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Dr Corrigan and the Education Act 1872

Wesley’s first Headmaster Dr James Corrigan. Wood engraving by Samuel Calvert (1828-1913), from a photograph by George W Perry, published in ‘The Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers’ Courtesy, State Library of Victoria

December 2022 is the 150th anniversary of the Education Act 1872. This legislation made Victoria the first Australian colony (and one of the first jurisdictions in the world) to offer free, secular and compulsory education for its children.

James Corrigan, an Irishman and the first Headmaster of Wesley College on its commencement in 1866, played an important role in building the foundation of this legislation. In 1862, through the Common Schools Act, the Victorian Parliament created a single Board of Education to control Victoria’s primary schools. However, in late 1866 the government, concerned about the continued funding of religious schools, established a Royal Commission on education to examine the question of church-state relations.

As a recognised educationist, Corrigan was appointed to the Royal Commission denominational schools, he believed that religion had a place in education and supported the final compromise recommended by the commission, which allowed for religious instruction based on a 'common Christianity' in the government schools.

However, a bill introduced into State Parliament in May 1867 failed to win sufficient political support and was withdrawn. Later that year, Corrigan was appointed to the Board of Education. He became its Chairman in October 1870 and held this position while continuing his role as Wesley’s headmaster.

Corrigan fell ill suddenly at the end of 1870, but refusing to rest, he collapsed while working at the offices of the Board of Education and died of rheumatic fever at his St Kilda home on 7 January 1871. He was only 47 years old. His death was a great shock to the school and the wider Melbourne community.

The political situation changed during 1872 and the reforming Education Act 1872 was finally passed in December.

Contributed by Philip Powell (OW1973), author, historian, former Vice President of Council, honorary Fellow of Wesley College and regular contributor to Lion magazine.

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