Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Biaggini, Ernest Gordon (1889–1978)

by Barbara Wall

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Ernest Gordon Biaggini (1889-1978), educationist, was born on 10 March 1889 at Stoke Newington, London, son of Charles Edward Biaggini, a clerk of Italian descent, and his wife Eveline Harriett, née Thompson. The family was Protestant. Gordon suffered infantile paralysis which left both physical and mental scars. He attended Stamford Hill Collegiate and Wood Green Higher Grade schools, but his boyhood promise was frustrated by his family's financial difficulties and he became a clerk with a corset manufacturer. In 1912 he won an exhibition at night-school to attend the London School of Economics, but overwork led to a breakdown.

Hoping to improve his health, Biaggini embarked in the Berrima for Australia. He was stranded without money in Melbourne in 1915 and eventually took a job as a book-keeper in outback Queensland; he then taught at several schools in New South Wales before accepting an appointment in 1917 as a master at Brisbane Grammar School. On 9 December 1919 he married an Irish Catholic, Mary Cuttler; although they regularly attended Mass, he was never converted to her faith. They remained childless.

Having graduated (B.A., 1924) from the University of Queensland and won a (John) Archibald scholarship, in 1925 Biaggini joined the tutorial classes department of the University of Adelaide: he organized courses at Renmark (where he lived in a wooden shack) and later at other country towns and in Adelaide. In 1932-56 he was the tutor in charge of Workers' Educational Association classes in Adelaide and studied at the local university (M.A., 1932; D.Litt., 1944). He had returned to the L.S.E. in 1933, but was unable to remain long enough to complete his Ph.D. In England he met F. R. Leavis who wrote the foreword to Biaggini's pioneering work of practical criticism, English in Australia (Melbourne, 1933), and the preface to his The Reading and Writing of English (London, 1936), a school text which influenced many South Australians. He edited a series of W.E.A. pamphlets, wrote A New World for Education (Adelaide, 1944) and published his memoirs, You Can't Say That (Adelaide, 1970).

Gordon Biaggini was a remarkable teacher. Tall and handsome, with a good voice and considerable charm, he awakened and stimulated the minds and critical faculties of the many men and women who attended and re-attended his classes. He alerted students to the tenets of good taste and to the slipperiness of language, upholding honesty and clarity while attacking sentimentality and humbug. He battled to maintain traditional standards of excellence in English, yet was progressive in focussing on word connotations and denotations.

Although the organization was poorly funded, and Biaggini so underpaid that he was compelled to do much hackwork, he made the W.E.A. a force in South Australia. A shy, tactless, pessimistic man, he suffered bitterly, believing himself always denied the advancement he deserved and resenting those above him whom he believed—with reason—to be his inferiors. He was beloved by his wife and gained the respect, admiration and affection of his students and most of those with whom he worked in adult education. After his wife's death in 1968, he was cared for by Leonore Isabel Riordan whom he married on 9 January 1974 in the registrar's office, Adelaide. Survived by her, he died on 1 December 1978 at Hartley Hospital, Brighton, and was buried in Brighton North cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Journal of Adult Education, 4, no 2, Dec 1964, p 42, 11, no 1, Apr 1971, p 63
  • Issue, 4, no 8, Nov 1969, p 11
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 47, no 4, Summer 1988, p 723
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 17 Oct 1970, 5, 9 Dec 1978
  • L. Arnold, ABC radio interview with E. G. Biaggini, 1969 ( J. D. Somerville Oral History collection, State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

Barbara Wall, 'Biaggini, Ernest Gordon (1889–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/biaggini-ernest-gordon-9503/text16727, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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