Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Robertson (1856–1922)

by R. J. W. Selleck

This article was published:

John Robertson (1856-1922), educationist, was born on 11 April 1856 at Creswick, Victoria, son of John Robertson, shipwright, and his wife Elizabeth, née Lang. His parents were Scottish migrants and Robertson was brought up devoutly Presbyterian. Aged 13 he became a pupil-teacher at the Emerald Hill Presbyterian School, and in 1873 joined the Education Department and taught at the Emerald Hill State School. In 1875 he resigned to study at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1877). He taught for a short time at Alexander Sutherland's Carlton College and in 1879 was appointed to the Training Institution (for elementary school teachers) where he came under the influence of F. J. Gladman. A student, C. R. Long, remembered him as 'a tallish young man … with a dark brown mop of hair, careless of his appearance, clever, and neglectful of “little things”'.

The serious academic tone set by Gladman, the intensity of his own intellectual concerns, and the demands of his university studies (M.A., 1886) led Robertson to turn his independent mind to a ruthless scrutiny of religious, political, social, economic, scientific and educational issues. He devoured British and European ideas (particularly German biblical criticism), drifted away from orthodox Presbyterianism, and by 1885 was describing himself as close to Swedenborgianism.

That year Robertson was appointed an inspector of schools with the Victorian Education Department. Though a brave and adventurous intellectual, Robertson was not a good bureaucrat. Returns required by the administrators in Melbourne came in late and he alienated teachers by criticizing their training and competence. His political and bureaucratic masters resented his annual reports, then published with the minister's report, which attacked the manner in which the state education system was administered, its narrow and rigid curriculum, the mechanical teaching methods common in schools and payment by results. Although amended, his 1887 report was suppressed by his departmental superiors and the minister, Charles Henry Pearson. His report for 1890 was thought unsatisfactory and Robertson produced two further versions. The second, which was published, noted the difficulties facing critics of the Education Department. In October 1891 he resigned, believing that he could not see his way clear 'to living a life of sincerity and freedom' in the department.

During the 1890s depression Robertson struggled to keep his family (he had married Elizabeth Brown at Inglewood on 9 November 1882) by establishing a private school, the Essendon High School. Throughout the tense and bitter days which followed his resignation from the Education Department Robertson had gradually become obsessed with economic theory and had bombarded the Victorian parliament with petitions requesting monetary reform. He reached the conclusion that 'Jesus did not understand money', and he devoted himself to remedying this failure.

In 1904, financially desperate, the ex-inspector returned to the Education Department as a rural-school teacher, first at Kinglake and then at a series of small schools where inspectors, his former juniors, put him through the ordeal of inspection. He had gained little consolation when the royal commission into technical education (1899-1901) chaired by Theodore Fink mentioned his suppressed report without naming him or calling him as a witness. Frank Tate, the new director of education, seems to have helped to secure Robertson a position at Dookie Agricultural College in 1906 but it was short-lived.

Robertson was also intensely interested in astronomy and, having invented a gyroscopic compass, left Melbourne in 1909 for London in search of a larger market for his invention, and for his economic theories. He was unsuccessful. The compass found no backers and the United States government ignored the account for £25,000 million which he sent for his unsolicited monetary advice. The British government was equally unimpressed with his claim for £500,000 for suggestions about the better government of Ireland. He died in London, impoverished, on 31 March 1922, still planning to return to his wife and five children in Melbourne. The Education Gazette and Teachers' Aid reported his death but ignored the obsessions which had dominated the last half of his life, and the lonely courage and intellect he had shown when those who controlled the Victorian Education Department were more influenced by political expediency.

Select Bibliography

  • R. J. W. Selleck, ‘The strange case of Inspector Robertson’, E. L. French (ed), Melbourne Studies in Education 1964 (Melb, 1965)
  • Robertson papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

R. J. W. Selleck, 'Robertson, John (1856–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 April, 1856
Creswick, Victoria, Australia


31 March, 1922 (aged 65)
London, Middlesex, England

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