2 (13)
  • Aborigines Protection Board reports, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1881-1903
  • Evening Mail (Melbourne), 23, 27 Jan 1882
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16 Feb, 3, 25 Mar 1886, 17 Aug 1894
  • Australasian, 30 Jan 1892
  • Table Talk, 1 Apr 1892
  • E. L. French, Secondary Education in the Australian Social Order 1788-1898 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1957)
  • Morrison diaries 1875, 1883-86, 1894-96, 1898-1901 (Ormond College Archives)
  • Council, Professorial Board and Senate minutes (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Presbyterian Church blue books 1869-1903 and Scotch College minute books (Presbyterian Assembly Hall, Melbourne).

Additional Resources

Citation details

E. L. French, 'Morrison, Alexander (1829–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 February, 1829
Edinkillie, Moray, Scotland


31 May, 1903 (aged 74)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

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Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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