PEARSON, Charles Henry (1830-1894)


PEARSON, Charles Henry (1830-1894)
historian and statesman
was born in London on 7 September 1830. His father, the Rev. John Norman Pearson, M.A., was then principal of the Church Missionary College, Islington. His mother, Harriet Puller, was descended from the famous Lord Clarendon. There were 12 other children of the marriage, of whom two rose to be judges of the supreme court. Pearson's childhood was spent at Islington and Tunbridge Wells. He was a handsome and intelligent child who did not go to school until he was 12 years old. Until then his father was his tutor. At Rugby he at first did well, but later on, coming into conflict with one of the masters, he was withdrawn by his father and sent first to a private tutor and then to King's College, London, where he came under the influence of F. D. Maurice. In 1849 he matriculated at Oriel College, Oxford. His career at Oxford was successful scholastically, he was eminent as a speaker at the Union Society, and was associated with some of the most distinguished men of his period. He decided to study medicine, but two years later had a serious attack of pleurisy while on holiday in Ireland. He was long in recovering, and was strongly advised not to continue his studies and enter on the arduous life of a medical man.
In 1855 Pearson became lecturer in English language and literature at King's College, London, and shortly afterwards was given the professorship in modern history. The salary was not large, and Pearson did a good deal of writing for the Saturday Review, the Spectator, and other reviews. In 1862 he was editor of the National Review for a year. He travelled in Russia in 1858 and in 1863 spent some time in Poland. His health was not good and in the following year he took a trip to Australia, returning much the better for it. But his connexion with King's College and the press was broken and a fresh start was necessary. He continued working on his History of England during the Early and Middle Ages, an able work begun in 1861 and published in 1868. During a trip to the United States, in contrast with the earlier views of Dickens and others, he found "the well-bred American is generally pleasanter than a well-bred Englishman . . . I agree in an observation made to me by an Englishman that the American's great advantage over the Englishman is his greater modesty". On his return he devoted himself to what he regarded "as the best piece of historical work I have done, my maps of England in the first 13 centuries", which was eventually published in 1870. In 1869 he became lecturer on modern history at Trinity College, Cambridge, but found the work unsatisfactory. "My class was filled with men who were sent into it because it was known they could not succeed in any other subject. . . . At the same time the longing for the Australian bush came over me almost like homesickness as 1 walked out day by day along the dull roads and flat fields that surround Cambridge." His father had died some years before and he lost his mother in February 1871. Shortly afterwards he decided to make Australia his permanent home and combine a light literary life with farming. He arrived in South Australia in December 1871.
Pearson enjoyed the next three years on his farm at Haverhill, South Australia, and revelled in the hot dry conditions which suited his constitution. He married in December 1872 Edith Lucille, daughter of Philip Butler of Tickford Abbey, Buckinghamshire; unfortunately her health gave way and she became very ill, and, greatly to their regret, they had to give up their bush home. Pearson then accepted a position as lecturer in history at the university of Melbourne. His salary was not high and he decided to augment it by writing for the press. The Argus rejected his articles as being too radical, but The Age began to accept them and he became a valued contributor. He found, however, that his position at the university was not satisfactory, and decided to accept the position of headmaster of the newly formed Presbyterian Ladies College at a much increased salary. He was greatly interested in his new work, but after two and a half years, from 1875 to 1877, a section of the governing body objected to his views on the land question. He had advocated a progressive land tax in a public lecture, and thus incurred the wrath of the moneyed interests. It was these interests after all that supported the school, and Pearson decided to resign. The Liberal party of the period felt that here might be a valuable recruit and pressed Pearson to stand for parliament. He was afraid his health would not stand the strain, but accepted nomination, made a good fight, and was defeated. In May 1877 the Graham Berry (q.v.) government commissioned him to inquire into the state of education in the colony and the means of improving it. The report for which he received a fee of £1000 was completed in 1878. It was a valuable document, especially as he was the first to advocate the establishing of high schools to make a ladder for able children from the primary schools to the university. This found little favour at the time, and 30 years and more passed before this part of his scheme was fully developed. Another valuable part of the report dealt with technical education and foreshadowed the many technical schools since established in the state of Victoria.
On 7 June 1878 Pearson was returned as one of the members for Castlemaine and thus began his political career. Almost immediately he was plunged into the quarrel between the two houses which had arisen over Berry's appropriation bill. The government determined to try to obtain the consent of the home authorities to the limiting of the rights of the legislative council. In December 1878 Pearson was appointed a commissioner to proceed to London with the premier. The mission was not successful, the feeling being in that it was the business of both houses to settle questions of this kind themselves. In August 1880 Pearson became minister without salary or portfolio. On 4 July 1881 he declined the offer of agent-general in London believing that the administration was doomed, and on 9 July the cabinet resigned. He remained a private member until 18 February 1886 when he became minister of public instruction in the Gillies (q.v.)-Deakin (q.v.) coalition ministry, and in 1889 succeeded in passing an education act Which introduced important changes, but did not proceed far in the direction of technical education. It did, however, introduce the kindergarten system, and 200 scholarships of from £10 to £40 a year were established to help clever boys and girls to proceed from the primary schools to the grammar schools. In November 1890 the Gillies-Deakin government resigned and Pearson again became a private member. He took some interest in federation, but realizing its difficulties adopted a cautious attitude. He retired from parliament in April 1892 declining to stand for election again, and began to work seriously on his book, National Life and Character: a Forecast. His indifferent health may have been one of the reasons preventing him from being offered the agent-generalship. Like everyone else he had suffered heavy losses from the land boom and its after effects, and in August 1892 he left for England and accepted the secretaryship to the agent-general for Victoria. He worked hard and successfully, but though he did not complain, it must have been a great shock to him when he received a cablegram to say he was to be superannuated in June. He caught a chill in February which settled on his lungs, and died on 29 May 1894, leaving a widow and three daughters. Mrs Pearson was given a civil list pension of £100 a year in 1895.
Pearson's book, National Life and Character: a Forecast, had been published at the beginning of 1893, and created great interest. It can still be read with profit, and his views on the possible dangers of eastern races to European civilization have received much confirmation in the half century that has elapsed. Among his other publications not already mentioned were: Russia by a recent traveller (1859), Insurrection in Poland (1863), The Canoness: a Tale in Verse (1871), History of England in the Fourteenth Century (1876), Biographical Sketch of Henry John Stephen Smith (1894). A selection from his miscellaneous writings, Reviews and Critical Essays, was published in 1896, with an interesting memoir by his friend, Professor H. A. Strong (q.v.).
Pearson had a remarkable memory and a fine knowledge of the classic and modern European languages; he read Ibsen and Gogol in their original tongues. Slender in form he had the appearance of a scholar, but being of a shy disposition he found it difficult to be superficially genial. In his associations with his friends he was kindness itself, and his excellent sense of humour made him a delightful companion. Of his honesty it has been said "he was one of the small class of persons whose practical adhesion to their convictions is only made more resolute by its colliding with popular sentiment or with self-interest". His health was always uncertain, probably his sojourn in Australia prolonged his life. But the debt he owed Australia was more than repaid by the public services he rendered.
W. Stebbing, Charles Henry Pearson; H. A. Strong, Memoir prefixed to Reviews and Critical Essays; The Age, Melbourne, 4 and 6 June 1894.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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