Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Lewis Neale (1853–1913)

by P. H. Northcott

This article was published:

William Lewis Neale (1853-1913), educationist, was born on 12 May 1853 in London, son of Hilary Williams Neale, shoemaker, and his wife Anne, née Lewis. The family arrived in Adelaide on 1 January 1856.

It was natural for Neale to regard himself as a South Australian. He attended Pulteney Street school and at 15 became a pupil-teacher there, beginning a distinguished career in primary education in South Australia as teacher, headmaster and inspector. He had firm Methodist beliefs. As a protégé of J. A. Hartley he was headmaster at Kapunda (1878-83) and Sturt Street, Adelaide (1884-90). While at Kapunda he gave important evidence on behalf of the masters of model schools to the 1882-83 royal commission on the working of the education Acts; and at Sturt Street he established the sixth or exhibition class which was arguably the beginning of state secondary education for boys in South Australia. In his inspectorial years (1891-1904) he was, as a New Educationist, almost as scathing about education in South Australia as he was to be about schooling in Tasmania. He was also active in both States in instituting superannuation schemes for teachers and the public service.

In February 1904 Neale was invited by Premier W. B. Propsting to inquire into the educational administration and system of primary education in Tasmania. On the strength of Neale's reputation and his terse, yet comprehensive and forthright report, (Sir) John Evans, who had succeeded Propsting in July, appointed Neale director of education from 1 January 1905 and charged him with the task of implementing his recommended reforms.

Neale made the training of teachers his priority. Appointed to instil 'firmer discipline' into a service notoriously lax and steeped with political influence, he nevertheless offended public opinion when the tone of his correspondence in censuring his teachers became known. As an administrator he was accused of rigidity, harshness and, above all, lack of tact. His alleged discourtesy to some of his women teachers especially lost him public sympathy. His system of education—his curriculum and teaching methods as distinct from his administration—also attracted criticism but far less antagonism. A fundamental cause of discontent was that certain Tasmanian teachers considered that South Australian teachers imported by Neale were receiving preferential treatment.

Agitation from some teachers, boards of advice and politicians led to three royal commissions to inquire into Neale's administration: two in 1907 and one early in 1909. By mid-1908 the disaffected teachers had gained control of the executive of the Teachers' Union and the committee of classifiers and were supported by politicians hoping to embarrass the Evans government. The Hobart Mercury, mouthpiece of the Legislative Council, was particularly hostile towards him. This combination proved too strong for both Neale and the ministry that had appointed him. The five politicians of the 1909 commission, but not P. Goyen, an educationist from New Zealand, recommended that Neale be dismissed. He resigned in June and refused the offer of the principalship of the Teachers' College, Hobart. Despite opposition to his schemes and methods, Neale achieved much-needed reform of the antiquated educational system.

Though the government finally agreed to pay him compensation for loss of office, the Tasmanian episode was a personal disaster for Neale; he ran the 'gauntlet of troubles'. He left Tasmania, however, with the knowledge that he had been able to lay the foundations of what promised to become an efficient, modern and progressive system.

Neale returned to Adelaide in 1910 where he died from cerebral haemorrhage on 16 December 1913. His wife Nancy, née Leaver, whom he had married on 15 February 1874, two sons and two daughters survived him. Denied reinstatement in the South Australian Education Department, he had spent the last two years of his life as senior clerk in the local land tax branch of the Commonwealth Treasury.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Society of Tasmania, Papers and Proceedings, 104, 1970, p 51
  • Mercury (Hobart), 17 Dec 1913
  • Register (Adelaide), 17 Dec 1913
  • PL 56/1 and GRG 18 Series 2 2390/1909 (State Records of South Australia)
  • letter from W. L. Neale to A. Williams, 24 Oct 1909 (State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

P. H. Northcott, 'Neale, William Lewis (1853–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 14 July 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]


12 May, 1853
London, Middlesex, England


16 December, 1913 (aged 60)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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