Adelaide's Dissenting Headmaster, John Lorenzo Young

Adelaide's Dissenting Headmaster

John Lorenzo Young and his Premier Private School


Adelaide's Dissenting Headmaster
John Lorenzo Young and his Premier Private School

by Diana Chessell


Not all miners were Cornish and not all Cornish were miners. Migrants from Cornwall have made substantial contributions to many other facets of South Australia and its history. One that has been overlooked is that of early education. It was only the chance discovery of some 50 signatures, in 2005, on the walls of an old schoolhouse at Parkside that set Diana Chessell on a long and extensive, but also meticulous research path, to archives in Adelaide, Cornwall and Scotland.

To find out the real and human story behind the signatures she also conducted numerous interviews with descendants of those who signed their names on that wall. As it turned out the signatures were those of the last students of Cornish headmaster John Lorenzo Young when his school doors closed for the last time in 1880. By that time some 1600 students had been educated by him and his teachers.

Many of his students would eventually become prominent South Australians in all walks of life. They would be found among explorers, doctors, politicians, architects, educators, mayors, bank managers, pastoralists, clergymen and surveyors. In this documentary history Chessell has been able to highlight the extraordinary impact Young and his students had on early South Australia.

John Lorenzo Young, born 30 May 1826, was the son of Cornish building contractor John Tonkin Young of St Ives and Lucy Blisset of London. At the age of 12 John was educated in France followed by two years in Germany and finally at King’s College at the University of London in 1843. He became a brilliant and creative teacher and a graduate in the sciences of the enlightenment. He arrived in Adelaide on 31 October 1850. Within two years he taught these new sciences to the sons of Adelaide’s dissenting majority.

After a short, and unsuccessful, trip to the Victorian goldfields John Lorenzo Young established his own school, the Adelaide Educational Institute, at Ebenezer Place in August 1852. For most of its time it was the premier private school for dissenters in Adelaide and attended by the sons of South Australia’s elite families, many of whom would later have eminent and successful careers which had a lasting impact on the colony and later state.

Young’s scientifically based but unorthodox, dissenting education in a school established only 16 years after white settlement had a life-changing impact on his students who eventually became leaders in agriculture, banking, law, mining, health, politics and public service. On its first day the school had six students on its roll. By October it had increased to twenty.

With student numbers rapidly increasing Young opened a new school building in January 1853 on the corner of North Terrace and Stephens Place. Among its new students were four sons of William Giles. Young’s educational philosophy and policy obviously had the approval from dissenters and those parents of Cornish, Irish, German, Scottish and Dutch background. Young established a non-denominational and egalitarian culture.

He only employed highly qualified teachers but no pupil teachers as was the tradition in English and Australian schools as late as the twentieth century. Young’s unorthodox but science based curriculum was delivered with an innovative teaching practice. He lectures were really debates encouraging rational thinking and acute observation. It gave intellectual stimulus and scientific knowledge. He rejected rote learning and was against uniforms, punishment and religious instruction. Students were free to choose a number of their subjects.

Young’s philosophy of learning reflected the Lutheran tradition in which he was educated while in Germany where he was also exposed to much geology, geography and field observation. His intellectual knowledge of the fast developing new sciences of the early nineteenth century combined with his unorthodox teaching practices soon earned him the title of ‘Adelaide’s Dissenting Headmaster’.

By the end of 1853 as many as 96 students were enrolled. Among them were Charles Kingston, later Sir Charles, Alexander Tolmer’s son, Joseph Cooke Verco, later Sir Joseph, three sons of Dr William Gosse, sons of Edgar Smith Wigg, sons of John Barton Hack, sons of Benjamin Herschell Babbage, William Oswald Whitridge, the father of cricket in South Australia, James Frew companion of John McDouall Stuart and the son of Rev. Henry Cheetham of Burra.

On 24 October 1855 Young married Martha Paynter Young who had arrived a few days earlier from St Ives, Cornwall. Early in 1856 Young moved his school further along Stephens Place and it was now the largest private independent school in South Australia. Progress reports were given monthly and examinations held twice a year.

In 1859 the Young family left for a private visit to England and Cornwall. Before leaving he was handed the Presentation Scroll listing the names of 132 students including the names of 34 old scholars. During his absence the school was managed by H.C. Palmer. After his return in 1861 nine science subjects were taught, most of them by Young, many of which involved field based teaching and excursions.

His aim was to awaken the enthusiasm of his students and cause them to love study for its own sake. He treated his students as reasonable and reasoning young adults and spoke gently and with respect to them. He encouraged reason, debate and moral behaviour. He gave all students a choice of subjects, training them to take notes and then to hand in individually prepared essays on a theme of their choice. He certainly was years ahead of his time.

Chessell summarised Young‘s teaching as revealing a man who strongly believed in an experiential and interactive style of teaching. His methods identify him as Adelaide’s most enlightened teacher. His role became doubly significant as he was educating the future leaders of South Australia.

In 1861 Young bought a large property at Parkside for his growing family and advertised that he was prepared to receive boarders from 3 April. Some of the boarders included sons from the Berwick, Warmington, Cotter and Young families.

After the successful crossing of Australia by John McDouall Stuart a Victory Dinner was given at the school on 30 January 1863. After all, several of Stuart’s party were old scholars of Young’s Adelaide Educational Institute. They were Auld, Frew and King. Among the guests was John William Billiatt, the youngest member of Stuart’s team. He congratulated Young on his pupils and said that it was a great mistake to send children home (to England) to be educated when there were schools such as his in the colony.

During 1867 Young’s school moved from Stephens Place to Freeman Street into the old Congregational Chapel. The move was also a very public statement regarding his endorsement by the Congregationalists and other dissenting leaders. When in 1868 he was summoned to give evidence before a select committee, chaired by Alexander Hay to report on a system of education, Young stated that he did not believe in government interference, as it would destroy the independence of the people.

The Freeman Street Chapel was used until the end of 1871 when once again, with as many as 150 students, it had become too small. This time it was moved to Young Street in Parkside where he lived and operated the boarding school. The new school house was designed by Edmund Wright, one of the colony’s most prestigious architects. Young was now able to control the boy’s environment, curriculum, class size and school culture.

The move resulted in a decreasing number of new enrolments and the transfer of enrolled students to Prince Alfred College, opened in 1869 and supported by the Wesleyans. They had been Young’s biggest support group. However there were still many sons enrolled of wealthy dissenters. Other reasons for the falling enrolments could have been overcapitalisation, the very high school fees and the opening of the University of Adelaide in 1874. It required Latin and Greek, something not encouraged at Young’s school.

Whatever they may have been, Young found the constant labour of teaching and managing the combined school and boarding house impacting on his health. After nearly 30 years of teaching some 1600 students he decided to retire and take his family to Cornwall for an extended holiday.

He never saw Cornwall as he died on 26 July 1881 on board ship after a few days of illness. He was only 55 but had achieved a lot. One outstanding achievement few people are aware of is the fact that it was Young with four of his colleagues who founded the Adelaide Philosophical Society at his house on 10 January 1853. It later was renamed the Royal Society of South Australia.

As a leading educator of early South Australia he donated money for two scholarships to the University of Adelaide. The first JL Young scholarship was awarded in 1923 to Joseph Garnett Wood of Mitcham who later became Professor of Botany and President of the Royal Society. Sadly some of the more recent recipients knew nothing of the man or his achievements.

No wonder Jane Lomax-Smith, former Lord Mayor of Adelaide, stated that ‘Somehow Adelaide’s particularly remarkable early development with reformist zeal, proud independence and dissenting spirit has become a victim of collective civic amnesia’. Fortunately, ‘Diana Chessell has unravelled the lineages and linkages of the intellectual forces running through the story of our community’.

Adelaide’s Dissenting Headmaster, the first published biography of JL Young and his work, includes not only Young’s story of success but also 230 small biographies of his stellar and stalwart students, teachers and mentors, a school register, original photographs and maps locating the six sites of the school in the city and at Parkside. Together they illuminate Adelaide’s early character as it moved from fish oil to gas lamps to electricity, engineered and built by his students.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Adelaide's Dissenting Headmaster, by Diana Chessell
PB 364 pages with references, index, bibliography, illustrations
and appendices, is available at $34.95 from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455


If you would like to find out more,
please go to HOME PAGE for more information.
Thank you for visiting Flinders Ranges Research,
We hope you enjoy your stay and find the information useful.
This site has been designed and is maintained by FRR.