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William John Woodhouse (1866–1937)

by L. F. Fitzhardinge

This article was published:

William John Woodhouse (1866-1937), classical scholar, was born on 7 November 1866 at Clifton, Westmorland, England, eldest son of Richard Woodhouse, station master, and his wife Mary, née Titterington. At Sedbergh School, Yorkshire, he received a 'sound and thorough training in the classical languages as such', but with 'a strange lack of contact with the realities of life, both modern and ancient'. In 1885 he won an exhibition to The Queen's College, Oxford (B.A., 1889; M.A., 1895), where he took first-class honours in both moderations and greats. In 1890, as a Newton student of the British School of Archaeology in Athens, he took part in the excavation of Megalopolis. Most of 1892 and 1893 was spent in Greece as a Craven fellow in a thorough topographical exploration of the rugged and little known region of Aetolia, north of the Gulf of Corinth. His preliminary report was awarded the triennial Conington prize in 1894. He published the results of his field-work in the Journal of Hellenic Studies from 1892 and, in 1897, a substantial book, Aetolia.

That year Woodhouse was appointed lecturer in classics at University College of North Wales, Bangor, and on 28 March at the parish church, Sedbergh, Yorkshire, married Eleanor Emma Jackson. Between 1898 and 1906 he produced school editions of Greek and Latin authors. His Tutorial History of Greece (1904), a deceptively modest book, was advanced in its use of archaeology and its robust common sense. He also contributed to Hastings's Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics and to the Encyclopedia Biblica.

Before taking up a lectureship at the University of St Andrew's, Scotland, in 1900 Woodhouse was chosen to succeed Walter Scott in the chair of Greek at the University of Sydney. By this move he cut himself off from the revolution then being brought about in classical studies by advances in archaeology and topography in which he might otherwise have played a notable part, though he remained a keen and sometimes critical spectator. He was to revisit Greece three times: in 1908 when he laid the foundation for a collection of casts of sculpture for the Nicholson Museum of Antiquities, in 1921 when returning from the Congress of the Universities of the Empire at Oxford, and in 1935 near the end of his life, but his recollections remained strong and enabled him to convey to his students a vivid sense of the Greek countryside and people.

Whatever his regrets, Woodhouse threw himself energetically into his new life. Throughout his tenure he gave all the lectures in the whole Greek course, while occasionally also filling in for Latin. He established a family home in the Blue Mountains, living during the week in hotels and boarding houses around Sydney, but in 1922 he moved to Gordon, a fairly remote northern suburb. He occupied the long train journeys by teaching himself Albanian, Bulgarian and Hebrew. His lectures began on most mornings at 9; he invariably arrived before his students and sometimes started the lecture without them. In his earlier years he lectured for the University Extension Board and served on its joint committee with the Workers' Educational Association; as the curator of the Nicholson Museum from 1903, he 'laboured untiringly to strengthen and increase the collection'; he helped to reorganize the university union and to establish courses in divinity. Dean of the faculty of arts (1926-29) and a fellow of the senate (1925-29), he was for many years a member of the Bursary Endowment Board and a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales.

It is small wonder that in thirty years he published only two articles: in 1912 'The scenic arrangements of the Philoktetes of Sophokles' (J.H.S., XXXII) and in 1918 'The campaign and battle of Mantineia' (Annual of the British School at Athens, No 22). In his later years, however, he withdrew somewhat from university affairs and garnered the fruit of his scholarship in three books which established his international reputation: The Composition of Homer's Odyssey (Oxford, 1930, reprinted 1969), King Agis of Sparta and his Campaign in Arkadia in 418 B.C. (Oxford, 1931, reprinted 1977) and Solon the Liberator, published posthumously in 1938 (reprinted 1965). Other books were left unfinished.

As a teacher, Woodhouse was unorthodox but highly effective. Seldom sticking close to the text or appearing to notice his class, he conveyed his enthusiasm, critical approach and genial humanity in apparently rambling soliloquies seasoned with a chain of anecdotes and a puckish humour. It was impossible to take notes, but at the end of the year students found that they had acquired, almost unconsciously, much general wisdom and a fund of exact knowledge — even about the set book. His influence was carried by his students into the professions, schools and universities throughout Australia and abroad.

A sound linguistic scholar, Woodhouse was no pedant or narrow specialist. Before World War I he had outlined in an Open Letter Addressed to the Fellows of the University of Sydney a proposal for a broadly based department of ancient history for non-classical students. His strength lay in his humanity and in his conception of the unity and universality of the Greek achievement. 'It's all in father Homer' was a favourite saying. His tastes were essentially simple: his favourite books were the Odyssey, the Acts of the Apostles and The Pilgrim's Progress, all in a sense travel books, yet he was moved deeply by the poetry of Homer and the tragedians. In his own work he liked (as he was fond of saying of the Greeks) to 'keep his eye on the object', to study the text before him rather than what others said about it, on which he could sometimes be very amusing.

Survived by his wife, son and daughter, Woodhouse died of cancer on 26 October 1937 at Gordon and was cremated after an Anglican service. His estate was sworn for probate at £17,997. A memorial fund was used to buy Greek vases for the Nicholson Museum.

Select Bibliography

  • Honi Soit, 3 Nov 1937
  • University of Sydney Union, Union Recorder, 4 Nov 1937
  • Australian Quarterly, 9, Dec 1937, 27, Dec 1955
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27, 28 Oct 1937
  • Times (London), 28 Oct 1937
  • University of Sydney Archives
  • private information.

Citation details

L. F. Fitzhardinge, 'Woodhouse, William John (1866–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 26 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]


7 November, 1866
Clifton, Westmorland, England


26 October, 1937 (aged 70)
Gordon, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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