The gift of education

By Dr Julia Horne and Professor Geoffrey Sherington (BA ’67)


In an extract from an intriguing new book on the University’s history, an early benefactor heralds a different form of philanthropy.

For the University’s first 100 years, the ingrained expectation was that as a public institution it would enjoy support from both Government and public-spirited citizens, a joint exercise in civic responsibility.

The idea of giving money to the University of Sydney broke previous notions of colonial middle-class philanthropy as a religious obligation where one served one’s church by tackling poverty or by providing for poor scholars.

The act of giving to institutions such as universities was a civic duty, not so much bound by a personal relationship with God, but an act of faith in public institutions ...

As one of the first significant public institutions in New South Wales, the University of Sydney helped to shape this new relationship between the colonial government and the public, with private benefaction continuing as a crucial element. The act of “giving” to such institutions was a civic duty, not so much bound by a personal relationship with God, as in charitable giving, but an act of faith in public institutions as important building blocks for the advancement of society. Private benefactors and governments were partners in funding such endeavours, and benefactors, by lending their names, could be seen to believe in their worth and usefulness.

It was no surprise, then, that in 1853, only a few months after the admission of the first students, a benefactor drew up an endowment agreement with the University. Though not the University’s first benefaction (which had been inherited from the defunct Sydney College), Thomas Barker’s gift of £1000 held great symbolic significance. The interest alone earned from this endowment was enough to fund a student scholarship awarded on examination results that was relatively generous by mid-19th century standards. But its symbolism went far deeper by signifying the meritocratic purpose of the new University.

Thomas Barker was born in England, orphaned at nine years, and arrived in 1813 in New South Wales at 14 years with his guardian, the engineer and manufacturer John Dickson. Born into England’s growing urban middle classes but with no private estate to sustain him, Barker had to earn his way and so was articled to Dickson to train as an engineer. A free settler, he received a land grant of some hundreds of acres near Yass, and by his late 20s he was soon earning enough money to consider the gains he might make through commercial investment. With entrepreneurial flair, he built several large windmills and, in partnership with others, established a millwright business to help break what he saw as a “flagrant … monopoly” in flour milling. He did not live modestly, early on acquiring a large estate at Darling Point where he built Roslyn Hall, said to be “more like a palace than a private house”.

Strong Scottish connections

Thomas Barker

Thomas Barker, 1873

Though born in England, he had strong Scottish connections: his guardian was a Scotsman who migrated to England, and probably his parents were also. In 1840, the citizens of Edinburgh presented him with a silver tray, two matching claret jugs and coasters “in testimony of their esteem for his character, and their admiration of his public usefulness in promoting the welfare of all classes of Scottish emigrants, and the prosperity of the important Colony of New South Wales”. By the late 1840s, when he built a cloth mill, he was an established and wealthy industrialist with vast agricultural interests.

He obviously enjoyed his role as a leading citizen, participating in early debates about elementary and higher education, serving in honorary capacities on various boards, including the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, and participating in various charitable institutions such as the Sydney Bethel Union, and, with his wife, the Female Refuge Society. He served several terms as a member of the New South Wales Parliament in the 1850s, during the politically charged atmosphere of establishing self-government.

Around this period, having been widowed, he remarried and applied for a coat of arms, a declaration of high status and a move probably designed to consolidate his reputation as a gentleman. Whether this was an example of what the British historian of philanthropy Brian Harrison calls the “philanthropic importance of snobbery” – the acquisition of social status through philanthropy – it was certainly a display intended to impress the local citizens. The University endowment was named after him, which prompted the following note from Charles Nicholson: “To be remembered and honoured by the youth of succeeding generations in these colonies will be the certain and well-merited reward that will flow from the endowment with which your name will be associated.”

Thomas Barker was a benefactor who in many ways conformed to the requirements of mid-19th century colonial philanthropy: male, a Protestant, who having made his fortune, determined to spend some of his time and wealth to improve the social condition of the colony by actively participating in charitable organisations. But we also see in Barker a new type of colonial benefactor, one who was prepared to give money to a public institution. He mixed in some of the same circles as the founders of the University, though he himself was not University-educated. Through these connections he was probably introduced to Sir Charles Nicholson, the University’s first vice-provost, who spent much time in its first decade promoting the virtues of the local university and seeking philanthropic support for its endeavours.

Nicholson approached Barker, it seems privately, about endowing a scholarship. Barker replied in a letter, dated 1 January 1853, which gives the only account of his reasons for funding the scholarship. Barker wrote of the “easy attainment of wealth” in New South Wales and his belief in the “superior cultivation of the mind” as a counterpoint to the influence of “those sordid feelings which the rapid acquisition of wealth is too apt to generate”. Perhaps Barker spoke from experience as someone who had acquired wealth relatively easily, yet without the opportunity to attend university and benefit from the “superior cultivation of the mind”. Perhaps he felt the weight of experience from personal “sordid feelings”. Young minds exposed to higher learning, Barker was suggesting, helped provide a moral barrier to the behavioural excesses associated with the rapid rise of the industrial classes, and this, he believed, would be to the good of the colony.

Allure of higher education

Barker’s own social background, rooted in Britain’s new urban, commercial classes, illustrated the enthusiasm of a class deprived of higher education. When Barker disembarked in Sydney in 1813, he had left behind him a society where someone of his social position was unlikely to be admitted to an English university without the support and favour of a patron. By the time he drew up the deed of agreement with the University of Sydney in 1853, English dons were arguing for university reforms in admitting students. The University of London had also been established to cater for the sons of the middle classes, including dissenters, for whom university previously was not considered an option or a necessary prerequisite to make one’s way. Half a world away, Barker’s endowment to the University of Sydney indicated support from the self-made middle classes for an institution they hoped would be relevant to their needs and sustain civic ideals of an educated citizenry, with local university-educated men the new leaders in all colonial walks of life.

Barker’s social background provides one way of reading the symbolism of this early endowment as support from social classes with little, if any, personal experience of universities. But there is also the symbolic relevance of what Barker endowed — a scholarship. The scholarship was for proficiency in “Mathematical and Physical science”, indicating a preference for subjects most relevant to his original training as an engineer. But the real significance of this endowment was that it served a purpose held dear by the University’s founders: to offer opportunities through the award of scholarships on academic merit, according to William Charles Wentworth, “to the child of every class to become great and useful in the destinies of his country”.

First known image of University of Sydney students

The first-known photograph of University of Sydney students and staff, taken between 1857 and 1859. Attributed to Professor John Smith.