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Hamilton, Alexander Greenlaw (1852–1941)

by L. A. Gilbert

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Alexander Greenlaw Hamilton (1852-1941), schoolteacher and naturalist, was born on 14 April 1852 at Bailieborough, Cavan, Ireland, son of Alexander Greenlaw Hamilton, later a quarantine supervisor, and his wife Joyce, née Wynne. Migrating to New South Wales early in 1866, the family was living at Fish River Creek, near Oberon, by Christmas. Mrs Hamilton opened a school on 1 July 1867 with her son as honorary assistant, whom the local inspector ascertained had 'had some experience as a monitor or pupil teacher in Model Schools at Belfast, Ireland & elsewhere'. Alexander junior seemed to be responsible for much of the instruction. In mid-1869 the family moved to Meadow Flat, east of Bathurst, where Mrs Hamilton ran the school until October 1870.

In February Hamilton had been 'appointed temporarily assistant' at St Mary's Church of England school, South Creek (St Mary's). After three months at Fort Street Training School, in October he was sent to Guntawang Public School near Gulgong at £96 a year. On his twenty-first birthday (14 April 1873) he married Emma Thacker at St John the Baptist's Anglican Church, Mudgee. During seventeen years at Guntawang, Hamilton devoted himself to teaching, preparing (with varying results) for teachers' examinations, studying the natural history of the area, ministering to local first-aid needs and serving as librarian of the local School of Arts that he had helped to establish. In 1885 he joined the Linnean Society of New South Wales and published the first of many papers in its Proceedings. J. J. Fletcher in 1887 named one of Hamilton's discoveries in his honour—the earthworm now known as Spenceriella (Spenceriella) hamiltoni, not refound.

An ardent microscopist (which contributed to failing sight in his later years), Hamilton published frequently on the processes of pollination and fertilisation, the morphology of xerophylic and insectivorous plants and botanical and ornithological check-lists; studied bird-calls; and with Fletcher compiled an article on Australian land planarians. Most of his scientific papers appeared in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society but he also published in the Sydney Quarterly Magazine, Australian Naturalist, Public Instruction Gazette and in the Reports of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. His paper on 'The effect which settlement in Australia has produced on indigenous vegetation' won the bronze medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales. In 1937 he republished articles written for the Sydney Quarterly as Bush Rambles.

In October 1887 Hamilton was transferred to Mount Kembla Public School as headmaster. Here he investigated the fascinating rain forest ecology. He could now attend lectures at the University of Sydney and meetings of the societies with which he was associated. He was a council-member in 1906-39 and president in 1915-16 of the New South Wales Linnean Society, president of the Australian Naturalists' Society of New South Wales in 1913-14 and 1920-21, and a member of the Royal, Microscopical and Royal Zoological societies of New South Wales, the Wild Life Preservation Society of Australia and of the Gould League of Bird Lovers.

Granted six months leave in 1902, Hamilton visited Western Australia. Refreshed, and enjoying 'better health than I have had for years', he was soon faced with the turning-point in his career. At a conference, following the 1903 report by G. H. Knibbs and J. W. Turner on primary education, he successfully pleaded for greater emphasis on nature study in schools. By the end of 1904 he was involved in promoting the subject in accordance with Peter Board's new syllabus, lecturing to teachers at many centres. His influence on its teaching long before the 'environment movement' would be impossible to assess.

In March 1905 Hamilton became headmaster of Willoughby Public School and lecturer in nature study at Blackfriars and Hurlstone Training colleges. Although formally appointed to Teachers' College, Sydney, on 1 January 1907 at a salary of £350, he was still performing his dual function in May, working six days a week. He was appointed senior lecturer in botany and nature study in July 1919 but retired next year.

A tall, active, rather spare man, Hamilton considered himself 'immense' when he was 'nearly 12 stone'. Although naturally shy, he could be induced to play the piano and organ, and to sing. He was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, an accomplished natural history artist, a collector of orchids, horticulturist, an inveterate bush-walker, bibliophile, golfer and, certainly whilst at Guntawang, a cricketer. He admitted to being a 'wretched speaker' and 'frightfully nervous', but others enjoyed his 'never failing humour' and found him an inspiring teacher. His astonishing industry and dedication were widely acknowledged, if not fully understood.

Hamilton died at his home Tanandra, Chatswood, on 21 October 1941 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by two of his three sons and by a daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Naturalist, June 1942
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 69 (1944)
  • A. G. Hamilton, Letters to J. D. Cox (State Library of New South Wales)
  • school records (State Records New South Wales, and New South Wales Education Dept)
  • Sydney Teachers' College records
  • private information.

Citation details

L. A. Gilbert, 'Hamilton, Alexander Greenlaw (1852–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/hamilton-alexander-greenlaw-6536/text11229, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 26 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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