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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Williams, William Henry (1852–1941)

by J. C. Horner

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

William Henry Williams (1852-1941), scholar and critic, was born on 7 November 1852 at Kings Norton, Worcestershire, England, son of William Williams, merchant's clerk, and his wife Amelia Burley, née Arden. He attended Newark Grammar School and entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1872. The award of a sizarship helped him through an academically distinguished career in which he gained a foundation scholarship, an English declamation prize, the New Testament Greek prize and the Jeston exhibition. He graduated with first-class honours in the classical tripos (B.A., 1876; M.A., 1879) and became assistant master and senior classics master at Leys School, Cambridge, until 1883.

In 1884 Williams took up the headmastership of Newington College, Sydney. The school's authorities described him as 'essentially a scholar of liberal outlook' who broadened the curriculum in arts and science. In 1885 he established Newington's first science laboratory. He believed that college education should include 'some of the graces and amenities of life without neglecting the realities'. In 1892 the college council decided that the combined position of governor and headmaster should be held by a clergyman. Williams resigned his post.

In 1894 he became a lecturer and in 1896 the foundation professor of classics and English literature at the newly established University of Tasmania. He occupied the chair until his retirement in 1925. During part of that time he was dean of the faculty of arts and chairman of the professorial board. In March 1926 he was made professor emeritus. He was also a trustee of the State Library of Tasmania from 1921 to 1936.

Although Williams wrote no books, he edited or wrote introductions to twenty-five publications. These included editions of Thackeray and Dryden, and notes on Twelfth Night, Macbeth, King Lear and The Tempest. The majority, however, concentrated on pre-Shakespearian works and support E. Morris Miller's claim that Williams was an authority on Elizabethan and pre-Elizabethan English. Giving emphasis to dramatists, Williams paid special attention to Udall's Ralph Roister Doister which he edited with P. A. Robin in 1901. He published three other articles on this comedy and also made a case for Udall's authorship of Jacke Jugeler which Williams edited in Hobart from photographs of the original owned by the Duke of Devonshire. In 1905 Williams contributed the introduction and notes to the Clarendon Press publication, Specimens of English Drama. In addition to writing on Chaucer, Langland and Marlowe, he also edited classical texts.

On 7 April 1883 Williams had married Ethel Swindells (d.1926) at St Luke's parish church, Chesterton, Cambridgeshire. They had two sons and a daughter. On 19 June 1931 Williams married Ruth Mary Newbery in the Davey Street Congregational Church, Hobart. Survived by her, and by the sons of his first marriage, he died at St Anne's Rest Home, Hobart, on 12 September 1941. He was buried with his first wife in the Primitive Methodist section of Cornelian Bay cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • University of Tasmania, Calendar, 1927, 1932
  • Town and Country Journal, 7 July 1888
  • Mercury (Hobart), 13 Sept 1941
  • S. G. Claughton, Biographical Sketch of W. H. Williams (typescript, copy in ADB file)
  • University of Tasmania Archives.

Citation details

J. C. Horner, 'Williams, William Henry (1852–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 29 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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