Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ernest Ewart Unwin (1881–1944)

by William N. Oats

This article was published:

Ernest Ewart Unwin (1881-1944), Quaker educationist, was born on 13 July 1881 at Folkestone, Kent, England, son of Uriah John Unwin, bricklayer, and his wife Sophia Jane, née Martin. He was educated at the Quaker schools of Saffron Walden and Ackworth, and graduated (B.Sc., 1901) at the University of Leeds. He taught at Ackworth in 1901-04, became a lecturer in science at the University of Leeds, gained his M.Sc. in 1908 and from 1908 to 1912 taught at Bootham School, York. On 7 April 1910 he married Ursula Dymond Thorp at The Friends' Meeting House, Carlton Hill, Leeds. In 1912 Unwin became senior science master at the Quaker school, Leighton Park, Reading; his first book, Pond Problems (Cambridge, 1914), was a science textbook for schools. As a conscientious objector during World War I, he was given leave to teach and published two more books, As a Man Thinketh (London, 1919) and Religion and Biology (London, 1922).

In 1923 Unwin answered what he felt was a 'call to service' in Australia by accepting the headmastership of the co-educational Friends' School in Hobart, a position which he was to hold until his death. The years 1923-44 witnessed major growth in the school. Unwin embarked on an ambitious rebuilding plan in which he enlisted substantial financial support from English Quakers. He brought a new dynamic of educational leadership to his school and to education in Tasmania, introducing new subjects of art, physiology and botany to the senior school curriculum, and giving priority to science in his building plans. A gifted water-colour artist and teacher of art, he was also a pioneer in the field of educational broadcasting.

His influence and leadership spread beyond his school. In 1925 Unwin was largely responsible for setting up the Association of Headmasters and Headmistresses of the Independent Schools of Tasmania, and was secretary of that association until 1944. Invited by the Tasmanian government in 1935 to be a member of the board of inquiry into education, he was secretary of the State's committee on educational extension in 1942-43. Unwin had a wide-ranging involvement in community activities: becoming a member of the Royal Society of Tasmania in 1923, he sat on its council (1926-42 and 1944) and served two terms as vice-president (1933-34 and 1940-41). He was a member of the council of the University of Tasmania in 1927 and president of the Tasmanian Council of Churches in 1928 and 1933.

Ernest Unwin believed that a school should inspire a love of truth, an appreciation of beauty and a willingness to serve the community. To his students, he was often the subject of intense curiosity. One of them described him as 'short and stockily built', with slightly bowed legs, fresh complexion, fair hair and penetrating blue eyes. Customarily he wore a bowler hat and carried pigskin gloves, while in winter he donned spats. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, he died of a coronary occlusion on 20 September 1944 in Hobart and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • W. N. Oats, The Friends' School, 1887-1961 (Hob, 1961)
  • W. N. Oats, The Rose and the Waratah (Hob, 1979)
  • Royal Society of Tasmania, Proceedings, 1944.

Additional Resources

Citation details

William N. Oats, 'Unwin, Ernest Ewart (1881–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 25 May 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]


13 July, 1881
Folkestone, Kent, England


20 September, 1944 (aged 63)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

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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.

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