Students at the University of Sydney

The first 24 students


"Under the peculiar circumstances of the colony, it was judged expedient to establish at first, the Faculty of Arts alone, before attempting those which are specially devoted to the professions of Medicine and Law." So states the preface to 1856 University Calendar.

Thus the Faculty of Arts was the first and only Faculty of the University of Sydney in 1852.

The first students were the 24 candidates who were successful in the matriculation examinations held on 4 October 1852, were presented for matriculation at the inauguration ceremony on 11 October and began lectures for a Bachelor of Arts degree along with a number of non-matriculants in a building of the former Sydney College in College Street. As women were not admitted until 1881, they were all male students.

Read below about:



On 4 October 1852, Michaelmas (first) term, following the British model, and the first matriculation examinations commenced.

The subjects were:

  • Greek – the 6th book of Homer’s Iliad and the 1st book of Xenophon’s Anabasis
  • Latin – the 1st book of Virgil’s Aeneid, and the Bellum Catilinae of Sallust
  • Arithmetic, Algebra, including simple equations, and the first book of Euclid.

View the Matriculation Examination papers.

The 24 matriculants

The 24 candidates listed below were successful in the matriculation exams:

William Charles Windeyer   David Scott Mitchell  
William Charles Windeyer,
photo, University of Sydney Archives.
David Scott Mitchell in 1864, 
8 years after he graduated BA,
photo, Mitchell Library,
State Library of NSW,
Digital order number: a928383

The matriculation ceremony

The first matriculation ceremony was held on Monday, 11 October 1852 and was combined with the inauguration of the University. It was held in the Hall of the premises of the University in College Street, Hyde Park, now Sydney Grammar School.

To one spectator, Mrs Elizabeth Pell, mother of Professor Pell, the matriculants looked 'an awkward squad of half-grown youths dressed in their new caps and gowns'.

First came the ceremony of registering the names of the matriculated students. Professor Smith presented each matriculant to the Registrar, William Louis Hutton, who entered their names in the matriculation register, the first being Fitzwilliam Wentworth.

The first matriculation register

The first matriculation register, University of Sydney Archives.

At one o'clock, the procession of those who were to take part in the official inauguration proceedings entered the Hall, with the band of Her Majesty’s 11th Regiment playing the National Anthem. The Vice-Provost, Sir Charles Nicholson, conducted the Governor-General to the state chair placed for him in the centre of the dais, at the north end of the Hall.

Matriculation ceremony and inauguration of the University

The colourised version of the wood engraving of the inauguration ceremony in the "Illustrated London News", 29 January 1853 (nla.pic-an8416192) is courtesy, National Library of Australia. The matriculation ceremony formed part of this ceremony.

Following an address by the Vice-Provost, Professor Smith (officiating as Proctor) then presented the 24 matriculants to the Vice-Provost and Senate, testifying (in Latin) that they had satisfied the examiners in the subjects of humanities, mathematics and physics and that they were thought worthy to be reckoned among the university community.

The matriculants then took the prescribed oath in Latin: 'I ... promise faithfully to this University to devote care and application to the study of those teachings which are set forth to me by the authority of the Senate, and also to show due propriety and respect towards the Provost, Vice-Provost, teaching staff and others in authority, and conscientiously to observe whatever laws, ordinances and regulations have been sanctioned either by them or by their authority'.

This promise was made in full only by the matriculant designated as the senior candidate, after which Professor Pell asked the remaining candidates to promise the same. They apparently all replied together by saying merely 'Spondeo - I promise faithfully'.

The matriculation ceremony ended with the Vice-Provost declaring ( in Latin) the candidates admitted: 'To the success and prosperity of yourselves and the University, your mother, I, by my authority and that of the Senate, decalre you to be members of the University of Sydney, and to be lawfully enrolled in that Institution on the condition and understanding that you scrupulously observe the promise that you have given this day. I commend your characted and your scholarship; be steadfast in the pursuit of good. So mau God bless your studies and your efforts.'

[Note: Latin was used for matriculation and conferring of degrees ceremonies until 1869.]


The subjects

Senate insisted on classics and mathematics as the staple of undergraduate education, in the tradition of Oxford, Cambridge and London Universities, together with some chemistry and experimental physics.

The 1852 University Bylaws specified that, 'For the present, instruction shall be confined to the following departments of knowledge:

  • 1. The Greek and Latin languages, with Greek and Roman History.
  • 2. Mathematics pure and mixed.
  • 3. Chemistry and Experimental Philosophy.'
The professors

The Professors of the University - Classics, Mathematics, and Chemistry - were selected in England, and arrived in Sydney with their families in July and September 1852. They were:

  • Professor Morris Pell - the new Professor of Mathematics
  • Dr John Smith - the new Professor of Chemistry
  • the Rev Dr John Woolley - the new Principal of the University and Professor of Classics
Professor Morris Pell  Dr John Smith  The Rev Dr John Woolley 
Professor Morris Pell,
photo, University of
Sydney Archives
Dr John Smith, photo,
University of Sydney
The Rev Dr John
Woolley, photo
G3_224_0244 (taken
in 1860), University of
Sydney Archives

The first lectures

Lectures for a Bachelor of Arts degree began on 12 October 1852, with the 24 matriculants, a number of non-matriculants and the first three Professors using a building of the former Sydney College in College Street.

Lectures for the regular degee courses were from 9.00am to 1.00pm from Monday to Saturday. Evening classes were also held, largely for the convenience of non-matriculated students. The numbers attending evening classes soon declined, however, and ceased after two terms.

On 13 October 1852, Professor Pell gave the first lecture in Mathematics to all 24 students of the University. A student, W C Windeyer, later to become Chancellor of the University, wrote in his diary: "Went to a lecture at 10 with Mr Pell, who amused as well as instructed, think I shall like him ...".

Dr Woolley commented on the first matriculants: "The state of knowledge with regard to the elements of grammar I find to be such amongst the undergraduates as to demand an almost exclusive attention to remedial teaching for some time."

Extract from a letter from William Charles Windeyer to his mother 25 November 1852

In a letter to his mother dated 25 November 1852, William Charles Windeyer (one of the first matriculants) writes: "My dear Mother, I have just come home from the University after having a most delightful conversation with Dr Woolley, he is a splendid man. We were talking about the Kings School among other things ... He is a soul man, a romantic I think, knows the way to sway young people. I talk to him just as if I had known him for years ….", University of Sydney Archives.

A number of non-matriculated students also attended lectures.


Scholarship examinations

Examinations for University Scholarships for general proficiency took place each December and the winners were given the title 'Scholar'. Various other scholarships followed.

Annual class examinations

Examinations of the Professors' classes were held once a year, during the last fortnight of Trinity Term (in August). No student was to absent himself from these examinations, except under medical certificate.

The first BA examination

Completion of the academic course was at the end of the third term (August) of the third year. To obtain the ordinary degree of BA, the candidate needed to pass a satisfactory examination in Classics, Mathematics, Chemistry, Natural Philosophy and Logic. The BA exams were held in December.

The first BA examination began on 30 November 1855.
View the examination papers for the BA.

At a meeting of the Senate held on Saturday 13 December 1855, the exam BA and yearly class exam results were declared by the Vice-Provost. The following candidates from the original cohort of 24 had satisfied the examiners for the degree of Bachelor of Arts, and they graduated at the ceremony held on 18 February 1856:

Graduating Bachelor of Arts

18 February 1856

Degrees were for the first time conferred by the University at the 'Encoenia' held on 18 February 1856, 'decidedly the most oppressive day we have experienced this summer, a not wind prevailing with unwonted intensity' ... Even so, the hall was crowded with visitors of every class, all of whom seemed to take a deep interest in the proceedings' (SMH). The formal proceedings were in Latin.
Read about the ceremony.

The following seven undergraduates from the original cohort, having attended Lectures and otherwise complied with the Regulations of the University during the prescribed period of three years, and having satisfactorily passed the required examination, were admitted as Bachelors of Arts:

20 April 1857

The next ceremony was held in the Hall of Sydney College on 20 April 1857.

Those on whom the degree of Bachelor of Arts was conferred included the following from the original cohort who passed the examination for the degree of Bachelor of Arts in December 1856:

Graduating Master of Arts

18 July 1859

Eight of the original cohort graduated Master of Arts at the ceremony held on 18 July 1859 - the first held in the newly completed Great Hall in the Quadrangle.
Read about the ceremony.

They were:

Great Hall 1859

The Great Hall, with the caption "Sydney University Hall - in commemoration of the grand festival at the opening of the Sydney University - the 18th of July 1859", albumen paper photograph by William Blackwood (1824 - 1897), with the kind permission of the Josef Lebovic Gallery.

Alexander Oliver later graduated MA in 1869

Alexander Oliver did not complete his studies at this time, but later graduated Master of Arts from the University of Sydney in 1869.