Dictionary of Sydney

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Carmichael, Henry

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Carmichael, Henry

Henry Carmichael [media]was the first vice-president of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts and one of Sydney's pioneer colonial educators. His views on youth and adult education were far-reaching and often controversial, particularly his opinions on the separation of religious instruction from the schools.

Carmichael, Lang and the Australian College

Carmichael was born in Scotland in 1796 and educated at the University of St Andrews at Fife. Graduating with a MA in theology in 1820, he moved to London and worked as a private tutor. In 1830 Carmichael was engaged by Reverend Dr John Dunmore Lang to teach at his proposed Australian College in Sydney. Carmichael, in accepting the position, was also contracted to source suitable books and accessories for the college while still in London. In this pursuit, he came in contact with the English social reformer Jeremy Bentham and his students. Bentham's views on education, such as the separation of religious teaching from school, less emphasis on teaching the classics, and the benefits of physical education, in particular, were strong influences on Carmichael's own thinking. [1]

Carmichael sailed with Lang and 59 'emigrant mechanics' aboard the Stirling Castle, arriving in Sydney in October 1831. [2]

Lang's plan for the Australian College suited Carmichael's educational ideas. The college was to be divided into four departments, each supervised by a specialist teacher; there was to be a broad curriculum including English, mercantile instruction, mathematics and physics, and a classics department. The students were to be educated from an elementary level through to a university level, with no restriction on religious denomination or background, and Christian religious instruction only given to those students whose parents agreed. [3]

However by 1833 Carmichael's enthusiasm for Lang's college had largely evaporated, as Lang's often abrasive personality had alienated many supporters and the public press had grown increasing antagonistic to the school. By 1833 Carmichael was the only teaching master, and he felt that the criticisms of the school's decline were being levelled unfairly at him rather than at the management style of Lang. Carmichael was concerned that the school would never prosper under Lang's leadership, due to his private and religious interests being too closely linked to his administration of the college. In particular, Carmichael saw Lang's sectarianism as a major stumbling block, and despite his own religious education, Carmichael saw no place for religious instruction in public education. Lang strenuously denied Carmichael's charges in the newspapers of the day.

Carmichael's Normal Institution

Carmichael [media]left the Australian College at the end of his contract in 1834, to set up his own school, the Normal Institution, taking 45 of the College's students with him. [4] This break with Lang set in motion a public slanging match between the two reverend scholars and their respective supporters, which was eagerly reported in colonial Sydney's press until the 1850s. The stoush pursued through the media was itself commented on by the editors of the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, who in January 1835 wrote:

We perceive that the Rev Henry Carmichael has resigned his professorship in the Australian College … It is painful to perceive two of the clerical members of that institution exhibit an utter want of cordiality, and that, failing in a private reconciliation, both should deem it imperative to discuss their private grievances through the instrumentality of the public press. [5]

The Gazette was likely reflecting community concern that if the colonial city's two major educators were fighting so publicly, what then was the state of education for those who sought it?

Carmichael's new school, the Normal Institution, was established in Elizabeth Street opposite Hyde Park, and opened to students in January 1835. [6] The school operated as a boys' school for both day students and boarders, with fees differing accordingly. Carmichael set out his objectives for the school in advertisements in the newspapers, particularly the Sydney Gazette, which was one of his supporting voices. Carmichael wished to:

lay the foundations of an institution for promoting the business of education, which shall be altogether independent on the control of Clerical Umpireship, and unswayed by the narrow minded enactments of Party Spirit or Sectarian Influence. [7]

The school was also to act as a training ground for future teachers, with advanced pupils acting as teachers to more junior students in the school. The teachers produced by the institution would then be employable in the National School system that Governor Bourke was proposing. Based on the Irish School model, Bourke's National Schools would be government-owned and controlled, providing general education to all denominations, with professionally trained teachers, and religious teaching to be tailored to suit each denomination rather than being predominantly Anglican as existed already. [8]

As well as teaching reading, writing and arithmetic as part of its regular curriculum, the institute also taught modern and Oriental languages, portrait painting, drawing, dancing, gymnastics, fencing and military drill. And despite his opposition to the teaching of religious opinion in schools, Carmichael did include the study of religious knowledge, making students aware of the history of all religions. [9]

Although Carmichael continued to defend his new school, his aim to use it as a base for the training of teachers for the National School system proposed by Governor Bourke never came to fruition, because Bourke's scheme itself was defeated. While the Normal Institution continued to operate, Carmichael had lost much of his enthusiasm for it and handed the management of the school over to his assistant Henry Gordon in 1838. The school continued to operate from its original site until the building was sold in 1849 and moved to King Street east under the direction of Reverend Thomas Aitken, until it finally closed in the mid-1850s. [10]

The Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts

While he was still employed by Lang's Australian College, Carmichael's mind was already turning to the establishment of another educational facility in Sydney, the Mechanics' School of Arts.

The School of Arts movement had begun in Edinburgh in 1821, with a school opened to give the mechanics and artisans of the city both practical and technical education. Within a decade, schools of arts had been established across England and had spread to Canada and the United States.

On the voyage to Sydney on board the Stirling Castle in 1831, Carmichael was engaged in teaching the artisans and mechanics that Reverend Lang brought out to build his new Australian College. As Carmichael himself later noted, one of the mechanics had a copy of the Elements of Algebra and Geometry used in the Edinburgh School of Arts, as well as a series of other texts and pamphlets on arithmetic and related topics. Taking these books as text books for his classes, Carmichael taught five days a week on the voyage on subjects deemed necessary for those carpenters, engineers, stonemasons and cabinetmakers on board. [11]

Although not all were keen participants, enough interest was shown in a proposal to establish a Mechanics' Institute and Benefit Society on arrival in Sydney. Despite this promising beginning, the proposed institute was not established immediately, but delayed some 18 months.

In February 1833, Carmichael was approached by Governor Richard Bourke, seeking his opinion on the possibility of establishing a mechanics' institute in Sydney. Carmichael saw the opportunity for the creation of a much more comprehensive school than that envisaged on board the Stirling Castle, and one that could be run on principles learnt from Jeremy Bentham in London. [12]

The first meeting of interested parties was held at Carmichael's own house in March 1833, at which a provisional committee was formed to devise a set of regulations for the proposed Institute. On 22 March, the first public meeting to form a Mechanics' Institute was held, with approximately 200 in attendance. After a number of addresses and speeches, the meeting resolved to form the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, with the colony's Surveyor-General Major Thomas Mitchell elected as president of the school, the Reverend Henry Carmichael elected as vice-president, and the Governor as patron.

Carmichael delivered the introductory lecture in which he traced the origins of the formation of the Institute, set out its educational aims, addressed some of the criticisms and discussed the benefits that universal education would have on 'the mental and moral relationships of social life'. [13] Carmichael saw the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts as a place of learning for the adults and adolescents of Sydney, with cultural and intellectual enlightenment being pursued in library facilities, reading rooms, lectures and instruction classes.

Carmichael's enthusiasm as an administrator and lecturer was rewarded in the growth of the Mechanics' School during his tenure. However, the institute did not attract the mechanics or the adolescent audience he had hoped for. It was suggested that the lectures were too late for young people and too scientific for artisans. Rather it attracted a largely middle-class crowd of clerks, shopkeepers, merchants and professionals.

Interestingly, Carmichael often used the lectern to pursue topics he was particularly interested in, most notably the secularisation of colonial education as illustrated in Governor Bourke's National School agenda. Carmichael's zeal on the topic was such that in 1836 the School of Arts committee refused to allow him to speak on the subject. [14] This was at the same time when his disagreements with Lang over Lang's use of the Australian College to pursue his own sectarian views were being widely reported in the papers.

After the School of Arts

In 1838, after five years as vice-president, Carmichael retired from the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts and left Sydney altogether, moving to the Hunter Valley with his wife, where he worked as a government surveyor and planted vineyards on his property, Porphyry Point, near Seaham on the Williams River. Carmichael's success with winemaking meant his wines became well-known in the colony, and he became a prominent member of the Hunter River Vineyard Association, made up of a number of successful Hunter Valley settlers. [15]

Despite these new directions, Carmichael's interest in education remained undiminished. In the late 1830s he was considering establishing a school at his Porphyry Point estate, but the economic depression that hit the colony in 1840–41 meant instead that Carmichael was forced to return to Sydney to seek employment, taking on work as a tutor instructing in grammar and mathematics, especially in relation to their application to surveying and navigation.

In 1844 Carmichael was invited to present the opening lecture of the twelfth session of his beloved Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, and in doing so returned to his favourite subject, education in the colony. Carmichael's return to the public debate regarding education was met with enthusiasm in the local press, with one newspaper noting that

There are perhaps few individuals in the colony who have rendered such important services to the causes of public education as Mr Carmichael. The establishment of the Mechanics' School of Arts was of itself an aid of no trifling influence in the dissemination of useful knowledge; and we are glad to observe that Mr C. is at present endeavouring to raise the character and enlarge the sphere of usefulness of that institution. His views on the subject of education are therefore entitled to attention on the ground of services already rendered, and equally so from the earnestness, ability, and candour with which they are supported. [16]

His lecture, delivered on 3 June, was titled 'How shall education best be rendered universal?', and its content returned to his earlier assertions on the benefits of a national system for schooling, distanced from religious teaching as much as possible. Carmichael's lecture was aimed squarely at the approaching review of the colonial educational system, with a call for the adoption of the Normal School model under the sanction of the Legislative Council and Board of Education. [17]

Carmichael gave a second lecture at the School of Arts on 'Political Economy' before returning to his Hunter Valley property. He was soon back in Sydney, having been requested to present evidence at the select committee on education, but arrived too late to appear before the committee and instead had to satisfy himself with a written submission. This too was presented too late, and his views were left to be published in the pages of the Sydney Morning Herald, although he spoke widely at public meetings on the final report once it was published, including speaking engagements with the committee chairman, Robert Lowe. [18]

Returning to his Hunter Valley property, in October 1844 Carmichael advertised the opening of a new boarding school training students in agriculture as well as scholarship. Starting small with just four pupils, it was intended to be expanded with a further eight to be enrolled by Christmas. The college was still in operation in 1848.

Carmichael's aspirations for involvement in the wider education sphere continued into his later years. In 1849, while still operating his agricultural school, he applied to the Board of National Education for appointment as General Superintendent of National Schools in New South Wales. Although he was told that no such appointment was to be considered at that time, he was later passed over for the job by the employment of a much younger candidate, William Wilkins. Carmichael later offered his services in 1854, to help with the writing of a curriculum and to train schoolmasters, but he was again politely declined. [19] During this period he continued to promote education in the Hunter Valley: he was instrumental in the establishment of a National School at Seaham in 1849, and took an active role, including speaking, at the Maitland Mechanics' Institute through the 1850s.

In 1862 Carmichael decided to return to England for personal matters, and a farewell dinner was held at Clarence Town in May 1862. On 28 June 1862, Carmichael died at sea aboard the ship Light of the Age, a name perhaps fitting to describe Carmichael's own contribution to the advancement of education in colonial New South Wales.


[1] C Turney, Pioneers of Australian Education, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1969, p 62

[2] The Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser, 15 October 1831

[3] C Turney, Pioneers of Australian Education, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1969, p 62

[4] C Turney, Pioneers of Australian Education, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1969, p 62

[5] The Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser, 1 January 1835

[6] The Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser, 30 December 1834

[7] The Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser, 10 August 1835, p 3 and later dates

[8] Hazel King, 'Bourke, Sir Richard (1777–1855)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 1, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1966, pp 128–133

[9] C Turney, Pioneers of Australian Education, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1969, p 60

[10] Sydney Morning Herald, 6 December 1849

[11] C Turney, Pioneers of Australian Education, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1969, p 69

[12] H Carmichael, Introductory Lecture delivered at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, June 3, 1844, p 5

[13] H Carmichael, Introductory Lecture delivered at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, June 3, 1844, p 6

[14] C Turney, Pioneers of Australian Education, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1969, p 71

[15] C Turney, Pioneers of Australian Education, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1969, p 77

[16] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, Saturday 13 July 1844, p 1

[17] The Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, Saturday 13 July 1844, p 1

[18] C Turney, Pioneers of Australian Education, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1969, p 75

[19] C Turney, Pioneers of Australian Education, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1969, p 77