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Ellen Thornber (1851–1947)

by Janet Scarfe

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THORNBER FAMILY: Catherine Maria  (1812?-1894) and her daughters Catherine Maria (1837-1924), Rachel Ann (1839-1930) and Ellen (1851-1947) were schoolmistresses. Mrs Thornber, daughter of Charles Rowland, was born at Rodd, Herefordshire, England. She married Robert Thornber, hosier, and in 1839 they migrated with their six children to Adelaide where Robert prospered; in 1848 he donated land for the Anglican Church of St Michael, Mitcham. After his suicide on 29 December 1854, the stately Mrs Thornber opened a school at Mitcham in 1855. Relocated at Unley Park, it became one of the city's best-known academies for young ladies. Its pupils were the daughters of the middle class, especially of professional men and Anglican clergy who provided patronage to support the Thornbers' goal of a broad, liberal, secondary education.

Although Unley Park School's reputation was quickly established, its zenith occurred under Miss Catherine, born on 17 November 1837 at Harpurhey, near Manchester, Lancashire. A music governess in private homes, she became the school's headmistress after her mother's death in Adelaide on 14 May 1894. Ellen, born on 7 September 1851 at Mitcham, was then in England, attending conferences, visiting leading girls' schools and assessing educational trends. Catherine made a similar trip six years later. In its methods and curricula the Thornbers' school was among South Australia's most progressive: it offered chemistry, physiology, geology and botany, taught by university-educated women. By 1898 it had an enrolment of 125 pupils. Preparation for the university was emphasized, but the school's successes there did not prevent the sisters from deploring the university's restrictive entrance requirements.

With buildings and equipment worth £4000, Unley Park School had an imposing appearance. Its teaching reflected the owners' interest in method: geological excursions, lantern-slides acquired by Miss Ellen in England and a skeleton (kept behind a satin curtain) enlivened senior lessons; in 1894 pupils had studied history, geography and literature by following Miss Ellen's journey overseas. German was taught and French was popular: one teacher was sent to Paris to study for a year as a means to 'keep us in touch with the old land and its modern systems'. Some of Adelaide's leaders in art, music and elocution taught at the school, while club-swinging, drill, tennis, cricket and swimming were also provided.

Because the Thornbers espoused 'the glorious principles of Froebel', in the kindergarten (which included boys) time was devoted to structured play; the sisters supported Lillian De Lissa, an advocate of Montessori's system, who stayed with them on her return from England. With her, Miss Catherine was a promoter of the Kindergarten Union of South Australia.

The sisters' personalities differed. The devout Rachel, born on 3 March 1839 at Harpurhey, was afflicted with a stutter; overshadowed by the others, she ran the boarding-house. She died at home on 4 February 1930. Catherine was noted for 'the sweetness of her disposition': small, dainty and precise, she generally wore black, corded silk, and often supervised the lessons of gentlemen teachers. The youngest, Ellen, was an awe-inspiring figure. Absorbed by educational theory and practice, she had attended the university in 1880 and 1885-86, and the (teachers') Training College. She taught (1880-86) and was acting headmistress in 1885 at the Advanced School for Girls. She died at home on 18 March 1947. The family were well-known in Adelaide as hostesses to governors, bishops and clergy. Embodying their period's refinement and values, they were conscious of the challenges and difficulties imposed by distance from England.

The school began to fail with the spread of government secondary education and the sisters' increasing age. In 1907 they handed over to a former staff member, Caroline Jacob, then headmistress of Tormore House; she remained in charge until Unley Park School closed in 1911. Its unusual longevity, its quality and, above all, the personalities of the Thornbers had made it a leading school, although it did not make the owners rich. All four lived to advanced years in their home at 39 Thornber Street, Unley Park. The Thornber bursary for women at the University of Adelaide commemorates Miss Catherine who died at home on 30 September 1924.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Jones, Nothing Seemed Impossible (Brisb, 1985)
  • Register (Adelaide), 16, 17 May 1894
  • Observer (Adelaide), 19 May, 29 Dec 1894, 24 Dec 1898, 23 Dec 1899, 6 Dec 1924
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 4 Oct 1924.

Citation details

Janet Scarfe, 'Thornber, Ellen (1851–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 September, 1851
Mitcham, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


18 March, 1947 (aged 95)
Unley Park, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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