Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Pearson, Charles Henry (1830–1894)

by John M. Tregenza

This article was published:

Charles Pearson, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co

Charles Pearson, by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co

State Library of Victoria, IAN02/07/94/9

Charles Henry Pearson (1830-1894), historian, educationist, politician and journalist, was born on 7 September 1830 in Islington, London, fourth son and tenth child of John Norman Pearson (1787-1865), Anglican clergyman, and his wife Harriet, daughter of Richard Puller, merchant. He was educated at home by his father until 13, at Rugby and King's College, London, where he was much influenced by J. S. Brewer and F. D. Maurice, and at Oriel and Exeter Colleges, Oxford. Finding little stimulus in the formal Oxford teaching, he gave his best energies to the Union of which, despite his espousal of such minority causes as Christian Socialism, he was elected president in 1852-53. After graduating with first-class honours in literae humaniores he was elected a fellow of Oriel and began to study medicine. Forced to abandon these plans by a severe attack of pleurisy, he returned to the academic life and in 1855-64 was professor of modern history in King's College, London. In these years he worked on The Early and Middle Ages of England (1861), wrote for the London weeklies, travelled widely in Europe and studied the art and literature of the Italian Renaissance.

In 1864, suffering from 'sluggish liver' and depressed by Oxford's failure to appoint him to the Chichele professorship of history and by King's refusal to increase his modest salary, he took a year's unpaid leave and set off for South Australia, intending to invest in sheep. Finding that runs were about to be revalued, he bought a farm of about 640 acres (259 ha) near Mount Remarkable, only to experience the worst drought the colony had then known. Driven back to England in 1866, he defended the political stability of Australian democracy in Essays on Reform, arguing that 'the conservative apathy of men partially shut out from the world and, coming to believe that the trodden way is the best', was far more to be feared than 'any revolutionary fervour for sudden and great changes'. While lecturing in 1868 for the new North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women he brought out an enlarged two-volume edition of his History of England, supplemented in 1869 by his pioneering Historical Maps of England, During the First Thirteen Centuries. In 1869-71, after a visit to the United States, he lectured in modern history at Cambridge, but eyestrain from poring over medieval manuscripts, a lack of good students and nostalgia for the dry climate and free life of the bush induced him to return to his colonial farm.

On 10 December 1872 at Gawler he married Edith, daughter of Philip Butler, an absentee visiting Yattalunga, his South Australian station. Pearson then had hopes of combining farming with a professorship in the embryo University of Adelaide but, as it was slow to open and his wife proved unable to bear the hot summer, he negotiated with the University of Melbourne for a lectureship in history and political economy. It proved a frustrating post, for although required to deliver eight lectures a week he was not permitted by the council to choose his own textbooks or even to plan his own courses. On 4 June 1874 he found some compensation by launching a university debating club which attracted such talented members as Alexander Sutherland, T. F. Bride, Alfred Deakin, William Shiels, H. B. Higgins and Theodore Fink. Subjects of current social and political interest were chosen and Pearson, who always chaired the debates until December, was often invited by the meeting to give his own views.

On 20 November Pearson had accepted the headmastership of a new 'Ladies' College in Connexion with the Presbyterian Church of Victoria', the first school in Australia to offer girls an education equivalent to that of the leading boys' schools. On 11 February 1875 in an inaugural lecture on 'The Higher Culture of Women' he predicted that the majority who chose to become housewives would increasingly find release from much traditional work through inventions like the sewing machine, and others, once equipped, would compete equally with men for 'the career open to talents'. As the University of Melbourne still refused to admit women, Pearson planned courses of lectures for the senior girls and also 'for the convenience of ladies who have left school, but desire to carry on their education, or of those who propose to go out as governesses'. As a secondary school the Ladies' College was an immediate success, the numbers rising from 60 in the first term to 170 in the fourth, but Melbourne had too few women with the basic schooling to sustain the lecture system.

Anonymous articles by Pearson in the New York Nation in 1875-76 reveal that he was becoming alarmed at developments in Victoria outside the field of education, in particular the accumulation of the colony's land by a few hundred proprietors, the failure of democracy to produce a stable two-party political system and the power of an undemocratically elected Upper House to frustrate the will of the majority. He found it symptomatic of Victorian politics that the most widely respected Liberal politician, George Higinbotham, preferred 'the position of a free lance to that of leader of a party or lieutenant of an administration' and should withdraw from parliament. On 11 December 1876 Pearson lectured on 'The History of Taxation in England, and its Bearing upon Taxation in Victoria'. Allying himself with the Age and the more radical Liberals, he advocated a progressive tax on the unearned increment accruing to large landowners, a tax which should effectively limit the size of estates to 40,000 acres (16,200 ha) and thereby meet the chronic deficit in the colony's budget caused by the drying up of revenue from the sale of crown land. Although admitting that he believed in free trade 'as he believed in the rules of arithmetic', he thought it 'infinitely more important that the land tax should be put on a sound basis than that a few duties in the tariff should be struck off or diminished'.

Gratified by this speech, the organizers of the newly-founded National Reform and Protection League invited him to deliver one of two key addresses at its first 'monster meeting' in the Princess Theatre on 19 February 1877. Pearson accepted and in so doing immediately became, as Deakin wrote in 1900, 'a leading figure in one of the fiercest campaigns of party warfare waged within the Empire in this century'. The league was regarded by the pastoralists, bankers and merchants as the most serious challenge to their economic and political power since the granting of responsible government. Pearson seemed a class traitor: Melbourne Punch referred to 'Professor Pearson's alliance with the Communists'. Within days of the Princess Theatre meeting the principal of the Ladies' College, Rev. George Tait, had asked him to resign his headmastership on the ground that he was alienating the college's 'constituency'. Aware that his wife was expecting a second child and that he had no immediate alternative employment, Pearson countered with an offer to give up politics for the remainder of the contract, but Tait proving adamant he reluctantly agreed to resign within five months. On 1 March he accepted an invitation to stand for the electorate of Boroondara and persisted with his candidacy despite publication in the Age of a letter, signed by the headmasters of Melbourne's four leading boys' schools, four university professors and four lecturers, in which the signatories sincerely regretted that he had deemed it his duty to resign, expressed sorrow that 'anyone should forget that educators have by no means laid aside the duties of citizens in accepting educational work' and hoped 'that this calamity may be averted'. When an embarrassed Tait offered Pearson a new contract which would have reduced his income by at least 30 per cent he replied that he was not only pledged to his committee at Boroondara but would refuse such an offer in any circumstances.

While ready to make Pearson their 'lion' on the land question, the leaders of the National Reform and Protection League had not been prepared to offer a safe seat to an untried candidate who admitted to being a free trader, and in the elections of 11 May 1877 which gave the league president, Graham Berry, a huge majority in the assembly, Pearson narrowly failed to carry Boroondara. A greater disappointment was Berry's failure to mention the progressive principle when outlining a new land tax, although a progressive tax had been league policy. At the next meeting of the league Pearson therefore seized the opportunity, when moving adoption of a report on the election, to remind members that the league had been working 'not to reward the personal popularity of any leader, however well merited; but to institute lasting measures of organic change', and went on to expound a long-term legislative programme which would realize the 'idea of a democratic community … perhaps fifty years hence'. The speech which followed exemplified his role as a 'colonizer' of new ideas, for his prophetic programme included not only a progressive tax on land but a complete system of free education, 'from the State School to the grammar school, and from the grammar school to the university', laws regulating overtime and the working conditions of women and children, limits on the 'importation of foreign immigrants to glut the labor market', the setting up of some form of state arbitration system, state insurance of taxpayers against old age and sickness and state aid to the unemployed. The repeated 'loud cheers' drawn from the audience demonstrated that he already had a large following among the league's rank and file as a radical intellectual. This popularity and the powerful support of the Age, which had regularly reported his speeches at length, must have helped to induce Berry to offer him appointment as a one-man royal commission to make 'suggestions for the thorough organization of the Education department, also drawing out a plan for connecting the national school system with the University'.

Pearson began his inquiries in July 1877 and presented his Report on the State of Public Education in Victoria, and Suggestions as to the Best Means of Improving it in March 1878 after inspecting seventy-two scattered state primary schools and every other educational institution of importance. Convinced that Victoria, with its limited area and resources, could only sustain a large population in the future if she followed New England, United States of America, and trained one of the most highly-skilled workforces in the world, and concerned that the democratic form of government should not fail through want of well-educated legislators and public servants, he placed much emphasis on the expansion of secondary and tertiary education. For training teachers he recommended a central college close to the university so that they could be educated 'not as a caste apart, but as men and women having a need for common culture with the members of other professions'. To encourage experienced country teachers to further their education, the new college should provide forty sets of rooms for students in residence. 'I know no greater mistake', he argued, 'than to suppose that man or woman can be over-educated for the position of teacher in a primary school'. To connect the state primary schools with the university he proposed that the state should assist good, existing 'middle class' schools which were struggling to survive in twelve large country towns, and should supplement these with new state co-educational 'high schools' in thirteen country districts and four city suburbs where private schools were non-existent or inadequate. In defence of this dual system he argued that 'a body of highly trained teachers should continue to work outside of State control, pursuing their own methods, and in some instances imparting knowledge which it might not lie within the State's province to impart'. At the summit of the educational pyramid the university should be more democratic and utilitarian. As he had been elected a member of the university council in January 1875 for five years he was able to press for university reforms, and at council meetings combined with M. H. Irving and Dr J. E. Bromby to carry a radical draft bill 'To extend the Powers and Benefits of the University of Melbourne' which he later included in his report. Unfortunately the Berry government was more interested in saving than in spending money on education and few of Pearson's ideas were immediately adopted, but the report was widely read by educationists and provided a blue-print for the future.

On 7 June 1878 Pearson won an assembly by-election for the seat of Castlemaine, drawing from Deakin 'most hearty and sincere congratulations' and the assurance that 'with the exception of Mr. Higinbotham no public leader possesses such general confidence as you do'. Pearson was immediately recruited by the Berry government as chief adviser in its struggle to reform the Victorian Constitution. For over a year he had been arguing that deadlocks between the two Houses could best be resolved by a plebiscite of all assembly electors, as in Switzerland, and this device was incorporated in the reform bill which the assembly passed by 50 votes to 21. When it was rejected by the council the assembly voted £5000 to defray the costs of sending Berry, Pearson and H. H. Hayter to England on an 'embassy' to persuade the imperial parliament to pass a bill which would enable the assembly to reform the Constitution without the agreement of the council. While in London from February to June 1879 Pearson published a pamphlet detailing the occasions on which the Victorian Upper House had obstructed the clearly expressed will of the people, wrote letters to The Times, contributed an article on 'Democracy in Victoria' to the Fortnightly Review and met many influential men. The weakness of his case was that no election had been won specifically on the bill, and this was seized on by Conservative colonial secretary, Hicks-Beach, who refused to contemplate any action by the imperial parliament until such an election had been held and won. Yet the embassy was not entirely fruitless for Hicks-Beach indirectly warned the council that persistent rejection of a 'reasonable' reform of the Constitution could invite the interference sought. Pearson enlisted the interest and sympathy of many prominent Liberals, but Berry confused the issue on his return to Victoria by abandoning the bill which had earlier been passed by a large majority in the assembly in favour of a new proposal for a nominated rather than elected council; finding nomineeism unpopular, he readopted the plebiscite for the elections of February 1880 but failed to win a majority. Disheartened but persistent, Pearson continued to work for reform and in 1881, after Berry had regained power, helped to negotiate a compromise Act which made the council more democratic but left its powers intact. The plebiscite, with which he had been so closely identified, had been abandoned, although the idea continued to find many supporters in Victoria and would eventually find its way into the Australian Constitution under the name of referendum.

In the third Berry ministry from August 1880 to July 1881 Pearson held the unsalaried office of minister without portfolio, on the understanding that as soon as convenient to the ministry he would be appointed Victorian agent-general in London. In the assembly he concerned himself with constitutional reform, with carrying an Act 'to amend the law relating to the University of Melbourne' which amongst other things guaranteed equal rights for women, and with a thorough reorganization of the Department of Industrial and Reformatory Schools, which involved boarding-out the 200 children housed in state Industrial Schools, the recruiting of two professional 'visiting agents' to supplement the work of volunteers in supervising the boarding-out system, and the appointment of a new departmental head. Both these campaigns sought to realize recommendations he had made as royal commissioner in 1877-78 and powerfully supported in a series of unsigned editorials in the Age. He had begun writing for the Age soon after his arrival in Melbourne in 1874 and from 1878 until he visited England in 1885 he probably earned up to £1000 a year from this source. An account book in his papers identifies some 650 articles written for the Age and its weekly, the Leader, from August 1880 to February 1884. When the editor fell sick in that year Pearson took over for several months.

Finding his services useful in the protracted search for a viable constitutional reform, Berry delayed appointing Pearson agent-general until his government was about to surrender office. Having criticized an earlier government for making last-minute appointments, Pearson now publicly refused on principle what must have been a most attractive post, thus relegating himself to the back benches. Appointed an honorary trustee of the Melbourne Public Library, Museums and National Gallery, he proposed to his colleagues on 4 May 1882 that they respond to the offer by Francis Ormond to donate £5000 to help found a Melbourne working men's college. Next day in an Age editorial he deprecated government inaction and appealed for immediate public support in raising the matching £5000 required by Ormond as a condition of his gift. This editorial in turn led the Trades Hall Committee to approach Ormond, who then organized a provisional council representing library, Trades Hall, university, government and subscribers. As honorary secretary of this council and as editorial writer, Pearson played a major role in raising funds for the first part of the building, reiterating his argument that Victoria's future prosperity would depend on the technical expertise of her working men.

In 1883 Pearson played the same dual role in campaigning for the Sunday opening of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery. At a meeting of the trustees on 30 April he seconded a successful motion 'That the technological Museum and the Galleries be opened to the public on each Sunday during the Month of May from 1.30 to 5 p.m.'. Bitterly opposed by Sabbatarians but supported by a 'monster meeting' in the Town Hall chaired by Higinbotham, the trustees put the motion into effect and on the four Sundays in May some 18,902 visits were recorded. To parliament Pearson presented a petition of '38,150 inhabitants of Melbourne and the suburbs, in favour of opening the Public Library, National Gallery, and Museums on Sunday', and for the Age of 18 May he wrote a masterly satire on the Sabbatarians, but failed to muster a majority when the matter came to a division in the assembly; the promising experiment came to an end, not to be repeated for twenty-one years.

Pearson's Age editorials also sought to inform and shape opinion on questions that were Australian rather than Victorian in scope. He attacked the inhumanity of 'blackbirding', opposed the use of Chinese and Indian coolie labour in northern parts of the continent on the ground that Australia should have no second-class citizens, argued that the people of New Guinea would be better served if their country became a British Protectorate rather than an extension of Queensland, urged closer consultation between Britain and Australia about imperial strategies that could involve Australian troops, suggested the need for an Australian 'West Point' and warned that excessive government borrowing could lead to a disastrous depression. He supported equal rights for women in divorce and employment, and advocated state insurance schemes and state control of urban housing conditions.

In January 1886, with the imminent break-up of the Service-Berry coalition, Pearson and Deakin found themselves at political cross purposes. Pearson, as the most senior and experienced member of the Liberal caucus, recommended that the Liberals should seek to govern independently on their own platform, looking for support to organized labour. In contrast, Deakin urged that the coalition be continued in the interest of stable government. Deakin's policy prevailed, resulting in the formation of the Gillies-Deakin ministry which lasted until November 1890, the longest since responsible government in Victoria. Defeated in caucus, Pearson agreed to join the coalition as minister of education, partly because he doubtless felt himself better equipped for the post than any other member, and partly because, as he admitted later to Deakin, he needed the ministerial salary.

Pearson now enjoyed opportunities of realizing some of the recommendations he had made in his 1878 report. His greatest success lay in the field of scientific and technical education. In 1887 he gave the first lecture in the Melbourne Working Men's College and opened the Gordon Technical College in Geelong. In 1888, when the boom was reaching its height and Melbourne staged its great International Exhibition, he published a digest of the voluminous evidence taken by the 1881-84 British royal commission on technical instruction together with his reflections on its relevance to Victoria, and also chaired a special commission 'to inquire into the best method of promoting technical education'. His skilful advocacy led the government to raise the grant for the teaching of science and technology from £18,098 in 1887-88 to £44,304 in 1889-90, thereby enabling a rapid expansion of the new technical colleges and the building of new chemical, biological and mechanical laboratories in the university. Increased support was also given to the established Schools of Mines in Ballarat and Bendigo and to another new technical college in Castlemaine. However, he was not able to obtain the system of state high schools from which he had hoped so much in 1878 but had to content himself with the annual award of 200 scholarships for primary school children to proceed to independent secondary schools. He also expanded the state school curriculum to include more teaching of elementary science and Australian history and geography, and appointed an expert to lecture teachers on 'the Kindergarten system of instruction'. A major achievement was the building of a fine new teachers college near the university with the residential accommodation for country teachers he had recommended in his report.

In 1889, after three years of agitation by state schoolteachers and after making extensive inquiries, Pearson finally overrode the recommendations of the majority of his inspectors and abolished the system of payment by results. He refused, however, to bow to the determined campaign by the National Scripture Education League to have undenominational Bible instruction given in state schools during school hours as in New South Wales, and successfully opposed a motion in the assembly which sought to introduce the principle of local option, arguing that Bible instruction would be offensive to the 20,000 Roman Catholic children in state schools and to the 600 Roman Catholic teachers, while constant local option contests would 'undo, to a great extent, the wholesome system of mutual toleration we have hitherto enjoyed'.

In letters written to his English friends George Goschen and James Bryce, Pearson made much of Australia's potential as an ally of Britain in any future war, prophesying that Australia could raise 400,000 to 560,000 men and would be prepared to send a significant proportion overseas. 'Where', he asked Bryce, 'could England recruit such another corps and what would not be the moral effect of such a corps d'armée emerging so to speak from the Southern Seas and disembarking at Calcutta or Bombay?' Proud of his realism, he took active steps to prepare young Victorians for such an imperial struggle. By 1890 some 13,740 state school children were taking military drill and about 2000 were being trained as cadets to form a 'reserve, from which the militia could be recruited in any emergency'.

With the fall of the Gillies-Deakin government in 1890 Pearson threw himself feverishly into writing his most significant book, National Life and Character. A Forecast (1893). Drawing on observations made in his travels, wide reading and knowledge of the Australasian colonies, he made two main predictions: first, that the so-called 'higher races of men, or those which are held to have attained the highest forms of civilisation' would in a few decades find themselves 'elbowed and hustled and perhaps even thrust aside' by people whom they had assumed to be innately servile; he made a particular point of China's potential, claiming that it only needed a dynamic new religion like Islam, the genius of a ruler like Peter the Great and modern European industrial techniques to become one of the world's most formidable powers; second, he concluded that in English-speaking and European countries the state would increasingly take over the traditional roles of family and church. 'We may imagine the State crèche, and the State doctor, and the State school, supplemented, it may be by State meals, and the child, already drilled by the State, passing out from school into the State work-shop'. Most people would live out meaningless lives in huge, orderly, dull cities. But such a degree of socialism would not remove national rivalries, and youths would be conscripted for service in large standing armies.

The book created a stir in London and Washington. Gladstone commended it and Theodore Roosevelt reviewed it, contesting some of its conclusions. It influenced Madison Grant who found in it a warning to the United States to keep her population as 'Nordic' as possible in order to withstand successfully the predicted pressure from the coloured races. In Australia it was quoted by Edmund Barton in defence of the exclusion of coloured migrants, and taken up as a sophisticated warning against what Deakin would call in 1908 'the Yellow Peril to Caucasian civilization creeds and politics'.

In August 1892, exhausted by writing his book and troubled by a persistent cough, Pearson sailed for England hoping that the voyage and a stay in Colombo would renew his health. Soon after his arrival in London he was offered by the Victorian premier, William Shiels, what he believed to be the permanent position of secretary to the agent-general at a salary of £850, but in January 1894 a new premier and old political rival, J. B. Patterson, gave him notice that he was to be superannuated, claiming maliciously that he did no work. Impoverished by losses in the Australian depression of the early 1890s Pearson worked on doggedly, his cough steadily worsening. He died on 29 May 1894 in the presence of his wife and three teenage daughters. Probate of his will on 18 July 1894 revealed a personal estate with a gross value of £511 14s. 4d.

Pearson was the outstanding intellectual of the Australian colonies. A democrat by conviction, he combined a Puritan determination in carrying reforms with a gentle manner and a scrupulous respect for the traditional rules and courtesies of public debate. Short-sightedness reinforced an impression of aloofness, but with his inner circle of such friends as J. G. Duffy, H. A. Strong and G. Higinbotham he could be a warm and brilliant conversationalist. He took a particular interest in the careers of promising young native-born Australians, many of whom were influenced by his ideas in newspapers and journal articles, books and speeches. 'I can candidly assure you', wrote Deakin in 1892, 'that on summing up your colonial experiences you would need to throw into the credit side of the scale an immense amount of other men's actions & words of which you have really been the parent'.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Stebbing (ed), Charles Henry Pearson, Fellow of Oriel and Education Minister in Victoria: Memorials by Himself, his Wife and his Friends (Lond, 1900)
  • J. Tregenza, Professor of Democracy: The Life and Work of C. H. Pearson, 1830-1894 (Melb, 1968)
  • J. Tregenza, ‘The Pearson papers’, La Trobe Library Journal, Oct 1970.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John M. Tregenza, 'Pearson, Charles Henry (1830–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 19 September 2021.

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, 2006-2021