Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Purves Wilson (1852–1932)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published:

John Purves Wilson (1852-1932), headmaster, was born on 1 April 1852 at Dalkeith, Edinburgh, son of James Wilson, railway platelayer, and his wife Isabella, née Pringle. Migrating with his parents to Victoria, John was educated at the Flinders National School, Geelong, and the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1875; M.A., 1877; LL.B., 1882; LL.D., 1885) where he gained third- and fourth-year exhibitions in law. On 6 January 1874 he married English-born Harriet Vile with Methodist forms at Geelong.

After teaching for the Education Department, Wilson was appointed mathematics master at Presbyterian Ladies' College, East Melbourne. His infectious enthusiasm for his subject and his distinctive blend of bullying and coaxing earned the school regular matriculation honours and the exhibition in 1890. On George Tait's resignation, Wilson became vice-principal in 1879 under Andrew Harper and, on the latter's resignation in 1889, headmaster. Dr Wilson was then a strong, stocky man, with Dundreary whiskers and 'a face full of character'. Henry Handel Richardson in The Getting of Wisdom portrayed him unsympathetically: 'A tiny little nose was as if squashed flat on his face, above a grotesquely expressive mouth … He had small short-sighted, red-rimmed eyes, and curly hair', but even the prickly Laura soon found herself 'bewitched' by his exuberance. He was a vital force in the school, teaching cricket, editing the school magazine, Patchwork, and, above all, encouraging intellectual aspirations in his female students. After retirement in 1906, he remained involved with the school council and Old Collegians' Association.

In 1907 he was acting master and tutor at Ormond College during the absence of (Sir) John MacFarland. From 1910 until his death Wilson was a member of the university council and in 1911-28 chairman of its finance committee. He served on the committee which proposed a radical reorganization of the administration of the university in 1913 and on that which initiated a student loan fund in 1919. A foundation member (1884) and president (1901-03) of the Melbourne Shakespeare Society, Wilson was president of the Incorporated Association of Secondary Teachers of Victoria in 1904 and 1910, and published two mathematical textbooks. He was active in the Presbyterian Church, a councillor of Scotch College, president of the Melbourne Orphanage, and a director of Langridge Mutual Permanent Building Society and the Victorian Malay Rubber Plantation.

Tributes from colleagues and pupils portray Wilson as an endearing man with a simplicity of character, a bubbling sense of humour and unfailing good nature. It is difficult to reconcile these impressions with the anti-papist, pro-conscriptionist Wilson who wrote in 1918 of that 'archdevil of hypocrisy, lying and treachery—Herr Mannix' and his cohorts of 'Irish, whose highest ideal is to shoot a man from behind a hedge, and cold-footers and shirkers… [and] sentimental old women'.

Predeceased by his wife and two sons, Wilson died at his Kew home on 28 May 1932 and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. Two daughters survived him. His estate was sworn for probate at £27,578. A portrait by Josephine Muntz-Adams, commissioned by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria in 1906, is in Presbyterian Ladies' College.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 2 (Melb, 1904)
  • E. Scott, A History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1936)
  • M. O. Reid, The Ladies Came to Stay (Melb, 1960)
  • K. Fitzpatrick, PLC Melbourne (Melb, 1975)
  • Presbyterian Messenger (Melbourne), 3, 10 June 1932
  • Age (Melbourne), 28 May 1932
  • Argus (Melbourne), 28 May 1932
  • Herald (Melbourne), 28 May 1932.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Wilson, John Purves (1852–1932)', 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]


1 April, 1852
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


28 May, 1932 (aged 80)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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