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.

Reginald Heber Roe (1850–1926)

by E. Clarke

This article was published:

Reginald Heber Roe (1850-1926), educationist, was born on 3 August 1850 at Blandford, Dorset, England, son of John Banister Roe, draper, and his wife Mary Ann, née Allies. Educated at Christ's Hospital, London, where he became head Grecian in 1869, Roe proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, on a four-year school exhibition, intending to enter the Church. He won first-class honours in final mathematical schools in 1872 and second-class honours in final classical schools in 1874 (B.A., 1875), then worked in the university chemical and physical laboratories (M.A., 1876). That year he was appointed headmaster of Brisbane Grammar School on the recommendations of trustees, (Sir) Robert Herbert and Dean Stanley, a friend of Benjamin Jowett, master of Balliol.

Regarding the appointment as a 'lay mission', Roe brought an educational philosophy which reflected the thought of John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, Charles Kingsley and Jowett; his practice was influenced strongly by Arnold and Edward Thring. He believed in education for democracy and good citizenship and that, as a duty to God and the individual, it should foster social reform, upward social mobility and the moral, intellectual and physical development of each student. To ensure a democratic society ruled by wise statesmen and leaders from all social classes, Roe advocated free, compulsory state education for all up to primary level and higher education for the intellectually gifted through a scholarship system.

He subscribed to the popular faculty theory of learning—that the mental powers of students, once trained, could be successfully applied to any future tasks—and followed a liberal tradition in the belief that a wide general culture, rather than early specialization, provided the best training. Roe favoured modern languages and literature, mathematics and science above Latin and Greek for better intellectual results. However, he included Latin and Greek as well as modern languages in the school curriculum for university candidates. For those leaving school after two years, he developed the modern school in which classical languages were not required. To foster public spirit and physical development, Roe established cadet training and encouraged sports, introducing tennis and gymnastics. He tried to provide subjects of relevance and to ensure that each student achieved success in something. Dismayed by numerous examinations for entry to universities and professional bodies, Roe advocated a common examination. He constantly praised the Queensland system of scholarships to secondary schools and universities which resulted in the mixing of boys from all social classes which, he believed, reduced class conflict. He was a close confidant of Sir Samuel Griffith.

Known to his students as 'The Skipper', Roe had a trim beard, was tall and handsome and had a high-pitched, penetrating voice. He was genial but pursued issues with grim determination. In 1887 he, William Lane, Thomas Glassey and Gilbert Casey formed a committee to propose a state-assisted village settlement scheme, which secured significant public support. He gave many public lectures and contributed articles to journals and newspapers on numerous topics.

Roe had built up a great school whose pupils were to dominate south-east Queensland's business and professional life for decades. Now he would become a major contributor to the mainstream of Queensland's democratic tradition in education, established by Sir Charles Lilley, and to the encouragement of secondary and university education. In 1909 A. H. Barlow and J. D. Story wanted to replace the retiring director of education David Ewart by an inspector-general who would help to implement a planned integration of all levels of education. This involved taking control of technical colleges, absorbing grammar schools into a state secondary system, establishing a teachers' college and exercising some control over a proposed Queensland university. Roe was chosen because Barlow believed that no departmental officer matched his qualifications and experience. He had already provided a useful report to the department on secondary inspection after his visit to England in 1900. His educational philosophy was acceptable to a department trying to equalize educational opportunities.

Appointed inspector-general of schools and chief professional adviser to the minister in July 1909, Roe sought to extend secondary education to average as well as gifted students from the working class. When state high schools were introduced in 1912, he helped the grammar schools to maintain their independence.

He worked tirelessly, especially through the university extension movement, to establish a Queensland university, and had sat on the 1891 royal commission investigating this matter. He believed a university was an essential stimulus for grammar school education, agriculture, technical development and the professions. He advocated, unsuccessfully, a practical American rather than a traditional British model.

When the University of Queensland opened in 1911, he was vice-chancellor, effectively deputy chancellor, and fought unsuccessfully against a senate majority which imposed certain language requirements for matriculants. Roe was concerned about the impediment faced by non-grammar school students, especially teachers and technical college students, and by burdens imposed on a rapidly expanding secondary curriculum.

Retiring as inspector-general in 1917, he confessed that education had not effected a social reformation but that it had contributed to some social and political improvements. Roe then continued as inspector of grammar schools until his final retirement in 1919.

Throughout his life, he worked actively, often as president, in educational, sporting and welfare organizations, such as the Brisbane Literary Circle, Australian Home Reading Union, Australian Education Fraternity (Queensland section), Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Children's Welfare Association, Playground Committee, Council for Public Morality, and the Queensland Rowing, Swimming and Lawn Tennis associations. He was a member of the Queensland Club.

Roe had married Annie Maud, daughter of Captain Claudius Buchanan Whish, on 23 December 1879 in Brisbane. He died in St Martin's Hospital, Brisbane, on 21 September 1926, survived by his wife, four sons and two daughters, and was buried in Toowong cemetery with Anglican rites. Bronze busts of Roe, after a plaster model by Daphne Mayo executed during his life, are held by his family, the university senate and Brisbane Grammar School. His son Arthur Stanley (1885-1966) became Queensland's first Rhodes scholar (1904).

Select Bibliography

  • S. Stephenson (compiler), Annals of the Brisbane Grammar School, 1869-1922 (Brisb, 1923)
  • B. Webb, The Webbs' Australian Diary, 1898, A. G. Austin ed (Melb, 1965)
  • F. J. Erickson, A Study of the Queensland Grammar School Movement (Brisb, 1966)
  • R. Goodman, Secondary Education in Queensland, 1860-1960 (Canb, 1968)
  • K. Willey, The First Hundred Years (Melb, 1968)
  • M. I. Thomis, A Place of Light and Learning (Brisb, 1985)
  • Reports of the Secretary for Public Instruction, Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1909-1916
  • Queensland Education Journal, 16 (1911), p 213, 19 (1914), p 221
  • Brisbane Grammar School Magazine, 29, no 74, Nov 1926, p 11
  • University of Queensland, Alumni News, Mar 1975, no 1, p 10, and University News, 7 Aug 1985, p 8
  • Queenslander, 28 Feb 1891, 16 June 1894, 29 May 1897
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 19 Apr 1917
  • E. Clarke, The Establishment of the University of Queensland (M.A. qual thesis, University of Queensland, 1973)
  • E. R. Brennan, R. H. Roe (M.Ed. thesis, University of Queensland, in preparation)
  • Grammar, high and intermediate schools, correspondence files, Brisbane Grammar School, EDU/BC series (Queensland State Archives)
  • Inspector-general of schools, applicants, EDU/46 (Queensland State Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

E. Clarke, 'Roe, Reginald Heber (1850–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 May 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]


3 August, 1850
Blandford, Dorset, England


21 September, 1926 (aged 76)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

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.