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William Henry Tilly (1860–1935)

by Philip Thomson

This article was published:

William Henry Tilly (1860-1935), linguist, was born on 29 November 1860 at Petersham, Sydney, third son of Charles Tilley, a gardener from Hampshire, and his Irish wife Elizabeth, née Edgerton. Educated in Sydney, William became a pupil-teacher at Devonshire Street Public School, moving to Paddington (1876) and Fort Street Model School in 1877. In July that year he resigned; he studied at the University of Sydney in 1879-80, then returned to Fort Street as a temporary second-assistant.

On 12 August 1881, at Waverley, Tilley married Frances Rachel Sanders with Congregational forms. He taught in country schools at Ironbarks and Wellington before being transferred in 1884 to Dubbo. His wife died in 1888, leaving three children; on 3 January 1889 at Wallgrove, near Penrith, Tilley married with Presbyterian forms Mary Jane Bathune Shand, mistress of the Dubbo infants' school. Already a disciplinarian, he was censured and warned to run his school with less caning.

Resigning in April 1890 to study in Europe, Tilley went to Germany. In 1892 he became lektor in English at the University of Marburg under the renowned phonetician, Professor Wilhelm Viëtor. At this time Tilly adopted the Germanic spelling of his name by dropping the 'e'. He took part in Viëtor's phonetic experiments, acting as an English-speaking subject for vowel duration measurements, and learned his revolutionary 'direct method' of foreign language study. He established his own school, the Institut Tilly, at Marburg, and from 1902 at Lichterfelde, Berlin. He could accommodate one hundred students, who came from all parts of the world to undertake six months intensive tuition in German. Some of his nine surviving children, brought up as German native speakers, were among the teachers in his school. The course was rigorous: students had to agree not to speak, hear or read their native tongue for the duration of their stay. German was used in all situations, social and pedagogic, inside and outside the institute.

Portly, with a clipped moustache, Tilly 'looked extraordinarily clean and healthy'. He was an opinionated Germanophile who had a particular affinity for Prussian meticulousness and efficiency; the classicist bias in his profound if rigid admiration of German culture led him to deify Goethe and to detest Wagner.

Within the institute, Prussian discipline was the order of the day. A combination of the newest innovations in language teaching and a close attention to minute detail, especially in the area of pronunciation, produced excellent results. Tilly insisted that his students speak absolutely accent-free German for he despised all regional pronunciations, including that of Berlin. His students included academics, diplomats and businessmen, as well as younger people completing an education; among them were Margaret Bailey, headmistress, E. G. Waterhouse and A. R. Chisholm, professors of German and French at the universities of Sydney and Melbourne, the English phonetician Daniel Jones and a chief justice of Victoria, (Sir) Edmund Herring.

One measure of the efficacy of Tilly's methods was that after six months his better students were able to pass the examination for the German diploma of the International Phonetic Association, conducted under stringent conditions by Viëtor. A member of the Phonetic Association since 1892 and a council-member from 1900, Tilly was a considerable force in foreign language teaching and in the field of speech training generally.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 Tilly and his sons were interned and his property confiscated. In 1916 he was permitted to go to Switzerland and later to England. From 1917 until 1934 he alternately taught English and phonetics at summer session and extension at Columbia University, New York. In America, as in Germany, he was indefatigable in developing linguistic excellence in his students by a programme of frequent, exacting tests. His disciples established the William Tilly Phonetic Association. It became one of his eccentricities that he professed to abhor everything associated with America. He died at Tenafly, New Jersey, on 29 September 1935. His sister Hannah had married W. J. Clunies Ross.

Select Bibliography

  • A. R. Chisholm, Men Were My Milestones (Melb, 1958)
  • British Australasian, 31 Dec 1914
  • Aumla, 45 (1976), p 91
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Oct 1935
  • teachers' records, Department of Education (New South Wales) archives, Sydney
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Philip Thomson, 'Tilly, William Henry (1860–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 19 July 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]

Alternative Names
  • Tilley, William Henry

29 November, 1860
Petersham, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


29 September, 1935 (aged 74)
Tenafly, New Jersey, United States of America

Cultural Heritage

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