A travelling legacy: Charles Badham's pursuit of equitable education

19 September 2023
The belief in education for all
When Reverend Charles Badham joined the University of Sydney in 1867, he travelled throughout the colonies calling for donors to support bursaries. More than 150 years later, his dedication has established a tradition of giving that continues today.

Image courtesy of the University of Sydney Archives, G3_224_1625

Charles Badham, the University of Sydney’s second Professor of Classics, believed that the University should be equitable for all. His journey in pursuit of equity was a colourful one, which involved travelling to country areas, seeking donors to support student bursaries; and even revolutionary ideas around remote learning and evening classes.

When Reverend Charles Badham took up his position of Professor of Classics and Logic at the University of Sydney in 1867, academic scholarships were already available to students. However, those who lived in rural areas were often unable to afford accommodation and living expenses in Sydney, even if they had been granted a scholarship.

During 1875 and 1876, Rev Professor Badham travelled throughout the colonies and held public meetings, calling for donors to support bursaries for country students. His aim was to open up access to a university education, particularly for those students who had been denied the possibility of attending, due to geographical distance, financial or personal circumstances.

“This University is not only for those who have private means or professional connections to start them; it is founded for the people,” he reiterated over the years.

Although he did his best to encourage people in rural areas to do what he saw as their civic duty, early bursaries at the University were in fact established by donors in Sydney. The first bursary was endowed by Mrs Isabella Alexander in 1874, with £1000 in honour of her late husband, Maurice Alexander, who had arrived in Sydney at the age of 14 “without a shilling in his pocket”. He went on to become a respected businessman and Member of the NSW Legislative Assembly for Goulburn for 12 years.

In 1881, merchant banker and politician, Thomas Walker, became the first to provide bursaries for women, with Mary Elizabeth Brown and Isola Florence Thompson commencing their studies the next year. They were also the first women to graduate from the University of Sydney three years later.

Brown was often at the top of her class in Classics, Mathematics, Natural Science, and Chemistry. After graduating, she became a teacher at Brisbane Girls Grammar School. When her sister died, leaving seven children (the youngest only one week old), she helped to care for them. In 1908, she followed her missionary father back to England, helping him to write his autobiography. Thompson also became a teacher, employed by Sydney Girls High School. In addition, she continued her studies at the University, graduating with a Master of Arts in 1887, the first woman to achieve this higher degree.

Rev Professor Badham’s interest in supporting the welfare of students who were unable to attend lectures also led to him to implement a form of remote learning. “My scheme of education by post,” as he called it, which saw him correcting exercises in Greek, Latin, German and French.

Just before he died, he wrote to The Sydney Morning Herald, suggesting that the University should hold evening lectures for those who were unable to attend during the day. This proposal was then accepted by the University Senate and implemented not long after his death in February 1884.

By that time, 14 bursaries had been established and around 30 students had benefitted, in just over eight years. Charles Badham’s hope was that others would carry on what he had started – and around 150 years later, his work remains the foundation for the University of Sydney’s commitment to make its education available to all.

Written by Cassandra Hill for Sydney Alumni Magazine

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