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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Spaull, George Thomas (1876–1965)

by Andrew Spaull

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

George Thomas Spaull (1876-1965), educationist, was born on 23 January 1876 at Gulgong, New South Wales, second child of Thomas Spaull, London-born miner, and his second wife Sarah, née Barnett, from Sydney. Failing at goldmining, the Spaulls moved to East Sydney and sundry small, unsuccessful businesses. George attended Crown Street Public School, joined the Department of Public Instruction as a pupil-teacher in 1891 and in 1896 won a scholarship to Fort Street Training School. His teaching career (mainly in Sydney) was unremarkable and punctuated by disputes over inspectors' reports and salary anomalies. In 1898 he was acquitted of charges of using physical punishment and abusing a pupil. At St Mary's Cathedral on 6 January 1903 he married a Catholic, Mary Cotter, but he remained an Anglican. They taught at Captains Flat for seven years.

Returning to Sydney in 1910, Spaull achieved 1B classification and enrolled part-time at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1914; M.A., 1920); he came under the spell of the historian G. A. Wood and was active in the Evening Students' Association. Spaull conducted several experiments for the Teachers' College at Darlington Public School, where he taught for many years, and published the results in Schooling and Education and in British history notes in the New South Wales Teacher and Tutorial Guide (1917-18). Under P. R. Cole's supervision, he completed a thesis on Sir Henry Parkes and education which was published in 1920. He was active in the Men First Assistants' Group and was council-member of the New South Wales Teachers' Federation (1918-22). Ambitious for recognition, he failed to gain promotion to headmaster or inspector.

His historical research attracted the attention of S. H. Smith who invited him to expand Smith's earlier Brief History of Education in Australia 1788-1848 (1917). Spaull wrote most of their History of Education in New South Wales 1788-1925 (1925). When the Fuller government returned textbook publishing to private enterprise, Smith nominated Spaull to his former publisher, William Brooks & Co. Ltd. Spaull's immediate task was to write a set of graded history and geography texts for the 1922 and 1925 primary syllabuses.

Over some forty years Spaull wrote thirty-five individual titles which were widely used by pupils in history and civics, geography, English, arithmetic and social studies. He became Australia's most prolific school textbook author. He addressed specific changes in the syllabus, often reworking earlier teacher notes or texts. Measured and mannered as most school texts were, Spaull's at least incorporated modern methods, style and aids. His sources were his own notes compiled in the Public Library of New South Wales and from his overseas (1930) and local travels.

Softly spoken, 'with silver voice but iron hand' in the classroom, Spaull led a secluded life after 1924. Increasingly he became obsessed with publishing, which occupied all his spare time, but displayed penchants for silk shirts and a large expensive car—which did not endear him to his colleagues. He retired from teaching in 1940.

Survived by his wife and son, Spaull died at his Gordon home on 30 April 1965 and was buried with Catholic rites in Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Spaull, ‘The Biographical Tradition in Australian History of Education’, Australian and New Zealand Historical Education Society Journal, 11, no 2, 1981, and ‘The Making of an Australian Textbook Writer’, Vitae Scholasticae, 4, nos 1 & 2, 1985, and for bibliography.

Citation details

Andrew Spaull, 'Spaull, George Thomas (1876–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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