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John Woolley (1816–1866)

by K. J. Cable

This article was published:

John Woolley (1816-1866), by Arthur Levett Jackson

John Woolley (1816-1866), by Arthur Levett Jackson

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN24/04/66/12

John Woolley (1816-1866), professor and clergyman, was born on 28 February 1816 at Petersfield, Hampshire, England, second son of George Woolley, physician, and his wife Charlotte, née Gell. His father transferred to the Royal Humane Society, London, and John went to the Western Grammar School, Brompton, and in 1830 to University College, London. He won a scholarship to Exeter College, Oxford (B.A., 1836; M.A., 1839; D.C.L., 1844) and in 1840 became a fellow of University College. Made deacon by Bishop Bagot of Oxford on 14 June he was priested by Bishop Musgrave of Hereford on 4 July 1841. In July 1842 in Germany he married Mary Margaret (d.1886), daughter of Major William Turner, thereby forfeiting his fellowship; he became headmaster of Hereford Cathedral School.

Woolley became foundation headmaster of Rossall School, Lancashire, in 1844. He promoted the educational methods of Dr Thomas Arnold, whose views on both pedagogy and theology he admired. He got on well with staff and pupils but could not manage his council or cope with a falling enrolment. He failed to secure appointment to the Birmingham grammar school and to Bishop's College, Calcutta, and his nomination as rector of the Ionian University at Corfu was frustrated by the opposition of the Greek clergy. In 1849 he became headmaster of Norwich Grammar School on the nomination of Bishop Stanley, father of his Oxford friend Arthur (later Dean) Stanley. But the bishop died and Woolley, despite a good income and the opportunity to work for the local 'People's College', found Norwich too narrow a field. He had published an Oxford textbook on logic which had won Sir William Hamilton's acclaim, and he gained some reputation with his Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Rossall College (London, 1847) and Religious Education the Safeguard of the State (London, 1850). They marked Woolley as a scholar of liberal opinions.

Despite his clerical status, in 1852 Woolley obtained the position of principal and professor of classics at the new University of Sydney; he arrived with his wife and five daughters on 9 July in the Mary Ann. At once he took the lead in pressing for a professorial monopoly of general undergraduate teaching, arguing forcibly that the proposed Church colleges be restricted to an ancillary role. He reluctantly agreed to a compromise arranged in 1854 by Vice-Provost Sir Charles Nicholson and Bishop Selwyn of New Zealand: resident students at state-aided Church colleges were obliged to attend the professors' lectures; in return, ethics, metaphysics and modern history would be optional and college heads were to certify the religious competence of all students. Despite his misgivings, it was a victory for the secular, professorial university, reflecting current liberal Oxford opinion with which A. P. Stanley and, through him, Woolley were identified. Sydney became the model for all Australian universities.

Woolley's insistence on the supremacy of the professoriate rested on his belief in the value of the liberal arts curriculum. This formed the core of university studies; it not only trained the intellect but promoted perception of moral and social values. To Woolley, a Platonist, the 'social sympathy' thus engendered was essential to a growing colony. He followed W. C. Wentworth in stressing the function of the university in educating a colonial governing class of the future, freeing the community from any reliance on either imported rulers or radical demagogues. So emphatic was Woolley on the need to raise up, through the university, a responsible group of local gentlemen that he was prepared to forgo the training of professional men: law and medicine had to function under mere examining boards.

Woolley mistrusted the policies of the Churches in education. He believed that they tended to disrupt the social unity that education should promote, and considered that religious teaching belonged properly to the home and should not be accorded a major place in school and university curricula. Moving beyond the position on church and state that, under Arnold's influence, he had adopted in England, he supported the National schools, resented the university colleges and helped to secure the abolition of religious certification at the university in 1858. Similarly, his theological opinions, originally those of the Broad Church school, shifted in the direction of deism. He became critical of the new Anglican bishop, Frederic Barker, whose evangelical policies he considered unscholarly and restrictive. Although licensed to preach in 1852 and active for some years at St Peter's, Cook's River, Woolley confined his clerical friendships to younger clergy, such as G. F. Macarthur, on whom he had a liberalizing influence. His isolation was reinforced by his failure to gain membership of the Sydney constitutional convention and by his opposition to the new diocesan arrangements in an 1859 petition to parliament against the Church of England synods bill. An active Freemason, he was chaplain to lodges of the English and Scottish constitutions. A promoter of general religious knowledge, he joined the committees of the New South Wales Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society and the New South Wales Religious Tract and Book Society. But to orthodox churchmen, he came to appear as a religious radical with a suspect faith.

Woolley was an eloquent orator and an inspiring teacher. On younger radical politicians, such as (Sir) Henry Parkes and on his brighter students, such as (Sir) William Windeyer, he exercised a profound influence. In 1855 he helped some undergraduates produce the short-lived Sydney University Magazine, which echoed his opinions. His optional lectures on political economy and constitutional history were stimulating but some university senators viewed them with suspicion. Woolley's scholarship was generally admired but his teaching, like his religion, aroused a mixed response.

The University of Sydney was only a partial success: in 1857, it moved from temporary quarters in the former Sydney College (to make way for the undenominational Sydney Grammar School that Woolley had helped to promote) to a splendid Gothic pile at Grose Farm. The building remained half empty, for he clung to a classical arts curriculum that practical men thought inappropriate. He resisted efforts to abolish compulsory lectures and allow the colleges to teach; and classes for non-matriculated students were only a partial solution. He contrived a parliamentary select committee on the university in 1859, to gain membership of the senate for the senior professors; but the committee criticized the ostentation of the building and the irrelevance of the curriculum.

Woolley's creed of 'social sympathy' through a liberal education extended beyond the university. Influenced by English developments, he believed that academics should take their learning to the wider community, which was the more necessary because the impact of graduates would take time. His positions as elective trustee of the Australian Museum and councillor of the Philosophical Society of New South Wales followed naturally from his professorship, but he went beyond the call of duty in helping to revive the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in 1853 (vice-president 1855; president 1866) and in lecturing widely for it. He remained critical of disorder in the School of Arts but he believed it was the most effective instrument for cultural dissemination.

By 1864 Woolley was becoming oppressed by a sense of failure. He had grown querulous under opposition and his critics, academic and ecclesiastical, were gathering. He felt he had lost touch with British scholarship; his work on logic, begun when he was Stowell scholar at Oxford and elaborated into a critique of Mill's pragmatism, had not found a publisher. Lectures Delivered in Australia, seen through the press in 1862 by A. P. Stanley, was a fine collection of occasional addresses but did not measure up to Woolley's conception of scholarly production. Granted leave, he left for England on 26 December 1864 in H.M.S. Miranda, without his family. He revisited friends and relations and spoke at the commemoration of University College, London. But he could get no promise of an English post and he sailed for Australia depressed in spirit.

Woolley was drowned in the Bay of Biscay on 11 January 1866, when the London foundered in a storm. He was survived by his wife, who is semi-fictionally represented in E. Maitland's The Pilgrim and the Shrine (1867), by four daughters and two sons. His eldest daughter Emmeline was a prominent Sydney musician and Blanche married F. E. du Faur. Always imprudent in money matters, despite a large professorial income, he left an estate valued for probate at £500. A public meeting on 26 March raised £2000 to provide for his family. The tragedy of the London foundering, wherein several prominent people died, aroused much comment and many tributes, in which Woolley figured. H. Halloran in a memorial poem, called him 'The Poet's comforter, and poor man's guide'. There are two portraits of Woolley in Sydney, one by William Menzies Tweedie, at the University of Sydney and another at St Paul's College. The Woolley scholarship commemorates him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Nadel, Australia's Colonial Culture (Melb, 1957)
  • C. Turney (ed), Pioneers of Australian Education, vol 1 (Syd, 1969)
  • Select Committee on the University of Sydney, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1859-60, 4, 204, 300
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1859-60, 1, 667, 5
  • S. Neil, ‘The late John Woolley of Oxford’, British Controversialist, 24 (1866)
  • K. J. Cable, ‘The University of Sydney and its affiliated colleges, 1850-1880’, Australian University, 2 (1964), and ‘John Woolley, Australia's first professor’, Arts (Sydney), 5 (1968)
  • R. J. Burns, Secondary Education and Social Change in New South Wales and Queensland Before 1914 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1966)
  • J. D. Lang, Macarthur, Henry Parkes and Deas Thomson papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Bishop's register of Acts and Proceedings, 1852-66 (Sydney Diocesan Registry)
  • Council minutes, 1844-49 (Rossall School Archives)
  • Nicholson, Stenhouse, Windeyer and Woolley papers (University of Sydney Archives)
  • Senate minutes, 1851-66, and Professorial Board minutes, 1852-61 (University of Sydney Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Woolley, John (1816–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 18 April 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

John Woolley (1816-1866), by Arthur Levett Jackson

John Woolley (1816-1866), by Arthur Levett Jackson

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN24/04/66/12

Life Summary [details]


28 February, 1816
Petersfield, Hampshire, England


11 January, 1866 (aged 49)
at sea

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