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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Brown, Gilbert Wilson (1832–1918)

by Kenneth E. Dear

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Gilbert Wilson Brown (1832-1918), educationist, was born on 12 June 1832 in London, son of William Brown and his wife Maria, née Taylor. From a Middlesex school he went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he was senior prizeman of his year in classics and mathematics in 1852 and 1853 (B.A., 1855; M.A., 1881). He came to Victoria in 1856 and took a position as mathematics master at Scotch College, Melbourne. In January 1858 he became the first headmaster of the Flinders National Grammar School at Geelong where he remained until May 1859 when he accepted an appointment as organizing master and sub-inspector with the National Board of Education. In September 1862 he became organizing inspector for the Board of Education, appointed under the Common Schools Act (25 Vic no. 149). With the creation of the Victorian Education Department in 1872 he was appointed inspector-general and held this post until January 1878 when, in common with a number of other senior public servants, he was retrenched; however in March he was offered and accepted the senior appointment of secretary of the Education Department. In 1883 he married Margaret Ann Twentyman at Bendigo; their only child, Gilbert Twentyman, was born two years later.

Brown remained secretary of the Education Department until March 1889 when prolonged ill health forced him to resign. He was transferred to the less arduous post of clerk of the Executive Council but continued ill health brought about his resignation from the government service in May 1892. His last years were spent in retirement and he died at his home in Toorak on 19 April 1918.

His appointment as sub-inspector under the National Board in 1858 was a stimulating addition to the teaching service at a time when the status of teaching was low because of the poor academic, pedagogic and sometimes personal qualifications of many of its practitioners in the unsettled gold rush years. In his inspector's reports he sharply criticized the rote-learning techniques used by many teachers and strongly advocated the use of teaching methods which aroused pupils' interest and made children 'think for themselves'. As inspector-general and later secretary of the department he was an industrious and efficient administrator of high personal integrity. In his evidence to the Victorian royal commission on education in 1882-84 he was highly critical of the frequent use of political patronage in determining appointments and promotions within the department, 'contrary to and without the recommendation of permanent officers'. Although humane and just in his dealings with subordinates, he was also autocratic. During the commission, inspectors complained that suggested improvements contained in their written reports were invariably ignored; it also became evident that the lack of a classified roll of teachers for promotion purposes permitted Brown to exercise more control than seemed desirable to the commissioners. He continued to support strongly both the system of payment of teachers' salaries partly on the basis of their examination results and the pupil-teacher system of teacher training at a time when their efficacy was being challenged by educationists in Australia and overseas. The latter system especially tended to perpetuate an academically and pedagogically inferior teaching service, for few of those who underwent this classroom apprenticeship received any further training at a teachers' college or university. Brown had considerable scholarship and administrative competence but in his later years he was reluctant to implement new educational ideas or challenge the old.

Select Bibliography

  • Commissioners of National Education, Seventh report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1860-61, 3 (15)
  • Board of Education, Annual Report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1862-71
  • Board of Education, Inspectors' reports, 1863 (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

Kenneth E. Dear, 'Brown, Gilbert Wilson (1832–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

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