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William Wilkins (1827–1892)

by Cliff Turney

This article was published:

William Wilkins (1827-1892), teacher and civil servant, was born on 16 January 1827 in the Workhouse Infirmary, Parish of St Mary, Lambeth, London, son of William Wilkins (d.1830), parish beadle, and his wife Sarah, née Noice. Educated at Norwood School of Industry for pauper children, he attended Battersea Training School for teachers where he was strongly influenced by the work of Dr J. P. Kay (Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth) and E. C. Tufnell. After a torrid time as assistant teacher at Parkhurst prison, Isle of Wight, he was first-master to the new Swinton School of Industry, near Manchester, and in 1847 became headmaster of St Thomas's National School, Charter-House, London. In 1848, at the first annual examinations of masters of Church of England schools, he was awarded certificates of merit by the committee of the Privy Council on education. On 30 March 1850 he married Ann Sheppard. Advised to seek a warmer, drier climate because of his chronic bronchitis, Wilkins and his wife accepted the positions of headmaster and mistress of the new Fort Street Model School, Sydney, hoping to return to England after a few years 'in health and wealth'. Following an arduous voyage, during which his wife died in childbirth (the baby also died), Wilkins took up his appointment in Sydney on 23 January 1851. On 21 May next year, in York Street Wesleyan chapel, he married Harriett Bartlett.

An efficient administrator, who concentrated power in his own hands, Wilkins organized the Fort Street school on Battersea lines, based on the Dutch pupil-teacher system of training. He classified pupils according to their age, ability and sex. The work of each class was regulated by a carefully devised timetable and monitorial instruction was replaced by 'simultaneous' class teaching. Moral suasion rather than corporal punishment became a feature of school discipline. The course of study was extended to drawing, music, geography, scripture, drill and gymnastics. All his reforms spread to the other National schools. In 1853 he wrote 'Art of Teaching'; no copy survives, but an outline indicates how heavily he drew upon the work of Kay-Shuttleworth and the Swiss, Pestalozzi.

Wilkins undertook several important tours of school inspection for the Board of National Education. Impressed by his suggestions, on 1 July 1854 the board appointed him inspector and superintendent of National schools. He headed a three-man inquiry into the colony's education. The final report of December 1855 condemned schooling under the dual boards of National and Denominational education, advocated the establishment of a unified, co-ordinated system of state schools, supervised by professional district inspectors, and recommended the extension of the pupil-teacher system and the improvement of school buildings. While producing no immediate change, these proposals gave direction to the movement which urged the extension of state education, achieved in (Sir) Henry Parkes's 1866 and 1880 legislation.

Wilkins vigorously performed his inspectorial duties, and the system gradually grew in size and complexity. In 1863 he became acting secretary and from 1 January 1865 secretary to the Board of National Education. On several occasions he came close to total breakdown because of the job's pressure and his recurring bronchitis. His public lectures on the extension of the school system were published in 1865 as National Education. Concerned that textbooks be suited to the needs of colonial children, he had taken the lead by writing The Geography of New South Wales … (1863) and helped to prepare The Australian Reading Books for colonial schools. He privately urged the extension of National schools and criticized Denominational schools.

As secretary of the new Council of Education from 1867, Wilkins continued to develop the inspectorate, improve teacher-training, and advocate Pestalozzian-type pedagogy. He introduced rigid courses of study and standards of proficiency: teachers' promotion depended both on how well their pupils handled an examination by the inspector and on formal examinations designed by Wilkins. The result was that initiative was stifled, as teachers worked for their own examinations and prepared their charges for inspectorial visits.

Wilkins encouraged teachers to improve themselves and formed an institute of teachers in 1858. In the 1860s he supported the establishment of mutual improvement societies and was behind the Teachers Metropolitan Association of 1870. In 1879 he launched another short-lived institute. He also supervised and partly edited two successful monthly publications, Australian Journal of Education, 1868-70, and Journal of Primary Education, 1871-73. But he would not permit teachers to be too critical or to adopt a trade union style of behaviour. In 1874 he and the council virtually extinguished staff organizations for twenty years when they over-reacted in punishing the president and secretary of the Teachers' Association of New South Wales, Frederick Bridges and William Matthews.

Wilkins created a highly centralized administrative system with himself at the centre, dispensing autocratic advice and instructions to the rapidly increasing numbers of inspectors, teachers and schools. Seriously ill in 1869, next year he took leave in England, where he inquired into educational developments. His reports on his observations reveal excessive confidence in the public school system of New South Wales and a growing complacency. Returning to Australia, he extended and refined his earlier innovations, but changed little. Under the Public Instruction Act of 1880, he became first under-secretary in the new Department of Public Instruction. The strain of administering the expanded system and recurrence of a lung disorder forced him to retire in January 1884.

After a time at Armidale and partially restored to health, Wilkins returned to Sydney, where he taught English language and literature for the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, and a class for pupil-teachers in English grammar. In 1886, with his wife and daughters, he failed with the Manor House school for girls at Mount Victoria, and was all but ruined financially. He published The Principles that Underlie the Art of Teaching (1886), a series of lectures for the Board of Technical Education, and Australasia: A Descriptive and Pictorial Account … (1888). Secretary to the New South Wales commissions for the 1888 Melbourne and the 1889-90 Dunedin exhibitions, in July 1890 he was appointed to the royal commission into the civil service. His pamphlet, Agriculture in New South Wales, was published in connexion with the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893. At the time of his death he was said to have been working on a major history of education in New South Wales.

Wilkins was also an executive member of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in the 1850s. He was an active member of the Wesleyan York Street chapel and choirmaster until 1869. Interested in music and a talented singer, in 1854 he was a member of the Sydney Philharmonic Society. A prominent Freemason under the English constitution, he joined the Cambrian Lodge in 1855 and became master in 1864. Next year he was deputy provincial grand master and also a committee-man of the Australasian Freemasons' Orphan and Destitute Children's Society. He helped found the Victoria Lodge and became its master in 1879. In 1872-79 he was an officer in the New South Wales Volunteer Infantry.

After a long illness, Wilkins died at his Guildford home on 10 November 1892 and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery; he was survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters. His estate was sworn for probate at £1083.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Turney (ed), Pioneers of Australian Education, vol 1 (Syd, 1969)
  • Final report of the School Commissioners, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1856-57, 2, 87
  • Wilkins family letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under W. Wilkins (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Board of National Education, Minutes and letter-books, and annual reports, 1848-65 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Council of Education, Annual reports, 1866-79 (State Records New South Wales).

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Citation details

Cliff Turney, 'Wilkins, William (1827–1892)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 January, 1827
London, Middlesex, England


10 November, 1892 (aged 65)
Guildford, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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