Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Alfred Williams (1863–1913)

by Elizabeth Kwan

This article was published:

Alfred Williams (1863-1913), educationist, was born on 16 October 1863 at St Ives, South Australia, eldest son of John Henry Williams, miner, and his wife Emma Mary, née Davey, both Cornish migrants. The family moved to Moonta where Alfred became a pupil-teacher in 1876 at the local public school. Following an outstanding year at the Training College and the University of Adelaide in 1881, he received good appointments at five primary schools and by 1900 was headmaster of Norwood Public School. He made it the top State school in South Australia and attracted the interest of educational and political leaders: inspectors noted how 'intensely interested' the children were in work which was 'a pleasure and not a task'. In Adelaide on 11 July 1885 Williams had married Matilda Coombs. A protégé of the former inspector-general of schools J. A. Hartley, he was committed to the ideas of the new education which aimed to foster intelligence rather than learning by rote. He also retained a 'belief in social equality' from his Methodist working-class background: he thought that, with the aid of scholarships, schools should be ladders for bright children of all classes to climb to university.

Guided by these ideals, Williams set out to reform South Australia's Education Department. A committee-member from 1892 of the Adelaide Teachers' Association, he was its delegate to the South Australian Public School Teachers' Union of which he was president (1903-05). Supported by prominent Adelaide intellectuals, he launched a public campaign to replace the stolid inspector-general L. S. Stanton with G. C. Henderson, professor of history and English at the university. Frank Tate, the director of education in Victoria, inspired Williams through his visits to South Australia and through his summer schools in Victoria.

Tom Price's coalition government moved quickly in 1905 to reform education and appointed Williams as director. Becoming—in his own words—'a missionary' in the cause of new education, he held several congresses which introduced teachers to new methods of child-centred learning and aroused public interest and support. He selected promising teachers to study interstate and then to act as leaven in South Australia: Lydia Longmore and Elsie Claxton (infant teaching), A. G. Edquist (nature study) and W. J. Adey (secondary teaching). Williams also appointed Bertie Roach as editor of The Children's Hour: used as a textbook in reading, history, nature study and geography, his schoolpaper cheaply and effectively introduced Australian content to curricula.

Conscious of the teachers' burden in having to cover a range of subjects, Williams encouraged integration: Australian history for all classes beyond the infant grades was made possible from 1906 by its association with geography and reading. He supported teachers by providing higher salaries, better designed houses and schools, smaller classes and medical inspection of children. Williams also moved to end the distinction between provisional and permanent teachers by introducing in 1911 a minimum six months training for all. The establishment of the Observation and Practising School in Adelaide in 1908 and the separation of the Training College from the university in 1913 further strengthened professional training.

Although Williams's most significant achievement was to change attitudes towards primary education among students, teachers and the community, his work in secondary education is better known. With Tate, in 1907 he had visited Europe and the United States of America and learned how backward Australia was. Williams created Adelaide High School in 1908 by combining the Adelaide Continuation School with the Advanced School for Girls; next year the continuation classes in several large country towns were constituted as district high schools: by 1911 they numbered eighteen. A threefold increase in the number of scholarships that year greatly extended secondary schooling. Despite Williams's concern for the working boy, in the field of technical education little could be done until the passing of the Education Act in 1915 and the appointment next year of Dr Charles Fenner as superintendent.

A dynamic man of medium build, bespectacled, with deep eyes and a determined mouth, Williams was fired by the potential of education to develop children and, through them, South Australia. He was an avid reader and a fine speaker. A council-member of the University of Adelaide, he was also a fellow of the Royal Society of St George. Although gifted with organizational ability, he overestimated how much one person could achieve. Refusing to relax in the evenings or on weekends, he was forced by ill health to take periods of extended leave in 1910-12. He did not live to see many of the changes he had recommended. The advances he had made under Price slackened with the premier's death and the coalition's collapse in 1909. Survived by his wife, daughter and five sons, Williams died in a coma from diabetes mellitus on 18 February 1913 at his Torrensville home and was buried in North Road cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • C. M. Thiele and R. Gibbs, Grains of Mustard Seed (Adel, 1975)
  • P. Miller, Long Division (Adel, 1986)
  • Reports of Minister of Education, Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1907-14
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1908, 3 (65)
  • Education Gazette (South Australia), 1906-13
  • Advertiser (Adelaide) 19 Feb 1913
  • Register (Adelaide), 19 Feb 1913
  • H. Beare, The Influence of Alfred Williams and the Price Ministry on Public Education in South Australia (M.Ed. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964)
  • E. H. Kwan, Making ‘Good Australians’: the Work of Three South Australian Educators (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1981).

Citation details

Elizabeth Kwan, 'Williams, Alfred (1863–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 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]


16 October, 1863
St Ives, South Australia, Australia


18 February, 1913 (aged 49)
Torrensville, 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.