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John William Turner (1849–1913)

by R. Philps

This article was published:

John William Turner (1849-1913), educationist, was born on 14 May 1849 at Parramatta, New South Wales, son of Henry Turner, shoemaker, and his wife Ellen, née Armstrong. He attended St John's School, Camden, before becoming a pupil-teacher at St Peter's School, Cook's River, in 1864. Two years later he was appointed assistant teacher at the metropolitan St Barnabas's School and in 1869 took charge of Mount Tarana Public School. He married Martha Lees with Anglican forms at St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney, on 28 June 1870; they were to have eight children.

Promoted that year to Wellington where he impressed Frederick Bridges, Turner returned to Sydney as head of a George Street school which was soon resited and renamed Blackfriars Public School. Here his career blossomed. In 1889 he became head of Fort Street Model School and master of method at the Fort Street Training School. His role was extended in 1893 when the two institutions were amalgamated under the one head. He supervised the introduction of secondary education to the school, was commanding officer of the cadet corps and found time to produce an operetta or cantata each year. A strict disciplinarian, he was affectionately known by his pupils as 'The Boss'.

In 1902 Turner and (Sir) George Knibbs were appointed by the See government to investigate overseas developments in primary, secondary, technical and other branches of education. Visiting seventeen countries, they published a three-volume report on their return in 1903; of the 231 recommendations it contained, Turner's were the more financially practicable. Although their work contributed to subsequent reforms, Peter Board's more succinct analysis had greater impact.

Appointed assistant under-secretary to Board in the Department of Public Instruction on 8 February 1905, Turner succeeded Knibbs as superintendent of technical education in June 1906. An efficient administrator, he did his best in the post, but realized that Board gave priority to improving primary and secondary education. Turner fought to obtain appropriate facilities, encouraged staff involvement in decision-making and fostered technical education in country regions. While aware of his branch's shortcomings, he was prevented by ill health from helping in its reconstruction; begun in 1912, the task was completed by his successor James Nangle. Taking extended sick-leave, Turner planned to retire.

Although dedicated and hard-working, Turner may not have been entirely fitted for the roles he was called upon to perform from 1902. He was remembered by a former pupil as 'stockily built' and 'square headed', with 'a clear, steady, direct gaze'. A keen sportsman, he was a trustee of the Athletic Sports Ground at Moore Park and encouraged the teaching of swimming. He was a Freemason, a foundation member (president 1900-02) of the Public Service Association of New South Wales, and sometime vice-president of the Boys' Brigade and the short-lived Child Study Association. Survived by his wife, two daughters and a son, Turner died of diabetes at his Summer Hill home on 24 July 1913 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • L. E. Gent, The Fort Street Centenary Book (Syd, 1949)
  • A. R. Crane and W. G. Walker, Peter Board (Melb, 1957)
  • Technical Gazette of New South Wales, 3, pt 3, 1913
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Mar 1902, 25 July 1913
  • Town and Country Journal, 22 Mar 1902, 7 May, 30 July 1913
  • Sydney Mail, 12 Apr 1902
  • J. Cobb, History of Technical Education in New South Wales to 1949 (typescript, 1988, Dept of Technical and Further Education, Sydney).

Citation details

R. Philps, 'Turner, John William (1849–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 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

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