Significant Tasmanian Women icon

Educationalist and Historical Researcher

Amy Rowntree(Amy teaching at the Elizabeth Street Practising School.
Photograph from the Journals and Papers of Parliament 1917
Reproduced courtesy of the Archives Office of Tasmania)

Francis Rowntree, son of Edward Casson Rowntree (a well known colonial architect), married Ann Maria Fearnley in 1877. Of their nine children, two of the girls would make a significant contribution to Tasmania in diverse fields. Amy, the elder of the two sisters, made major contributions in the fields of Tasmanian education and historical research, whilst Fearn (Frances Fearnley) became a well respected artist and historical writer. Amy never married.

Amy began her teaching career as a pupil teacher in 1902 at the age of seventeen. In the first two decades of Amy's career public education in Tasmania underwent significant reform and improvement, including a new system for training teachers. Amy was selected in 1907, along with Joseph Lyons (who went on to become Australian Prime Minister), to undertake further advanced training as a Senior Student at the Teachers College.

As part of the reforms separate infant departments were established for the first time under specially trained mistresses and this is where Amy chose to specialise. To further her experience in infant teaching Amy went to Sydney in 1912 to study specialist infant teaching under Miss Simpson, a highly regarded educationalist teaching at the Method School, Blackfriars College, in NSW.

Amy continued to be employed by the Tasmanian Department of Education throughout her two year training period in Sydney. She sent a number of progress reports to the then Director of Education, Mr McCoy, which are written in a style that strongly suggests she regarded Mr McCoy as her mentor and friend. Each of her handwritten reports were forwarded to Amy's father by Mr McCoy, with the request that they be returned after the family had read them.

It is from these reports that we gain a real sense of Amy's personality. When describing her initial impressions of Miss Simpson Amy says "… I think she is a magnificent woman. Unfortunately I feel quite shy with her, she makes me feel small mentally and morally when I am beside her". Despite Amy's initial awe and shyness she developed a close relationship built on respect with Miss Simpson and returned to Sydney in 1929 to farewell Miss Simpson when she retired. What is also obvious from the reports is Amy's love of working with young children, which she found very rewarding.

In Amy's report of 14 March 1912 from Sydney she reveals how much she misses her family to Mr McCoy and writes "Do you think Mr McCoy, that Frances [her younger sister Fearn, also a teacher] could come to Sydney in May?" Mr McCoy forwarded the letter on to Amy's family with a notation reading "Please return after reading. The request in regard to Frances would create a very awkward precedent."

In her report of 11 May 1912 Amy reveals her ambitions to Mr McCoy:

I don't want to be a second-rate arrangement, I want to be the very best, I want Tasmanian Ks [kindergartens] to be able to compare with any, but it will mean extensive reading and original thinking. Here the K students [teachers] are specially trained, they have lectures on English, Music, Drawing, Games, Methods etc."

In the same report Amy also reveals her sense of humour:

I am going to apply for a copy of my skill mark after Easter, and will forward it to you, but if it doesn't arrive you'll know it was unsatisfactory, and got accidently burned."

By 1913 Amy had almost completed her training in Sydney and received the following missive from Mr McCoy, which reveals his ambitions for Amy:

I would like to impress on you two points that were mentioned by me in our conversation in January.
(1) Get all the Certificates (including Art and Kindergarten certificates) that you possibly can.
(2) Make such notes as will enable you to give the necessary lectures under our Regulation 49(a) to students training for the position Infant Teacher.

By 1919 Amy had obtained her Bachelor of Arts with a First Class in Philosophy, and her Master of Arts in 1921 from the University of Tasmania. She had also obtained from Sydney her Certificate of Classification, and passed her University Education 1 and 2 exams with High Distinction. She was working as Mistress of Method at the Elizabeth Street Practising School in Hobart when she was appointed the first female Inspector of Schools in 1919.

Mr McCoy, as Director of Education, wrote the following to the Minister for Education outlining why Amy should receive the appointment:

Each year Miss Rowntree inspects all the Infant Departments and the larger schools where there are trained Infant Teachers, for the purpose of advising and encouraging them in the work. After 3 years experience of Miss Rowntree's inspections and careful consideration of the results thereof, I am satisfied that more efficient work would be attained and the position would be much more satisfactory to trained Infant Teachers and to the Department if Miss Rowntree were appointed Inspector with the powers defined in the Regulations.

There is no other woman teacher in the service with qualifications for this position approaching Miss Rowntree's. Apart from her high educational and professional qualifications she possesses sound judgement, tact, the faculty for inspiring others with her own zeal and enthusiasm for the work, a kindly manner, a good appearance and address and ability to assist others in solving their difficulties.

She was the only woman to hold the Department's highest professional certificate. She was paid £270-320 per annum as Mistress of Method and an additional £50-100 as Inspector.

Amy's appointment as Inspector was significant enough to merit a press release from the Minister for Education which included the comment, "… The Minister is of the opinion that this [inspections] will be better done if the work of the trained Infant Teachers is inspected by a competent woman rather than by a mere man."

Amy still held the position of Inspector of Schools in 1931, when it was suggested that, for reasons of economy, her position should be abolished. In a lengthy justification of why it should not, Amy wrote the following to the Director of Education:

This State was one of the first to recognise the necessity for special training for those who were to undertake the care of education of young children … the Tasmanian infant schools will compare favourably with those of any State or country I have seen. … Our aim throughout has been to free the child from the cramping thraldom of mass teaching, to encourage initiative, independence of thought and action, industry, self-control and self-direction.

She concluded with:

When I fail to carry out effectively that which you have given me to do I shall be prepared to hand my work on to those who follow but until someone else can do it better I trust you will allow it to remain in my hands.

The reply from the Director of Education was prompt:

I am fortified with the arguments for the retention of your position and I do not now anticipate any serious difficulty in dealing with attacks. In any case you should know how very highly your work is valued by me as Head of Department.

Her achievement in her chosen field is recorded in A History of Primary Education in Tasmania where Broadby states "A high standard of infant education was reached under the direction of Miss A. Rowntree." and by Phillips in Making More Adequate Provision: State Education in Tasmania, 1839-1985 who states that "… Amy was to become one of the most innovative and influential teachers in Tasmania over a period of many years." The standard set under the direction of Amy was reflected by a request that two Tasmanian trained infant teachers be allowed to spend a year in South Australia to assist in the reorganisation of infant schools in that state.

Amy retired from teaching in 1945, receiving the Order of the British Empire for her outstanding achievements in education in 1949.

After retirement Amy embarked on her next career, as a historical researcher and writer. She was meticulous in her research, often incorporating lively social history in her commentary. Her passion was for her immediate environment, Battery Point and Sandy Bay where she had grown up and continued to live. Dr W.L. Crowther lamenting the alteration and/or destruction of Georgian architecture in Tasmania in his foreword to Amy's book, The Early Settlement of Sandy Bay, encapsulates Amy's contribution to Tasmanian history:

Painfully aware of what is happening these two ladies [referring to Amy and her artist sister Fearn who illustrated Amy's books] have made it their vocation to collect data and records of what has been lost and to illustrate what might yet be saved.

Through the 1950s and early 1960s, until her death in 1962, Amy wrote several books and also produced a series of articles for the Saturday Evening Mercury on Tasmanian history. She was preparing a series of articles on the early history of Battery Point when she became seriously ill in 1961. Four were published before her death, with the remainder being finished by her sister Fearn and friends of the family.

Amy's contribution to Tasmanian history was not limited to published works. She was instrumental in the establishment of Narryna (Hampden Road, Battery Point) as a first class memorial folk museum. Peter Mercer writes in his history of Narryna:

In May 1955 the Government announced that a folk museum was to be established at Narryna to mark the sesquicentenary of Tasmania. The museum's mission would be to pay tribute to the courage and fortitude of Tasmania's pioneers.

The principal instigators were the three Rowntree sisters Amy, Fearn and Milli, who had lived in Battery Point all their lives, and prominent Hobart physician and historian Dr W.E.L.H. (later Sir William) Crowther. Amy, a retired school teacher, had already written a history of Battery Point that was published in 1951 and Fearn, an accomplished artist, had a book of her sketches of early buildings published in 1953. Milli was the secretary of the Battery Point Progress Association. They arranged the lease of the house from the Government by a newly constituted Board of Trustees that included Dr Crowther as chairman, Amy Rowntree as honorary secretary, businessman Sir Geoffrey Walch, educator Dr Wilfred Teniswood, Alderman Mabel Miller, MHA, solicitor F.C. Wolfhagen, architect I.G. Anderson, and maritime historian Captain Harry O'May.

The Narryna Museum opened in 1957 and contains a wonderful collection of items, including a beautiful inlaid Sheraton tool chest, with tools, which was brought to Van Diemen's Land by Edward Casson Rowntree, the Rowntree sisters ancestor.

Amy's legacy to Tasmania is twofold. The development of a first class infant education system that put Tasmania at the forefront of early childhood education in Australia, and a body of written work that enriches our knowledge of Tasmanian history and architecture.

Her obituary can be found in the Mercury newspaper 5 March 1962, p.8

Amy Rowntree bibliography :


Battery Point: today and yesterday, 1951

Battery Point: today and yesterday: with appendices on Anglesea Barracks, 1952

The Dream come true: a short history of Christ College, 1961

The early settlement of Sandy Bay, 1959.

The history of Parliament House, 1956

James Kelly: typed notes, 1956

Places of historic interest in and around Hobart, 19?

The Story of Government House, Tasmania, 1960

The story of Westella, 19?

[The Friends of the Library, Launceston, listed Battery Point: today and yesterday in their 101 Important Tasmanian Books, a Centenary of Federation project].

Articles for the Saturday Evening Mercury

Amy wrote over 67 articles for the Saturday Evening Mercury from 1956-1962. Her subjects included historical buildings and pioneering individuals and families.

References :

All original comments attributed to Amy and Mr McCoy sourced from documents held in the Archives Office of Tasmania.

Broadby, F.M., A history of primary education in Tasmania, [Hobart: Education Department, 1982?]

Mercer, Peter, Narryna Heritage Museum: Built for a Merchant: the History of a Colonial Gentleman's Residence, Hobart: Narryna Heritage Museum, 2002.

Phillips, Derek, Making a More Adequate Provision: State Education in Tasmania, 1839-1985, Hobart: Tasmanian Government Printer, 1985.

Veale, Veda, Women to Remember, Launceston: [The Author], 1981?

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