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William George Torr (1853–1939)

by Arnold D. Hunt

This article was published:

William George Torr (1853-1939), by unknown photographer, c1938

William George Torr (1853-1939), by unknown photographer, c1938

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 21987

William George Torr (1853-1939), headmaster, was born on 26 May 1853 at Tavistock, Devon, England, fourth son of illiterate parents John Torr, miner, and his wife Ann, née Green. The family migrated to South Australia in 1855 and settled at Burra. Educated locally and at Stanley Grammar School, Watervale, at 17 William worked on a sheep-station in Tasmania. Returning to South Australia, in 1875 he trained as a teacher and was appointed to the one-teacher Ulooloo Public School, to the Model School at Grote Street, Adelaide, and—as headmaster—to Moonta Mines Public School where he gained his first-class certificate. On 30 March 1877 at Mintaro he married Charlotte Chewings; they were to have a daughter and son who survived infancy. In 1884 he took his family to Europe.

A Bible Christian, Torr became a lay preacher. In 1885 when his Church proposed to establish Way College, a boys' school in Adelaide, he undertook to accept the position of headmaster; having attended the University of Adelaide, he planned to go to Britain to acquire further qualifications. On 10 August Charlotte died, leaving him ample means. He attended the universities of Oxford, where he was a member of St John's College (B.A., 1889; B.C.L., 1891; M.A., 1892), Cambridge, where he entered Downing College, and Trinity College, Dublin (LL.B., 1891; LL.D., 1892). Called to the Bar at the Inner Temple in 1891, he never practised law. Back in Adelaide, on 20 December 1892 he married an English widow Albertina Santo, née Kidner.

Way College opened that year. The school had three divisions: the 'University' course prepared students for the public service, commerce and tertiary study; the 'Practical' section supplemented basic education with instruction in areas such as carpentry and horticulture; the 'Theological' course trained older students for the ministry. In 1899 Torr reported to the government on educational trends he had observed in Britain and other countries. With Methodist union in 1900, Way College was made redundant by the Wesleyans' Prince Alfred College. Way, which had seen 1100 boys pass through it, closed in 1903.

The headmaster became an evangelist, conducting missions throughout Australia and in New Zealand. In 1909, the year of Albertina's death, he set up and was governor (until 1920) of the Methodist Training Home at Brighton, Adelaide; here he prepared some young men for the ministry and others as lay workers and preachers. When the institution was given to the Methodist Church in 1922, Torr continued as an honorary tutor. Interviewed that year, he reclined on a lounge in his study, wearing an emerald-green smoking-cap, while clouds from his pipe curled through his thin, pale whiskers. He admitted to having been a martinet in his college days, but claimed that he had produced men who could stick at things; his students seem to have remembered him fondly.

For nearly forty years from 1902, as 'Old Oxford', he wrote 'Talks To Young Men' for the Methodist weekly, the Australian Christian Commonwealth. His wide-ranging homilies swayed thousands of Methodist men and women. Torr endorsed a non-fundamentalist view of Christian scripture; he was essentially a popularizer whose colloquial, down-to-earth articles (correspondents were 'chums') expressed his modernist views of the Bible. By influencing lay preachers and future ministers, he helped to liberalize local Methodist attitudes.

Interested in harmonizing religion and science, he became a considerable collector of chiton shells, overseas, along Australia's coastline and with (Sir) Joseph Verco's dredging expeditions. Even when elderly, Torr delighted in wading through rock pools collecting loricates. He published four scientific papers and three shells were named after him. Torr also enjoyed bowls, poetry and sketching. His devoted wife Mary Frances Buchan, née Walter—a widow whom he had married on 6 February 1912 at the Catholic Apostolic Church, Melbourne—died in 1937. Survived by a daughter, Torr died at his Brighton home on 13 September 1939 and was buried in North Brighton cemetery. The council named an avenue after him and there is a memorial window in Brighton Uniting Church.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Piper, Way College (Adel, 1891)
  • J. J. Pascoe (ed), History of Adelaide and Vicinity (Adel, 1901)
  • P. M. T. Tilbrook, The Life and Times of Dr. William George Torr (Adel, 1972)
  • A. D. Hunt, This Side of Heaven (Adel, 1985)
  • Australian Christian Commonwealth, 15 Apr 1932, 22 Sept 1939
  • South Australian Methodist Historical Society Journal, 1, Oct 1967
  • Mail (Adelaide), 22 July 1922
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 14 Sept 1939
  • Torr correspondence in S. J. Way letter book (State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Arnold D. Hunt, 'Torr, William George (1853–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 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

William George Torr (1853-1939), by unknown photographer, c1938

William George Torr (1853-1939), by unknown photographer, c1938

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 21987

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Old Oxford

26 May, 1853
Tavistock, Devon, England


13 September, 1939 (aged 86)
Brighton, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.