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Joseph David Sly (1844–1934)

by Bruce Mitchell

This article was published:

Joseph David Sly (1844-1934), headmaster and solicitor, was born on 13 October 1844 in Sydney and baptized in the Congregational Church, eldest son of Joseph Sly, cabinetmaker, and his wife Jane, née Meares. His father came to New South Wales on 7 May 1834, married on 11 June 1842 and by the 1860s had become a pawnbroker. After his wife's death he married Charlotte Sophia Pritchard in Sydney on 24 February 1862. He died on 16 June 1887 in Sydney and left an estate of almost £11,000 to his widow, his children and his brother Robert in the United States of America.

Sly had a distinguished career at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1866; LL.B., 1871; M.A., 1872; LL.D., 1873) and won a medal for Greek iambics. In 1871-79 he was headmaster of Calder House, a school conducted from 1855 by J. F. Castle in a house on the Chisholm estate; it closed in 1879 when the government bought the ten-acre (4 ha) property in Redfern for railway purposes. In 1880-87 he was headmaster of Hurstville College, Goulburn, conducted under the auspices of the Church of England for boarders and day boys. Although he built up the enrolment to sixty pupils, the school closed when the trustees sold the property. In 1875-79 he was a lay representative for St Paul's, Redfern, on the Sydney Diocesan Synod.

In 1886 with Edwin Bean, headmaster of All Saints' College, Bathurst, Sly wrote a short pamphlet, High Schools Versus Scholarships: An Enquiry into the Merits of the Two Systems. They argued for the abolition of state high schools and a system of scholarships to remove competition between state and established private schools, to encourage private enterprise, and to save the country 'from the monotony and uniformity of a centralised system'. Their preference for private secondary schools was shared by the various governments from the mid-1880s to 1910.

Helped by his father's legacy, Sly in 1888 opened Eton College in rented premises in Homebush, but it closed in 1892 when he voluntarily became a bankrupt. His main creditors were his brothers and sister. He attributed his failure to high rents and, ironically, competition among schools. Economic conditions may have played a part but the depression did not generally affect enrolments in private schools. He was discharged from bankruptcy in October 1892. On 24 August 1895 he was admitted as a solicitor and practised in Pitt Street until 1933. He died of heart failure and nephritis at Neutral Bay on 7 December 1934 and was buried in the Anglican section of the Northern Suburbs cemetery. He was survived by two sons and three daughters of his wife Annie, née Macalister, whom he had married at Pitt Town in 1875.

His brother George James was admitted a solicitor on 19 December 1868 and was a founder of the legal firm of Sly and Russell.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Mail, 22 Feb 1879
  • Town and Country Journal, 28 July 1888
  • bankruptcy file, 5185/4 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Bruce Mitchell, 'Sly, Joseph David (1844–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 13 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 October, 1844
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


7 December, 1934 (aged 90)
Neutral Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.