WG Torr, the Teacher

William George Torr

Dr WG Torr, BA, MA, BCL, LLB, LLD, Distinguished Scholar, Barrister, Missionary, Evangelist, Scientist, Teacher, Author, Social Commentator, Conchologist and Lawn-bowler.

William George Torr was born on 26 May 1853 in Tavistock, Devonshire, England. He was the fourth son of illiterate parents John Torr, a miner, and his wife Ann Montrose Torr, nee Green. The family emigrated to Burra, South Australia, where there would be plenty of work available. They arrived on the Hooghly on 19 April 1855. William attended Sunday School held in a stable at Redruth which was conducted by Benjamin Preece. He started school at Burra and among his teachers were Augustus Highmoor Forder and James Bennetts.

Forder would follow many of the Burra miners to the Victorian goldfields but returned with little to show for. Meanwhile William would listen from the corner of his father's pew in the old Burra Chapel to scores of sermons. He attended revival services, such as only the Cornish Burra folk knew how to revel in.

In 1918 William would write that he had set at Forder's feet and learnt his lessons. After Forder's return from Victoria William assisted him when he was clerk at the Redruth Court. Forder would eventually move to Laura where he died at his son's residence, on 15 September 1917, age 87. He left 5 sons and 3 daughters.

Although William's parents couldn't read or write they made sure William would have every opportunity that education could offer to succeed in life. The Torr family were members of the Bible Christian Church and very religious. John was one of the church members who laid the foundation stone for the Yongala Church in 1876. All his children, their spouses and his grandchildren were good Christians. Several settled, lived and died at Burra, Mintaro, Red Hill, Adelaide, Mitcham, Yongala and Cummins.

John Torr hoped that his son William would become a Bible Christian Minister, but William didn't think he 'was cut out that way'. William continued his education at the Stanley Grammar School in Watervale. Stanley Grammar was something special and the school fees were 30 pounds for a full year. It was opened in 1857 by JSC Cole who ran it for more than 50 years. During the 1869 examinations Peter McDougal was the star pupil.


Stanley Grammar School building started in 1863, still there during the 1930s. SLSA

Assisted by his two daughters, Alice and Jessie the school had as many as 60 boarders. Students must have been happy enough as they gave Master Cole a French clock for his 43th birthday in 1875. Among the students who attended, many became well-known in later years. They included Sir John Duncan, Sir Frederick Young, Sir David Gordon, Sidney Moody, TW Sobels, H Kidman, H Roach, RH Sewell, Paul Pascoe and Dr WG Torr. After a life time of teaching Cole died in October 1916, age 85.

At the age of 13 Torr started working at Samuel Drew & Co., the local shopkeepers, weighing up sugar and tea. When developing some health problems, it was decided that he should go to Tasmania where he worked for nearly two years on a station, belonging to Bowman Bros., late of Crystal Brook, at Mount Vernon.

Returning to South Australia in 1872, William decided to become a teacher. On 30 September he was granted a preliminary license, on the strength of a memorial signed by 31 people, but still subject to examinations at Christmas. He was appointed to the one-room, one-teacher Ulooloo Public School, which had another room for him to live in where he could lie in his bed admiring the stars through the gaps in the shingle roof. During that same time, he made his first attempt at preaching in a shepherd's hut at Cartarpoo, near Hallett and even as far away as Terowie.

The quality of his teaching was soon praised by Inspectors Dewhirst and Hosking. It was their encouragement which gave Torr his love for the teaching profession. While at Ulooloo, William passed the elementary examination under the old Board of Education. When on 7 August 1873 examinations of his 24 students were to be conducted at the school, neither Inspector nor examiners were present due to the inclement weather. William had to run the whole show by himself.

In February 1874 William bought some farming land, section 560 of 260 acres in the Hundred of Red Hill at one pound an acre. One wonders if he had plans to take up farming as one of his brothers had already done. A few months later, he asked the Board of Education if they would contribute 250 pounds to the cost of building a proper teacher residence. It was declined. Still, realizing the importance of the changes just being introduced into the education system of South Australia, William wrote to the Board again.

This time he wanted to know if he would be allowed to attend the training institution connected with the Model School in Grote Street. It would only be for a period of 6 months and could they appoint a teacher for the time he would be absent from Ulooloo as well. In January 1875 he informed the Board that he had found a replacement was willing to undertake his duties in his absence. This time the Board agreed with his requests.

It all worked out. He completed his observations and impressed everyone. When a room at the Model School was opened as a Practicing School, William was appointed Master on 13 March 1876. Master Torr was soon regarded as a strict disciplinarian, which he readily admitted. The following year he oversaw a new class intended to give a few student teachers experience in running a small country school. Here he could rely on his personal experience gained while at Ulooloo.

Although very busy he still found time to speak at a Temperance Campaign meeting at Alberton on 11 September 1876. On 17 August 1878 he attended a meeting which aimed to counteract the influence of the liquor trade. He seconded a motion against the repeal of the Nock Act, which enforced the closing of public houses on Sunday evenings. Thirty-five year later he was among those who successfully resisted to have a second liquor bar in Brighton.

On 30 March 1877 William Torr married Charlotte Chewings at Mintaro. She was born on 2 January 1854. Their first child was born at Whitmore Square on 17 January 1878. The newspaper notice stated that both were well. They were to have another five children but only two survived infancy, Leonie May Torr, born 16 September 1883 and Claude Montrose Torr born on 2 May 1885.


Torr and first wife Charlotte, 1880. SLSA

During his stay in Adelaide Torr also took Bible classes at the Bible Christian church in Young Street. He concentrated on his teaching and when it became known that the Moonta Mines School needed a headmaster he successfully applied for the position.

He would be missed by all who knew him and on 10 June 1878, at a meeting in the Bible Christian schoolroom in Young Street, he was presented with a handsome album, containing a neat address and photos of the scholars. Four days later the teachers and scholars of the Practicing School presented their Headmaster Torr with a tastefully illuminated address and two volumes of Cassell's Illustrated Natural History.

That same month an article in one of the local papers stated that the people of Moonta Mines were to be congratulated on having so efficient a teacher amongst them as Mr WG Torr who has lately been presented by some of his friends and scholars with testimonials, showing the great respect and esteem in which he is held.

On 1 July 1878 William Torr officially became Headmaster of the Moonta Mines School. During his time at Moonta more than a thousand students got to know him as a strict, but fair taskmaster. At the first examination of his students by the Board's Inspector, 98% of the pupils passed with a very high grade. Naturally this raised a few eyebrows and a departmental inquiry was held to find out the reason for the unusually high figure. It soon turned out that Master Torr had 'fiddled the books' just a little. Out of 810 students he had told some 500 to stay home that day as they had no chance of passing.

While at Moonta Mines Public School, Torr not only introduced Australian Rules football, he also gained his first-class certificate, kept up his church and community work and became a lay preacher as well. For several years Torr ruled and enforced his methods of teaching and discipline. Needless to say that not all students were happy with them. One of them was Edwin Hancock, son of Captain HR Hancock, manager of the Moonta mine for 34 years. When not getting his way, frustrated Edwin threw an inkbottle at Master Torr, which laid him out 'stone cold'.

Torr's father John died on 14 February 1884 knowing that his children, including William, had turned out alright, even though William hadn't become a minister. After his death, John's widow moved with the family to Mintaro and later Adelaide. Ann Montrose passed away at Parkside, on 13 July 1912 at the age of 98. She was survived by four sons and 3 daughters and more than 100 descendants.

A few months later William Torr took his family to Europe. He visited England and spent nearly a year travelling through Europe and the East. During these travels he visited as many schools as possible to find out and discuss the different educational systems of the countries he stayed at. Later he would give many lectures on these places, in particular The Holy Land and Palestine.

Upon his return he found that efforts were being made to perpetuate the memory of Rev James Way, father of the late Sir Samuel Way, Chief Justice. In 1885 when his Church proposed to establish Way College, a Bible Christian Boys' school in Adelaide, he was offered the position of headmaster. Torr accepted but only on the condition that he first could go to study in Britain to acquire further qualifications which was accepted.

The year 1885 proved to be very busy for Torr. In February he was in Kadina lecturing on the Holy Land while in March he was elected vice-president of the newly formed Yorke's Peninsula Teachers' Association. While back in Moonta or Adelaide he was always working for improvements in education and church matters. It was said that 'though terribly industrious, he is wise enough not to do himself what he can train others to do for him. Therefore, he has allotted the school's tasks among the masters with such nicety that things go like clockwork even when he is compelled to be absent'.

Later that year Torr lost his helpmate and supporter when on 10 August 1885 his wife Charlotte died. Luckily for him she left him with ample financial means, which enabled him to study without having to worry about where the money would come from. By the end of December, he was on the road again giving a pictorial and blackboard address to the young at the Bible Christian Church at Kooringa. This was followed on 29 December by another lecture on Palestine.

In 1886, after having made all the preparations, Torr resigned on 30 April as Headmaster of the Moonta school and the Education Department and went to England in June, accompanied by his nephew. He matriculated at Oxford, as a non-collegiate student in November and in March 1887, he passed the examination for Responsory, followed in December by the examination for Moderations.

He now entered on the honours course of Theology, thinking this would be of great assistance in training some of the future ministers of South Australia. In June, 1889, he passed his examination for the B.A. Degree, taking honours in Theology. During these studies Torr was entered on the books of St John's College, Oxford, as a resident. He also was entered as a Member of the Honourable Court of the Inner Temple, London, and passed his first examination to be a barrister in 1888.


Torr, in 1888. SLSA

From Oxford Torr went to Downing College, Cambridge, where in June 1890, he succeeded in passing the final examination for the Law Tripos, in the University of Cambridge. Wishing to gain some experience of the only other Residential University in the British Isles he went to Dublin. During his studies at Dublin University, Torr was proposed for a call to the Bar at the Inner Temple, by His Honor Judge Bristowe, and was admitted as a member of the English Bar on the 26th January 1891.

In February, Torr headed the LL.B list, in Trinity College, Dublin, being 12 per cent above the second man. In the LL.D. examination Torr was the only one placed. The last few months of his British academic studies was spent at Oxford, and here in June, 1891, a year earlier than was required by the statutes, he succeeded in taking the B.C.L. Degree, with honours, being successfully trained by T Radford Poits.

Having completed his desired level of education, he took a short break to visit Switzerland and Italy and left Liverpool for America in July. After travelling across that continent via Niagara, the Canadian Pacific, and Yosemite, he reached Adelaide on 17 September 1891 excited to start work. He had bought lots of school material in London for Way College and was soon busily making arrangements for the reception of pupils early in 1892.

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