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Adamson, Lawrence Arthur (1860–1932)

by M. A. Clements

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Lawrence Arthur Adamson (1860-1932), headmaster, was born on 20 April 1860 at Douglas, Isle of Man, second son of Lawrence William Adamson, LL.D., grand seneschal of the island and later deputy lieutenant of the County of Northumberland, and his first wife Annie Jane, née Flint. At 10 Adamson was sent to a London preparatory school and in 1874 he entered Rugby School, where he did well in classics and enjoyed all forms of sport. He matriculated in 1879 at Oriel College, Oxford (B.A., Charsley Hall, 1884), and was called to the Bar of the Inner Temple in 1885. After a bout of severe pleurisy he decided to practise law in the warmer climate of New South Wales. Finding the Sydney climate too moist, he moved early in 1886 to Melbourne where he applied to join the Bar and was in due course admitted. Meanwhile he did some private coaching, and also accepted a temporary teaching post at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School; he was awarded his B.A. (ad eund.) in May and M.A. in December by the University of Melbourne. In 1887 he became senior resident master at Wesley College and held the post until 1892, teaching English and history and fomenting a new interest in sport.

In 1893 Adamson became resident tutor at Trinity College, University of Melbourne, and for four years lectured there in the evenings and taught at Wesley by day. Late in 1897 the Wesley College Committee informed all members of staff that as a result of its decision to appoint Thomas Palmer as headmaster they were to be dismissed. Adamson, thoroughly disillusioned, moved to University High School, where for four years he was joint headmaster and proprietor with his close friend Otto Krome.

In January 1902 the Wesley College Committee set about appointing a new headmaster. In early discussion the name of L. A. Adamson was not mentioned, but when he intimated that he would be willing to accept full financial responsibility for the satisfactory growth of the college, it was decided to appoint him. Adamson took up his position at Wesley in February, and over the next thirty years came to be regarded by many as Australia's most famous headmaster.

Inheritances had left Adamson a wealthy man; while headmaster he made many substantial donations to the college. He was often able to return 'home' to England and to indulge in such exciting innovations as motor cars and aeroplanes. In November 1909 he was the first to import an aeroplane into Australia, a Wilbur Wright biplane, although he did not fly it himself. His other interests included dogs, antique furniture, china, bronze, silver, statuary, and green-herb cheese. A devout Anglican, he was a warden at Christ Church, St Kilda, and a deacon of St Paul's Cathedral. He never married.

Adamson always placed great emphasis in the regular school assemblies on good manners, community service, music, sporting achievement, and especially on the maintenance and development of a corporate school spirit. These themes were echoed in the college Song Book, which was considerably enlarged during his headmastership; he himself composed many of its words and tunes, including the well-known melody for Newbolt's 'Best School of All'. 'Dicky' Adamson had an unusual gift for talking effectively to individual boys. Two future prime ministers, (Sir) Robert Menzies and Harold Holt, attended the college in his time.

As much as, or more than, his contemporaries, Adamson extolled the effects on character of training and preparation for military service; he was proud of his own family's distinguished military record. He encouraged the college cadet corps, paid frequent tribute to old Wesley collegians who enlisted for active service, insisted on writing the chapter on 'Wesley at War' for the jubilee history of the college (1921), and treasured several volumes of war letters sent to him and other staff members by old boys serving in World War I.

Adamson heavily accentuated the importance of excellence in sport. Sir James Darling in 1969 attributed to Adamson's influence the over-emphasis on competitive sport which he had found in Victorian public schools in 1930. Teams were paraded at school assemblies, and sporting heroes and triumphs were commemorated in school songs; at the same time worthwhile contributions made in other areas could go unrecognized. The first half of Adamson's headmastership was marked by many outstanding team successes, especially in rowing, football and athletics, but at the same time bitter controversies between Wesley and other public schools were highlighted by the press, and Wesley teams and supporters were sometimes accused of poor sportsmanship. Adamson usually defended his boys, emphasizing the dictum that any school must teach its students 'to win decently and lose decently'. He firmly believed that consistently good sporting results helped to increase enrolments: certainly, the numbers did increase from 204 in 1902 to 594 in 1920 and fluctuated in the next decade when successes were less frequent.

The strong influence of Adamson's educational ideas and policies on secondary education in Victoria, and the part he played in raising its status, may have been his most lasting achievement. In 1891 he was foundation secretary of the Victorian Institute of Schoolmasters and helped to draft the teachers' registration bill which that body tried to persuade parliament to pass in 1892. In 1898, while at University High School, he initiated and organized a series of teacher-training classes, at that time the only such courses in Victoria. For many years he served on the faculty of arts, council, and schools board of the university. In 1904 Adamson and Krome established the (Incorporated) Association of Secondary Teachers of Victoria and through it Adamson exerted some influence on parliament, which passed the Registration of Teachers and Schools Act in 1905; Frank Tate believed that no one did more to bring about that legislation. By the Act a registration board was established, and Adamson was selected to represent the independent schools. He was keen to initiate a separate system of teacher-training for prospective independent-schoolteachers, and in 1908 the board permitted Wesley College to establish a teacher-training institution which was formally equal in status with the government Training College. From 1911 he was an influential and active member of the recently established Council of Public Education. He was well ahead of his time in his belief that a 'leaving certificate' issued to a student by an approved school should be a sufficient qualification for university entrance. As a member of the university's Board of Public Examinations in 1905-11 and as a leading member of the powerful Schools Board from 1912, he influenced others towards a more liberal view of the role of external examinations in secondary education. In 1903-32 he was secretary and chairman of the Headmasters of the Associated Public Schools.

As president of the Metropolitan Football Association for thirty-seven years, Adamson loudly proclaimed the virtues of amateur sport. For many years he was a delegate to the Victorian Cricket Association, at various times served as its honorary treasurer and president, and in 1906 he became first president of the Australian Board of Control for international cricket; he was president in 1901-05 of the Victorian Amateur Athletic Association. He also served as chairman of the Victorian branch of the Royal Life Saving Society and was president of the Lost Dogs' Home. In 1926 he was appointed C.M.G.

After several years of declining health from diabetes and liver disease, Adamson died of a gastric haemorrhage at Wesley on 14 December 1932, two days before his retirement was to have been announced, and was cremated. His estate, valued for probate at £7073, included bequests to the college and mementos to the staff; H. J. Stewart, his stalwart supporter for thirty years and his personal choice as successor, was executor. A portrait by W. B. McInnes hangs in Adamson Hall at Wesley College.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Nye (ed), The History of Wesley College 1865-1919 (Melb, 1921)
  • F. Meyer, Adamson of Wesley (Melb, 1932)
  • The History of Wesley College 1920-1940, N. H. MacNeil ed (Melb, 1941)
  • G. Blainey et al, Wesley College. The First Hundred Years (Melb, 1967)
  • J. R. Darling, ‘Educational recollections of the thirties’, Melbourne Studies in Education, 1968-1969, R. J. W. Selleck ed (Melb, 1969)
  • Australasian Schoolmaster, July 1900
  • Sketch, 30 June 1911
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 Dec 1904
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 Dec 1904, 12 Nov 1912, 31 Oct, 14 Dec 1932
  • Punch (Melbourne), 8 July 1909, 29 Mar 1917
  • Herald (Melbourne), 7 July 1910, 26 Apr, 4, 17 May 1911
  • Table Talk, 16 Dec 1926
  • B. K. Rule, The Origins of State Secondary Education in Victoria (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1961)
  • Council minutes (Inc. Assn of Secondary Teachers of Victoria, Melbourne)
  • Council, Senate, Arts faculty, and Schools Board minutes (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Committee and Council minutes, 1887-1933, and Adamson scrap-books, 1890-1920 (Wesley College Archives)
  • Education Dept, special case 1174 (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

M. A. Clements, 'Adamson, Lawrence Arthur (1860–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/adamson-lawrence-arthur-4971/text8251, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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