Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Leonard Rossiter (1887–1962)

by Peter Boyce

This article was published:

James Leonard Rossiter (1887-1962), headmaster, was born on 9 November 1887 at Crystal Brook, South Australia, eldest of four sons of South Australian-born parents Samuel Rossiter, a Wesleyan minister, and his wife Emma Thyrza, née Mitchell. Sent to Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, in 1901, Leonard worked as a pupil-teacher (1905-07) at Flinders Street School before attending (1908-09) the University Training College and studying classics at the University of Adelaide (B.A., 1910; M.A., 1912). From 1910 he taught in turn at Adelaide and Unley District high schools. At the Congregational Church, Glenelg, on 8 April 1912 he married Mary Marguerite Sparkman Jacobs, a schoolteacher.

In April 1913 Rossiter was appointed inspector of schools for the Northern Territory. When the position was abolished in the following year, he joined the New South Wales Department of Public Instruction and was appointed to East Maitland Boys' High School. After gaining a diploma of education (1915) from the University of Sydney, he rose to classics master and then deputy-headmaster (from 1919) at East Maitland, and deputy-headmaster (1922) at Parramatta High School. In 1923 he became principal of Thornburgh College, a joint Methodist and Presbyterian school at Charters Towers, Queensland. Granted study leave in 1927, he visited England, Europe and North America, and was awarded a doctorate of letters by a university in Indiana to which he had submitted a thesis. The identity of the awarding institution remains unknown.

Although highly regarded at Thornburgh, Rossiter moved to Perth in January 1930 to take up the headmastership of Wesley College. He was to earn considerable distinction over the next twenty-two years as the Methodist boys' school experienced a dramatic rise in enrolments and academic standing. Despite the Depression and competition from three longer established non-Catholic schools in the Perth metropolitan area, Wesley trebled its enrolments to three hundred during the 1930s to emerge as the largest independent school in Western Australia. It achieved better results in public examinations than its rivals. Rossiter instilled in his pupils a strong commitment to citizenship and in 1939 founded the Wesley Hundred, a community-service corps of senior boys whose meetings followed a Masonic-like ritual.

Assisted by a commanding physical presence, an authoritative style of public oratory, regular use of his doctoral title, and a shrewd cultivation of politically and socially influential contacts (especially fellow Freemasons), Rossiter became a well known public figure. He was respected, even revered, by successive generations of students, but his treatment of the teaching staff was sometimes gruff and insensitive, and relations with his governing body, the Wesley Church Trust, were soured by his reluctance to relinquish his post at the age of 65. Nor was he popular with fellow headmasters in the Public Schools' Association, the majority of whom refused to approve Wesley's admission, partly because of personal hostility to Rossiter. The veto was lifted only when it was confirmed that he would leave in December 1952.

After his retirement, Rossiter continued to participate in community affairs. A Freemason from 1924, he was grand master (1958-62) of the Grand Lodge of Western Australia of Antient, Free and Accepted Masons. He was a member (1944-56) of the senate of the University of Western Australia and warden of convocation (1954-58). In 1960 he was appointed C.B.E. Survived by his wife, two sons and one of his two daughters, he died on 3 September 1962 in Royal Perth Hospital and was cremated with Anglican rites. His portrait by Margaret Johnson is held by Wesley College.

Rossiter's elder son Roger James (1913-1976) was born on 24 July 1913 at Glenelg, Adelaide. Educated at Thornburgh and Wesley colleges, and at the University of Western Australia (B.Sc., 1935), he took up his Rhodes scholarship in 1935 at Merton College, Oxford (B.A. Hons, 1938; M.A., B.M., B.Ch., D.Phil., 1941; D.M., 1947). On 16 March 1940 at Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin, Scotland, he married with Episcopalian rites Helen Margaret Randell. After serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War II, he was appointed professor of biochemistry in the faculty of medicine at the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada. Dean of graduate studies, vice-president and provost, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He died suddenly of arteriosclerosis on 21 February 1976 in Helsinki and was cremated; his wife, daughter and three sons survived him.

Rossiter's second son Geoffrey George (1916-2004) studied at the University of Western Australia (B.A. Hons, 1939), served (1941-46) in the Royal Australian Air Force and won the Distinguished Flying Cross. A Rhodes scholar (1946) at Merton College (B.A. Hons, M.A., 1948), he was executive-officer (1950-65) of the United States Educational Foundation in Australia and warden (1965-81) of Burton Hall, Australian National University, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • W. G. H. Maxwell, A School on the Towers (Brisb, 1988)
  • J. Gregory, Building a Tradition (Perth, 1996)
  • P. J. Boyce, Honest and Unsullied Days (Perth, 2001)
  • West Australian Craftsman, 29, no 2, Sept 1962
  • G. M. Wild, Dr James Leonard Rossiter (M.Ed. research paper, University of Western Australia, 1975)
  • B. Carter, The Public Schools Association of Western Australia as an Exclusive Sporting Body (B.A. research paper, Western Australian Institute of Technology, 1977)
  • Wesley College, South Perth, Archives
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Boyce, 'Rossiter, James Leonard (1887–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 November, 1887
Crystal Brook, South Australia, Australia


3 September, 1962 (aged 74)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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.