Armstrong, John

2008
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Armstrong, John

John Armstrong conducted schools in Sydney during the 1840s and early 1850s. The surviving portion of his diary opens a fascinating window on the cultural and political climate in Sydney at this time.

Born in Ireland on 23 February 1814, Armstrong was the eldest child of Bridgit (née Couglin) and Edward George Armstrong of Castleview, King's County. His grandfather had been a substantial landowner. An able scholar, Armstrong received a sound commercial education and worked as a farm overseer before emigrating in October 1839. He was accompanied on the voyage to New South Wales by his bride of 12 days, Marion (née Pike), a 19-year-old school teacher. [1]

Church of England school teacher at Cobbitty

Soon after reaching Sydney in early 1840, the Armstrongs secured teaching positions at the Church of England school at Cobbitty. John supplemented their income by acting as parish clerk and supervising the Sunday School. [2] The couple also briefly ran a shop, which angered their employer, the Reverend Thomas Hassall. He also disapproved of Armstrong, as a Protestant schoolmaster, having Roman Catholic friends. Underlying the simmering tension was Armstrong's proud independence, his inability, as he put it, to 'take any extraordinary or cringing means of seeking ... [Hassall's] favour or deprecating his ill will'. The crisis came in August 1844 when Hassall found fault with Armstrong's administration of school fees. Strenuous efforts to defend his reputation came to nothing, convincing Armstrong that in Sydney, as elsewhere, the 'friendless and pennyless' (sic) were always at the mercy of powerful, self-interested cliques. [3]

A private academy

On 1 October 1844 the Armstrongs and their three young children left Cobbitty for a rented home at 10 Kensington Street, Chippendale where, a week later, they opened their own 'adult and infant school'. [4] In May 1845 they moved to the first of three successive premises in nearby Abercrombie Street. Finally, in January 1850, they relocated their 'Mathematical, Commercial and Classical Academy' to a larger home in George Street, Redfern. [5]

The Armstrongs had tapped into an expanding market for education in Sydney, one aspect of the growing importance of written communication in daily life. [6] Private venture schools like theirs multiplied more than six-fold in the city during the 1840s, and Armstrong's diary gives some insight into their clientele and daily operation. Both men and women enrolled in the couple's adult school. Day pupils included the offspring of small tradesmen, people of moderate means but with some ambition for their children, who sometimes paid the fees in kind. Marion taught the youngest pupils and the 'Ladies' School', and John the older boys. But he also welcomed girls whose parents shared his own conviction that females could profit just as well from the 'arithmetical education' he offered. [7]

An involved citizen

In his spare time, Armstrong immersed himself in Sydney's increasingly literate culture. He became an active member of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, attending lectures and classes, helping to revise its rules and serving on its management committee in 1852 and 1853. An avid reader, he patronised the growing number of Sydney bookshops and, sharing contemporary enthusiasm for newsprint, subscribed to a variety of newspapers and magazines. [8]

Via the many letters and articles he had published in the Sydney press, Armstrong also entered public debate on leading issues of the day, sometimes using the pseudonyms 'Vulgus', 'GN' or 'Your constant reader'. He was passionately opposed to sectarian prejudice, disgusted by entrenched privilege and believed firmly in the right and responsibility of men like himself to influence public affairs. In this spirit, Armstrong supported petitions and attended public meetings for a range of causes, from opposition to convict transportation to the construction of a dry dock at Garden Island. [9] He also joined the short-lived Political Association, formed in 1851 to fight unfair electoral distribution, and he conscientiously exercised his franchise when the opportunity arose. Such involvement brought Armstrong into contact with several better-known political figures in Sydney, including the young lawyer Daniel Deniehy, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. [10]

An end to teaching

Despite some setbacks, the Armstrongs' school did well, with enrolments exceeding 100 at their peak. By late 1850, the couple had sufficient capital to purchase the Redfern house and several nearby cottages. Property values rose in the wake of the 1851 gold discoveries, so in 1853 they were able to sell up at a substantial profit. Thus freed from what Armstrong described as 'the harassing and onerous drudgery of school teaching', they purchased land at Appin where they farmed and ran a store. [11] John maintained a tie with Sydney, as the Appin correspondent to the Empire. [12] He died at Appin in 1876, survived by eight of his 11 children, and by Marion who died at Dapto in 1910. [13]

References

Armstrong Family papers, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library manuscript 918

JE Armstrong, Correspondence 1860, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library DOC 3062

JE Armstrong, Diary 1842–47, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library manuscript B 872-4

JE Armstrong, Diary 1842–47, Typed Manuscript 1992, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library manuscript 5637

DH Deniehy, Letters Written to John Armstrong, 1853–60, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library manuscript 869

I and G Armstrong, John Armstrong: Colonial Schoolmaster Sydney and Cobbitty, Sunbird Publications, Killabalch NSW, 1997

A Coote, 'Imagining a Colonial Nation: The Development of Popular Concepts of Sovereignty and Nation in New South Wales between 1856 and 1860', Journal of Australian Colonial History, vol 1 no 1, 1999, pp 1–37

A Coote, 'Space, Time and Sovereignty: Literate Culture and Colonial Nationhood in New South Wales up to 1860', PhD thesis, University of New England, New South Wales, 2004

Notes

[1] I and G Armstrong, John Armstrong: Colonial Schoolmaster Sydney and Cobbitty, Sunbird Publications, Killabalch, New South Wales, 1997, pp 9, 14–17

[2] I and G Armstrong, John Armstrong: Colonial Schoolmaster Sydney and Cobbitty, Sunbird Publications, Killabalch NSW, 1997, p 30; JE Armstrong, Diary, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library manuscript B 872–74, 3 June 1842; New South Wales Colonial Secretary's Returns of the Colony, 1840

[3] JE Armstrong, Diary, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library manuscript B 872–74, August to October 1844

[4] JE Armstrong, Diary, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library manuscript B 872–74, September to October 1844; Advertisement, 'Education', Sydney Morning Herald, 7 October 1844

[5] JE Armstrong, Diary, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library manuscript B 872–74, 24 May 1845, 16 May 1846, 17 June 1848, 5 January 1850; I and G Armstrong, John Armstrong: Colonial Schoolmaster Sydney and Cobbitty, Sunbird Publications, Killabalch NSW, 1997, pp 114, 115, 151; Advertisements, Sydney Morning Herald, 26 June 1845, 15 June 1846, 19 January 1850

[6] A Coote, 'Space, Time and Sovereignty: Literate Culture and Colonial Nationhood in New South Wales up to 1860', PhD thesis, University of New England, New South Wales, 2004, pp 56–121

[7] JE Armstrong, Diary, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library manuscript B 872-74, January 1845 to September 1852

[8] JE Armstrong, Diary, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library manuscript B 872–74, February 1842 to July 1855; A Coote, 'Imagining a Colonial Nation: The Development of Popular Concepts of Sovereignty and Nation in New South Wales between 1856 and 1860', Journal of Australian Colonial History, vol 1 no 1, 1999, pp 10–14

[9] JE Armstrong, Diary, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library manuscript B 872–74, October to July 1853

[10] DH Deniehy, Letters Written to John Armstrong, 1853–60, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library manuscript 869

[11] I and G Armstrong, John Armstrong: Colonial Schoolmaster Sydney and Cobbitty, Sunbird Publications, Killabalch, New South Wales, 1997, p 203

[12] JE Armstrong, Diary, State Library of New South Wales, Mitchell Library manuscript B 872–74, November to March 1856; 'From Our Own Correspondent' [J Armstrong], 'Destructive Fires at Appin', Empire, 8 December 1854

[13] I and G Armstrong, John Armstrong: Colonial Schoolmaster Sydney and Cobbitty, Sunbird Publications, Killabalch NSW, 1997, pp 9, 203

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