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Stephen Henry Smith (1865–1943)

by Alan Barcan

This article was published:

Stephen Henry Smith (1865-1943), director of education, was born on 2 August 1865 at Wollombi, New South Wales, eldest son of Stephen Sheldrick Smith, schoolmaster from London, and his Sydney-born wife Mary Jane, née Evans. Henry, as he was known, attended Grafton Public School where his father was headmaster. He worked hard and well but, unlike his brothers (Sir) Grafton Elliot and Stewart Arthur, did not go to a university. He became a pupil-teacher under his father at 13 and, promoted to Fort Street Model School, entered Fort Street Training School in 1884.

Smith taught at Cleveland Street and West Maitland before becoming teacher-in-charge of Bourke Public School early in 1886. On 14 September he married Alice Macalpine McCredie at Glebe with Presbyterian forms; his brother Grafton Elliot later married her cousin. Transferred to Bowning in June 1888, and next year to Robbinsville (Thirroul), he was appointed headmaster at Wollongong in 1892. His frequent applications for a transfer to Sydney were refused and by the time he became head of Neutral Bay Public School in 1898, he had abandoned his hopes of a university education. That year he published two textbooks, English History Stories for Young Australians and Geography for Third Class; these and later texts ran into many editions. In 1901 he was promoted to the large city Albion Street Superior Public School.

Appointed inspector of schools at Glen Innes on 1 May 1903, Smith later served at Tamworth. Under Peter Board he became involved in educational reform: he established a system of conveyances to bring country children from smaller settlements to a central school and inaugurated summer schools for teachers in his district. He returned to Sydney as inspector of the western district in 1909. Two years later, on long service leave, he travelled overseas with Board and attended the Imperial Education Conference in London. In June 1912 he became inspector of continuation schools and helped to establish the State's correspondence school system in 1916. He was founding editor of the School Magazine from 1914 to 1922. He wrote Careers for Boys: A Guide for Parents (1917).

Smith's election both as a fellow and as president of the Royal Australian Historical Society in 1919 followed on the publication in 1917 of A Brief History of Education in Australia (1788-1848), the first scholarly work on that subject. In 1925 it was combined with less remarkable material by George Spaull and published as History of Education in New South Wales (1788-1925).

On Board's recommendation, Smith was appointed assistant under-secretary in July 1920 and on 1 January 1923 became under-secretary and director of education. In his first year he encouraged primary teachers to raise standards by emphasizing basics in the curriculum, restricted university scholarships to increase the number of primary teachers and reduce expenses, and introduced rural schools. The certificates offered by the various continuation schools were gradually replaced by the intermediate certificate. In 1927 he established a vocational guidance bureau. He clashed repeatedly with Alexander Mackie, principal of the Teachers' College, whom he suspended briefly in 1927, and when the Teachers' College, Armidale, was opened in 1928, he ensured that a practical, school-oriented principal, Cecil Newling, was appointed.

More cautious than his predecessor Board, Smith considered himself a loyal agent whose task was to implement the policies of his ministers, Albert Bruntnell, Thomas Mutch and David Drummond. In 1927 he attended the Pan Pacific Conference on Education, Rehabilitation, Reclamation and Recreation in Honolulu, the Imperial Education Conference in London, and the New Education Fellowship World Conference at Locarno, Switzerland, and in 1929 the conference of the Canadian National Council on Education. These absences diluted his influence and bore little fruit.

Appointed C.B.E. in June 1929 Smith, when he retired on 1 August 1930, attracted little public attention. He was a member of the Bursary Endowment Board, a fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney (1923-31), a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales (1916-27) and a trustee and sometime president of the Public Library of New South Wales. Tall, good-looking and dignified, he enjoyed golf, gardening and literature, but had few friends and an unhappy family life. He died in hospital at Darlinghurst on 20 February 1943, and was cremated. His wife, three daughters and a son survived him.

Shy and reserved, Smith was conscious of his lack of university experience, and foreign travel came too late in his career to broaden his outlook. He took no part in the rough and tumble of contemporary society and found public speaking an ordeal. His talents had found best expression in his work as an inspector. He had consolidated the system established by Board but effected little creative change. A portrait by William Dobell is held by the Armidale College of Advanced Education.

Select Bibliography

  • A. R. Crane and W. G. Walker, Peter Board (Melb, 1957)
  • C. Turney (ed), Pioneers of Australian Education, vol 3 (Syd, 1983)
  • RAHS, Journal and Proceedings, 29, pt 2, 1943
  • Australian Journal of Education, 1, no 2, July 1957
  • E. M. Campbell, S. H. Smith. His Contribution to the Development of Education in New South Wales (M.Ed. thesis, University of Sydney, 1967).

Citation details

Alan Barcan, 'Smith, Stephen Henry (1865–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 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]


2 August, 1865
Wollombi, New South Wales, Australia


20 February, 1943 (aged 77)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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