Irish Protestant Colonialism and Educational Ideology in Australia: Hannah Boyd’s Letters on Education (1848)


The transnational movement between Ireland and Australia of school periodicals, pedagogical ideas and educational theories are writ large in histories of colonial education in Australia; from the Irish National School Readers that circulated in the colonies, to the transference of the Irish National Board’s Model School system from Dublin to Melbourne. Less attention has been paid, however, to the specific brand of Irish Protestant colonial thinking that often colours and motivates this transnational movement, as well as the educational ideologies and literature that were shaped by it in Australia. This essay takes Irish-born Hannah Villiers Boyd’s educational treatise, Letters on Education (1848), as its core focus. Recognised by scholars as one of the earliest educational treatises in Australia, and an important text in the cultural history of women's social reform and education, the text has been analysed for its formal and generic features as a nineteenth-century parenting manual. This essay adds another dimension to this line of thinking. By paying close attention to the text’s engagement with Irish writer and educationist, Maria Edgeworth, as well as other Irish writers and political figures (Carleton, O’Connell), this essay will explore how Boyd's familial and socio-cultural Irish background modulates the text's approach to education, as well as shapes its utopian projections of a future Australian nation. As such, this essay will demonstrate the Irish intersections that potentially shape in significant ways the text's educational ideologies and, more specifically, illustrate how Boyd's didactic perspectives on rural home education for young girls in Australia are both inflected and moulded by Irish Protestant colonial politics and culture.

Irish-born writer and governess, Hannah Villiers Boyd (1807–c. 1865), elicited a somewhat mixed critical reception in the 1840s to the publication of her practical guide to home education for rural Australian mothers, Letters on Education; Addressed to a Friend in the Bush of Australia (1848). Intended by its author as an aid to ‘ladies residing at a distance from Sydney’ in the education of their daughters (H. V. Boyd v), the text adopts an epistolary format which comprises a series of seven letters addressed to a semi-fictionalised mother figure – ‘My Dear Mrs Adam’ (1) – living with her four young children in the rural interior of New South Wales. While duly noting and praising the ‘valuable practical’ advice contained in the letters, as well as the rationalist and faith-based foundation from which the volume’s recognised ‘excellence’ is derived, an anonymous review in the Sydney Morning Herald bemoaned the text’s phrenological discourse and its supposedly wandering style of narration (3). Boyd’s ‘rambling . . . disquisitions’ on tangential subjects, liberal use of lengthy extracts from other texts and ‘dangerous’ and ‘barbarous’ recourse to phrenology in guiding educational practice detracted from what was otherwise an ‘agreeable’ and ‘instructive’ work (3). The Moreton Bay Courier similarly applauded the text’s ‘great value’ to its intended female audience, ‘earnestly’ recommending it ‘to the notice of the public’, but equally found fault with the prominence given to the ‘doctrines of phrenology’ – a ‘science (so called)’ – which were deemed of no ‘advantage in the education of youth’ (3). Despite this varied response and the eventual obscurity of Boyd’s text, more recent critics have significantly reclaimed Letters on Education as one of Australia’s first educational treatises and an important text in the cultural history of women’s social reform and education in early nineteenth-century Australia.

This essay seeks to add a further dimension to this critical recovery work by exploring how Boyd’s familial and socio-cultural Irish background modulates the text’s approach to education, as well as shapes its utopian projections of a future Australian nation. Current scholarship on Letters on Education helpfully situates the text within Western nineteenth-century women’s increasingly public role in educational and moral reform, as well as rescinds some of its original negative reviews. Michelle De Stefani contextualises Boyd’s attraction to what was an increasingly discredited pseudoscience as part of a ‘popular study amongst colonists’ (165) and reframes its hefty inclusion of ‘digressive matter’ within women’s epistolary forms of writing and the ‘narrative features’ of a nascent tradition of ‘domestically authored parenting literature’ in Australia (164). By situating such texts within their social contexts and historical reception, De Stefani further conceptualises Letters on Education as ‘both literary text and material artefact’ (159). Sarah Paddle and Bob Peterson additionally acclaim Boyd as part of a growing community of nineteenth-century women who wrote as ‘social critics and social commentators’ (1), and Elizabeth Windschuttle affirms Letters on Education as a near-singular and valuable treatise amidst public discussions over the ‘education appropriate for girls in the colonies’ (114). Scholarship by De Stefani and Windschuttle additionally investigates the variegated didactic perspectives from which the text takes its central cues; namely, the moral reform movements of Protestant evangelicalism and rationalist Enlightenment thinking. In his history of Australian education, Alan Barcan further concurs that Boyd’s text is coloured by ‘an underlying Protestant outlook’ (80).

Less attention has been paid, however, to Paddle and Peterson’s comment that, while directed to an Australian audience and emerging from Australian social, educational and literary contexts, Boyd’s text ‘reflects the experiences of its author in both Ireland and Australia’ (8). My argument intends to extend and explore this point, which hints at the Irish intersections that potentially shape in significant ways the text’s educational ideologies. In so doing, this essay aims to illustrate how Boyd’s didactic perspectives on rural home education for young girls in Australia are both inflected and shaped by Irish Protestant colonial politics and culture and, as Marjorie Theobald notes more broadly of women’s education in Britain, ‘proved a hardy transplant’ to the ‘colonial soil’ of Australia (‘The Accomplished Woman and the Propriety of Intellect’ 22). Theobald’s work on the history of women’s education in Australia responds to the reasoning of Maxine Schwartz Seller, whereby ‘national boundaries’ are not viewed as ‘barriers’ but as ‘bridges to the history of women’s education in other countries’ and a channel for tracing the ‘cultural transference and adaptation’ of pedagogic ideas to nineteenth-century Australia (‘Boundaries, Bridges, and the History of Education’ 498). This essay similarly aligns itself with this guiding premise.

The following section offers a brief summary of Boyd’s formative personal, educational and social experiences in Ireland and begins to make explicit connections between these individual experiences and Letters on Education, as well as the broader British, American and European public educational thinking in which the text engages. It further contextualises the publication of Boyd’s text within the history of Australian domestic and institutional schooling in the mid-nineteenth century. The final section of this essay builds on these intersectional links and localised educational circumstances as a foundation for exploring the specifically Irish colonial political and cultural contexts that, I will argue, have a bearing on the didactic imperatives and utopian aspirations of Letters on Education, especially in terms of Theobald’s concept of the transplantation or transnational movement of ideas between Australia and the home nations of its early migrants.

Hannah Villiers Boyd: Female Educators and Male Dilettantes

Born into the lower gentry of the landed Protestant classes in Ireland in 1807, Boyd was born and raised in the rural environs of County Clare on the Vandeleur family estate of Rathlaheen.1 Descended from Dutch merchants who were granted expropriated Irish land by the English in the seventeenth century, the Vandeleurs had a long history of marrying into the Anglo-Irish establishment; Boyd’s father, a colonel in the British army, followed suit and married the daughter of a neighbouring Anglo-Irish family, Diana Scott of Cahircon. After attending boarding school in Ireland and receiving a traditional education in nineteenth-century female accomplishments, Boyd travelled across Britain, Ireland and Europe to complete her schooling and prepare for the social graces of genteel society, including music tuition in Paris. In light of later moral reformist influences, Boyd reflects on her formal schooling and tuition in Letters on Education and considers her past education as little more than devotion to ‘the vanities of the world’ (86). In contrast to this conventional education, she applauds and encourages ‘self-culture’ (89), especially for women, as a means of becoming ‘useful member[s] of society’ through the teaching of others and the ongoing enlightenment of the self (26). Indeed, as De Stefani demonstrates, Boyd’s text is partially a product of the ‘new demand for utilitarian reading’ amongst Australia’s growing ‘white, migrant, rural gentry’ and their preoccupation with education (160). Such reading was viewed as a vehicle for cultivating a more complete ethic of social duty midst this class group, as well as for inculcating the values of self-education and intellectual and moral improvement (De Stefani 160).

The anonymous reviewer of Letters on Education for the Sydney Morning Herald in 1847 recognised this popular strain of thinking and the moral and self-improving tenets of this type of educational philosophy:

The education of the heart must precede and constantly accompany that of the mind; and with respect to both, the best education is that which enables a young person to educate himself – to continue through life a still progressive education. (3)

Like so much of Boyd’s text, this mode of didacticism clearly responds to its specifically Australian social contexts, but also demonstrates the cross-border movement of educational ideas from Europe, Britain and America to the colonies. The ‘cultivation of the mind and the heart’, argues Vineta Colby, was commonly perceived in the period as an ‘instrument of social reform’ and of ‘personal self-government’ (114). Most importantly, ‘the education of the heart’, continues Colby, ‘must be carefully nurtured and directed by sympathetic teachers – ideally mothers or mother-figures’ (116). Boyd aligns herself with this thinking early on in the text: ‘[i]f a perusal of this little book’, writes Boyd in the preface to Letters on Education, ‘has the effect of arousing only one mother to a sense of the important position she holds in the scale of society, I shall feel myself amply repaid’ (vi).

Boyd’s promotion of women’s self-education and their potential role as maternal primary educators thus situates itself within, and contributes to what Theobald terms a much wider and cross-national ‘woman-centred educational renaissance’ of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (‘Boundaries, Bridges, and the History of Education’ 499), one which validates a newly recognised social mission for women, particularly mothers, to ‘educate the young and illiterate’ (Myers 266). This movement is largely determined to have its roots in the traditions of evangelical social and moral reform, but is also taken up by rationalist Enlightenment thinkers and is closely associated with women writers such as the religious English philanthropist, Hannah More (1745–1833), and the Irish novelist and educationist, Maria Edgeworth (1768–1849). Indeed, while conventional social reformists such as More distinguished mothers as the ‘ideal’ woman – ‘educated, fiscally responsible and morally pure’ (Mellor 29) – and assigned them a central role as educators in their conceptual plans for social improvement, Boyd lays stress on the equally valuable function of financially independent and single women in what Anne K. Mellor terms this ‘new ideological mission’ (30). In Letters on Education, Boyd hails both More and Edgeworth as alternative role models to motherhood alongside the more socially controversial and unique Irish independent female settler, Isabella Kelly, ‘of the Manning River’ in New South Wales (34–5). ‘[Y]ou may begin already’, urges Boyd to Mrs Adam, ‘to castle-build’ for your daughters and, ‘if they do not marry either settlers or squatters, they may be respectable old “maids,” like Hannah More or Miss Edgeworth; or female settlers, like my friend Miss Kelly’ (34–5). Thus, Boyd’s gendered social reformism can here be seen to carry over to the colonies the wider and multi-national educational principles governing women’s involvement in education at the time.

Notwithstanding its admission of the lack of access to schools and governesses for rurally settled colonists in Australia (1), Boyd’s advocacy for a ‘cheap home education’ (28) directed by women can also be seen to partake in and extend dominant public conversations in England and elsewhere over home and school education. Matthew Grenby demonstrates, for example, that in the period from 1760 to 1845 the ‘advantages of domestic or institutional pedagogy remained unsettled’, and among the middle and upper classes ‘what we now call “home-schooling” was often upheld as optimal’ (466). In her promotion of domestic pedagogy in Letters on Education, Boyd utilises the example of English poet, Felicia Hemans, who ‘was never at school’ and whose ‘mind was formed from the books which found their way to her mother’s residence’, but Boyd’s text also understands the specific circumstances that shaped parental approaches to education in early colonial Australian society (29).

At the time of publishing Letters on Education, both class attitudes and the pragmatics of rural living played a role in the preferences of some parents for home, as opposed to school, education in Australia. Published in the wake of burgeoning concerns in the 1830s and 1840s over the ‘urgent need’ for schools in the ‘sparsely inhabited interior’ (Barcan 65), as well as a decades-long debate over the proper relationship between public schooling and the various religious denominations operating in early colonial Australia, Boyd’s text appears at a key transitional moment in the period’s rationalisation and standardisation of schools and curricula and the development of a national school system based on common (rather than denominational) Christianity. In 1848, the publication of Letters on Education coincided with the establishment in New South Wales of two education boards, National and Denominational, to ‘organise and fund publicly assisted schools’ (Campbell and Proctor 42), as well as the creation of the first State elementary schools alongside existing faith-based and private venture schools. This initiative also saw the importation of Irish National Readers to Australia. Written from a distinctively English imperial point of view, these textbooks were originally produced by the British authorities in Ireland for use in Irish schools as a means of providing a non-denominational religious education, as well as establishing uniform standards of reading and writing.

Despite growing State intervention in Australian schooling, however, school ‘provision and access was unstable and patchy’ throughout the mid-nineteenth century, especially in the rural interior (Campbell and Proctor 61). Private venture schools ‘dominated the market for “superior” education’ and parents of ‘wealthier girls’ often preferred a governess to a school and, for ‘isolated families’, as Craig Campbell and Helen Proctor explain, ‘schooling was hardly an option’ (61, 59). Barcan similarly describes how the ‘family became an educational institution of considerable importance’ in nineteenth-century Australia with, at one stage, ‘about a fifth of all pupils [receiving] instruction at home from parents, tutors or governesses’ (1). ‘Education in the home’, continues Barcan, found considerable favour among the urban middle and upper classes’, as well as among ‘all classes in the countryside’ (80):

It was difficult to find educated persons willing to go to rural areas. English governesses often proved to be . . . unsuited to the harsh conditions of the interior. Middle class mothers frequently preferred to educate their children themselves. (80)

Letters on Education notably opens with these concerns via a response to Mrs Adam’s request and subsequent difficulty in procuring a governess ‘willing to go so far into the bush’ – ‘three hundred miles from Sydney is a distance to terrify the most courageous’ – and encouragement for her to become Fanny’s teacher herself, opposed to sending the young girl to school and, inevitably, ‘parting with her’ and suffering the ‘pain of a separation’ (1–2). Boyd continues this line of narrative further on in the text, stating that ‘mothers in Australia’ who educate their children at home ‘have a reasonable prospect of seeing them long continue to gladden each other’s firesides in all the different relations of life’ without anticipating ‘painful absences’ and ‘partings’ (33). Moreover, the home training of Fanny, it is suggested, will make her a ‘valuable assistant’ in the education of her younger siblings (3), as well as a vital familial companion: ‘as you are forty miles distant from the nearest neighbour, you can hardly afford to give up even the society of a child’ (2).

Boyd’s promotion of family-led education thus seems to emerge from the distinctive circumstances of Australian rural settlement, rather than any direct criticism of Australia’s still emerging National and Denominational school network. Indeed, Boyd is approving of William Broughton (1788–1853), ‘our good Bishop of Australia’ (19), who established the King’s School in Parramatta in Western Sydney and championed a conservative Anglican approach to a ‘suitable moral and political education’ for boys (Barcan 78). Letters on Education is also at pains to reinstate the ‘high position’ of teachers, not those who are ‘mere hearers of lessons, and wielders of rods and canes’, but those who ‘go on steadily in the path of self-culture’ for the advantage of their pupils (77). Boyd further cites the American Unitarian preacher, William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), and his utopian vision for the ‘regeneration of society via the elevation of the art of teaching to the highest rank in the community’ (136). Such thinking reflects the ‘peculiar social position assigned to schoolmasters’ in mid-nineteenth century Australia, as elucidated by journalist and former teacher, Edward Reeve, in The People’s Advocate in 1851, as well as the ‘want of that proper standing to which [schoolmasters] are, as a body, very fairly entitled’ (5). ‘Would that . . . we had all over the land well paid schoolmasters’, laments Boyd, ‘to pave the way’ for exciting ‘a taste for the acquisition of knowledge’ (136). ‘[W]ell-regulated schools or colleges’ directed towards Christian ‘moral training’, are additionally figured by Boyd as the antidote to Europe’s overflowing ‘barracks, prisons, penitentiaries, and lunatic asylums’ (57).

While Boyd is markedly scathing of systems of education in the ‘Old World’ (77), particularly ‘some of the most celebrated [private] schools in England’ and the ‘fagging system’ of those private seminaries (42, 58), Letters on Education thus seems less critical of institutional schooling than might be assumed by her preference for domestic education. As De Stefani notes, the peculiar circumstances of rural settler families in the Australian interior are the text’s target audience; ‘[f]or the first time’, writes De Stefani, ‘the rural mothers of Australia were directly addressed by parenting literature specific to their individual circumstances and predicaments’ (168). Boyd’s text is also clearly driven by the woman-centred educational enterprises of the period, as outlined by Theobald and Mellor, opposed to any direct criticism of Australia’s early nineteenth-century school system. Letters on Education reiterates several times that the early ‘development of the moral sentiments’ required for the judicious application of a child’s ‘talents’ and ‘intellectual powers’, resides with parents, especially mothers (38).

Boyd’s pedagogical thinking here appears further aligned with Edgeworth and her ‘child-centred’ (opposed to ‘knowledge-centred’) pedagogical model (Colby 151) and, as such, partially focuses on the potential inadequacies of parents, particularly mothers, in guiding the education of their children. As with Edgeworth and other female educational reformers, such as English children’s writer, Sarah Trimmer (1741–1810), Boyd’s text suggests that early home education is necessary to ‘prepare’ children (especially sons) for school, indicating (like Edgeworth and Trimmer) that the ‘scholastic shortcomings and moral collapse’ of children are often due to ‘inadequate parenthood’ (Grenby 472). As Boyd notes in Letters on Education, the moral and intellectual guidance at home of young boys is crucial for preparing them to ‘go to school, and to attend lectures at the Mechanics’ School of Arts in Sydney’ so that ‘whatever talents they possess will not be misapplied’ (133). Boyd even goes as far as to suggest that the Biblical ‘Cain would never had killed Abel if his mother had known how to train him properly’; ‘had his mother known’, writes Boyd, ‘how to . . . cultivate his . . . moral sentiments . . . and reasoning faculties’, the consequences would not have been fatal (6–7). Set against the indolence, profligacy and vanity of English mothers (118), Letters on Education projects a renewed utopian vision for the settler women ‘scattered over the wilds of Australia’ who, like ‘mother Eve . . . must frequently eat the bread of industry’, and who the text encourages to engage in the intellectual and moral education of their children for the future prospects and primacy of both their own families and the broader good of society (4).

Boyd’s life experiences in Ireland as a young woman living amidst a ruling and disastrously irresponsible Anglo-Irish elite – at least in the case of the Vandeleurs – also played a significant role in shaping Boyd’s trajectory towards these models of teaching and educational philosophies. ‘[S]tern necessity’, writes Boyd in Letters on Education, ‘has compelled me for the last eleven years to enlist myself amongst the paid teachers of the world’ (9). After completing her formal tuition in Europe and returning to Rathlaheen in the late 1820s, Boyd witnessed the rising agrarian unrest against wealthy Anglo-Irish landholders by the Irish Catholic peasantry which had been provoked by increasing economic distress, sectarian hostility and political antagonism. The 1830s proved to be tumultuous years for the Vandeleur family, including for Boyd; they were temporarily forced to flee Rathlaheen in 1830 due to attacks on the estate by one of a growing number of clandestine Irish agrarian societies, and the estate’s overseer was murdered in 1831 during a period of acutely violent social unrest in County Clare (Ó Gráda 43). By 1832, Boyd had married a friendly acquaintance of two years, Scottish widowed physician and one-time author of a ‘useful little pocket companion’ to Italy, Sir William Cathcart Boyd (W. C. Boyd vii). In 1833, however, her brother and master of Rathlaheen, John Scott Vandeleur, lost the entire family estate to gambling debts entailed in Dublin and was promptly compelled ‘to quit his country for ever’ by decamping to America (H. V. Boyd 156). Boyd obliquely and anonymously intimates in Letters on Education that Vandeleur’s dire impending insolvency instigated him to ‘crime’, further inferring his likely forgery of credit bills (156). As such, writes Boyd, Vandeleur was obliged to abandon ‘the wife and children whom he tenderly loved’ in order to ‘avoid capital punishment’ (156).

These events also ruined Vandeleur’s hitherto successful attempt at an agricultural co-operative commune inspired by the utopian socialist ideals of Welsh social reformer, Robert Owen. In 1870, The Spectator hailed this experiment as a ‘fairy tale of political economy’ (947) and it has now become an infamous case study in the labour history of Ireland in the early nineteenth century (Connolly 79–93; O’Brien 115–21). In Letters of Education, Boyd decried the irreligious grounds – or ‘infidel principles’ – on which Owen based his social reform schemes but acknowledged (anonymously) her brother’s plans as ‘benevolent’, attributing his resultant criminal actions to a ‘bad system’ of education and an insufficient ‘yearly income’ to implement his philanthropic designs (156). Contemporary critics are less indulgent over Vandeleur’s altruistic motives, citing growing ‘rural revolt and widespread hunger’ as the driving factor behind his communitarian scheme, one designed to ease the resulting ‘labour-management problem’ at Rathlaheen at the same time as retaining a socio-economic advantage over the estate’s labourers (Ó Gráda 46, 40). Indeed, Cormac Ó Gráda argues that Vandeleur ‘milked the labourers for what he could’ and that his pursuance of Owenite experimentation was, by turns, a mere ‘dilettante’s interest’ (43) and a ‘practical’ necessity to quell ‘hungry, rebellious labourers’ (38). Crucially, it was a social experiment that ensured, rather than disrupted, the colonial social and economic order in Ireland at the time and was arguably rooted in ‘paternalism, enlightened self-interest and idealism’ (Ó Gráda 37).

Boyd’s faith in this kind of ruling class humanitarianism and socially responsible benevolence is writ large in Letters on Education. ‘[P]rofits of the sale’ of the book, stated Boyd, would go towards providing ‘relief’ to ‘some of my poor starving country people’ (vi). Moreover, Boyd frequently encourages her epistolary recipient, Mrs Adam, and her daughter to ‘exercise’ their ‘organs of Benevolence’ in instructing and providing books for the less advantaged children of ‘shepherds, labourers, [and] stockmen . . . who are employed in the bush’ and are ‘far removed from schools’ (62). Boyd is, thus, unquestioning on the point of Vandeleur’s assumed benignancy and focuses instead on the ‘injudicious’ (42) methods of teaching to which he was subject in his ‘college’ education and private tuition, both of which neglected ‘the development of the moral sentiments’ and cultivated a profound dislike for religion (38). Furthermore, Letters on Education includes lengthy narratives on the ‘selfish vice’ of gambling in Letter V, rebuking ‘parents in England’ who permit their children to play ‘intellectual games’ that ‘profess to teach History, Geography, or some branch of knowledge’, but which potentially only encourage ‘the principle of gambling’ (102).

Similarly, in Letter III, Boyd digresses into a ‘very long preface’ to her ‘system of teaching penmanship’ (46) in order to demonstrate ‘how important it is for parents to cultivate the moral sentiments of their children, before they put into their hands such a dangerous weapon as a pen’ (37). ‘One error frequently committed’, writes Boyd, ‘is that of keeping pupils too long writing what are called copies’, which only exercise the ‘organs of Imitation, Form, and Size’ (46):

How many individuals have been sent to this colony for having learned alas! too well how to imitate the handwriting of others, without having their Conscientiousness developed in proportion to their powers of imitation! (47)

In both letters, Boyd thus circuitously connects Vandeleur’s misfortunes to the ‘development of the intellectual powers . . . in some of the most celebrated schools in England’ (42) and the ‘erroneous [teaching] systems of the Old World’ (46). This preoccupation with the deficiencies of the ‘Old World’ is a reoccurring feature of Boyd’s text. Letters on Education repeatedly imagines and projects a utopian system of education in Australia against childhood instruction in Britain and reminds its semi-fictionalised recipient that ‘I wish to guard you against those fatal errors in education which I have observed productive of serious evils’ in England (72). These ‘dichotomous juxtapositions between old and new’ are recognised by De Stefani as a distinguishing feature of the early Australian parenting-book tradition, one which (in its alignment with ‘domestic propriety, religion and education’) highlights the ‘sense of national identity colonists were forming’ (161).

Shortly after Vandeleur’s desertion and ruin of the family estate at Rathlaheen, Boyd suffered further familial and economic shocks that drove the ‘stern necessity’ of her position as a governess in Australia. In 1836, William Cathcart exhausted his wife’s dowry of £1000 and, similar to Vandeleur, abandoned Boyd and their two young children by escaping (for a time) to America. Decades later, Boyd would learn that her marriage and children by William Cathcart were illegitimate; his wife prior to Boyd was still living at the time of his marriage to her. William Cathcart would go on to bigamously marry again in London in 1860. With the departure of her husband, the loss of her dowry and the Rathlaheen family estate, Boyd was forced to rely on relatives to secure her a place as a governess, one of the few respectable options available to educated women to earn a modest income in the nineteenth century. In September 1841, she left Ireland with her children for Australia where she continued working as a governess, as well as (it is speculated) a depositary in the shop front for the Australian Religious Tract Society on Pitt Street in Sydney. It was during her time in Australia – after a ‘six years’ residence’ in the colony of New South Wales (Boyd, Letters on Education v) – that she published Letters on Education and, subsequently in 1851, A Voice from Australia. The latter comprised a utopian and heavily religious polemical treatise on the social, moral and political advantages of life in Australia that (according to Boyd) positioned the country as the New Jerusalem of the Hebrew Bible.2 A significantly revised second edition was published in Dublin in 1856, whereby Boyd appears to have ‘lost her belief in the ruling class as potential initiators of reform’ and advocates for a more egalitarian, faith-based and utopian version of the kind of regional cooperative communalism that Vandeleur attempted at Rathlaheen in the 1830s (Paddle and Peterson 3). She moved between Australia and Ireland in the 1850s, eventually resettling permanently in Dublin in 1861. Little is known of her life after this point, or the circumstances of her death.

Colonial Ireland and Australian Education

The preceding overview of Boyd’s colonial Irish background demonstrates the latter’s refraction in her educational treatise, as well as intimates the rootedness of Boyd’s pedagogical thinking in numerous Irish cultural and social contexts. Beyond Ireland, it further demonstrates the multiple actual and intellectual communities through which Letters on Education is forged, including the appropriation of British, European and American texts that colour and inform her narrative. De Stefani recognises this pastiche approach, reminding that parenting books are, by nature, ‘deeply implicated by and in the communities that create them’ (159). She further notes that while Boyd’s text is an example of specifically Australian domestic parenting literature, it also shares an alliance with the ‘vast corpus of parenting books in circulation in England and other colonies’ in the period (164). I want to suggest that by figuring this alliance as a type of (inter)textual community in Letters on Education, it throws into relief the other kinds of text-types and textual communities that are allied with Boyd’s treatise, but which are also promoted as reading materials for Mrs Adam, her daughter, and the ‘implied mother-reader’ of the book (De Stefani 167). These textual communities are arguably revealing of the colonial Irish politics at play in Boyd’s parenting advice for mothers in rural Australia and, subsequently, the circulation and sponsorship of those principles as a national foundation for educational practice in the country.

Letters on Education frequently includes (sometimes lengthy) passages borrowed from educational, religious and poetical texts, as well as numerous suggestions for further reading, including specific parenting manuals, textbooks for children, religious tracts, and recommended authors and social critics.3 These extracts predominantly serve to illustrate, validate or provide further explication for a number of Boyd’s didactic instructions and guidance, as well as her broader educational ethos. In Letter V, for example, Boyd includes an extract from the fourth book of William Wordsworth’s The Excursion (1814) in order to illustrate the ‘indications of intelligence’ that children demonstrate through their natural curiosity in the world around them, and which Boyd directs ‘should be encouraged by judicious parents or teachers’ (110). Throughout her treatise, Boyd also includes a number of extracts from and recommendations for work by Irish authors, such as Edgeworth and William Carleton. Edgeworth’s stories for children and educational treatises are frequently recommended and a lengthy extract is included from Carleton’s story, ‘The Lough Dearg Pilgrim’ (1829), as an example of what Boyd views as the negative and repressive influence of Catholicism on a child’s ‘reasoning faculties’ (144). Extracts are also sometimes included as teaching aids. Letter III, for example, contains handwriting exemplars and a number of ‘pretty specimens of American poetry’ by Hannah Gould to facilitate ‘dictations in poetry’ and exercises in ‘forming capital letters’ (50–5).

Further to this, Boyd’s reading recommendations and extracts frequently marshal together what Windschuttle terms ‘basic evangelical or moral reform fare’ (116), including the commendation of ‘celebrated female authors’ such as Edgeworth, More, Hemans and Sarah Ellis (Boyd 13). In Letter I, for example, Boyd reproduces ‘Mothers of Washington’ (1841) by American poet, Lydia Sigourney, thereby reiterating the evangelising rhetoric of antebellum America on women’s maternal duties to the nation (8). This reinforces her earlier exhortation to Mrs Adam to become her daughter’s teacher and not send her away to school (2). In so doing, continues Boyd, Mrs Adam should consider her influence in the training of her children as a contribution to the nation, one that may have a ‘serious effect on the future destiny of a rising country’ (8). Here, Boyd further explicitly echoes other reformist and evangelising textual precedents, such as More’s Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799) and Louis Aimé-Martin’s Woman’s Mission (1839), an abridged translation of the French original published in 1834. In Strictures, More reminds women that it is upon them that the ‘principles of the whole rising generation’ depend and encourages that their ‘private exertions’ may contribute to the ‘future happiness . . . of [their] country’ (44); Aimé-Martin similarly asserts that ‘[i]t is upon maternal love that the future destiny of the human race depends’ (qtd. in Colby 93). Boyd encourages Mrs Adam to read More, amongst others, and directly sends to her a copy of Woman’s Mission for her ‘own private study, after Fanny goes to bed’ (23). She also includes a copy of The Mother at Home by American clergyman, John S. C. Abbott, whose definition of ‘good mothering’ acknowledged the social and economic advantages women stood to gain in their commitment to their children’s academic and moral education (Lawes 346). Boyd reiterates Abbott’s mantra in her opening bid to Mrs Adam to educate Fanny at home and benefit in retaining her as a worthy assistant in a mother’s future tasks (3). She repeats this advice in Letter VI, urging Mrs Adam to make ‘companions’ of her children through their home tuition, of whom she can then expect friendship and comfort in her ‘declining years’; she also reminds her to utilise Abbott’s text to ‘guide [her] in their moral training’ (111). These intertextual allusions give to Boyd’s text a kind of palimpsestic quality whereby the collective rhetoric of prominent British and European evangelising social reformers engenders a type of textual community in the pages of Letters on Education, akin to what Theobald recognises in the nineteenth century as a ‘crescendo of voices reminding women of their duties’ with regard to the ‘early care and socialization of children’ (‘Discourse of Danger’ 29).

It is also clear, however, that not all potential readers are invited to join the different communities generated by these intertextual allusions. Moreover, these communities arguably reproduce ruling class hierarchies that align with a distinctive Irish Protestant cultural and colonial ideological thread which constantly shapes Boyd’s text and the imagined utopian Australian nation that Letters on Education projects. One of the first clear instances of this alignment is in Boyd’s recommendation of numerous Edgeworth texts as suitable reading material. While Mrs Adam and her young daughter, Fanny, are directed to read The Parent’s Assistant (1796) and Early Lessons (1801) in Letter II (18), Boyd later stipulates a somewhat different reading list for Fanny to benevolently distribute to the children of Australia’s rural labouring classes, which includes Edgeworth’s ‘Popular Tales’ (62). The text’s directive to Mrs Adam to induct her daughter into this manner of charitable enterprise situates Letters on Education within broader discourses concerning women’s ‘educational philanthropy’, but also within more explicit Irish Protestant contexts (O’Sullivan 28). As Eilís O’Sullivan demonstrates, such benevolent ventures were considered an ‘especially suitable occupation for females, appearing to extend their natural roles as mothers and nurturers’ (28). At the same time, argues O’Sullivan, this mode of educational philanthropy was also a longstanding ‘duty’ for Irish Ascendancy women, one which recognised the ‘obligation of being good role models for future generations’, as well as the social ‘responsibilities’ that had long been ‘defined by their families’ (39).

Moreover, the discrepancy between reading texts selected for Mrs Adam and Fanny, compared to those Fanny is charged with distributing to her impoverished rural neighbours, is further telling of the Irish colonial frameworks within which Boyd forges her educational treatise. Edgeworth’s Popular Tales (1804) significantly differentiates itself from her other educational titles in its specific focus on mass education for the lower classes, as indicated in the text’s original preface. Appended by Edgeworth’s father and oft-time collaborator, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the preface delineates its readers as those ‘beyond circles which are sometimes exclusively considered as polite’ (vi). While the Edgeworths’ approach to mass education of the poorer classes is not uncommon in the period, Lovell Edgeworth’s involvement with the reformation (and suppression) of Catholic education in Ireland in the early 1800s reveals the imperial Protestant Irish contexts that inform his thinking on education, principles which Boyd translates to Australia. Reporting to the Board of Education in 1808 on the popular chapbooks used in Ireland’s hedge schools – a flourishing system of illegal schools for Catholic Irish children that Boyd belittles in her treatise (46) – Lovell Edgeworth stated that such romances, histories and adventure stories were ‘certainly improper’ (qtd. in Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber 126). ‘They inculcate democracy’, cautioned Lovell Edgeworth, ‘and a foolish hankering after undefined liberty [that] is not necessary in Ireland’: ‘[f]or their amusement, stories inculcating piety, morality, and industry, should be admitted’ (qtd. in Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber 126). Clíona Ó Gallchoir recognises this impetus not just in the Edgeworths’ literature for children and educational treatises, but also in Maria Edgeworth’s adult realist domestic fiction and its ‘social mission to integrate the lower classes into a middle-class system of morality’ (97).

Boyd’s recommendation of a similar reading diet for Australia’s rural labouring classes not only reproduces, but attempts to preserve, the class hierarchies and social order of colonial Protestant Ireland and, through a system of ruling class education, transplants these ideas into the new world setting of Australia. Moreover, as Deirdre Raftery notes of such didactic ideologies in Ireland and their dominant use of English writing to educate Irish children, this educational system creates a ‘form of cultural hegemony’ (147), a colonisation of the mind via English print culture. Indeed, Boyd’s female role model, More, was instrumental in Irish Protestant attempts to preserve the existing social strata and spread English cultural heritage and literature in colonial Ireland via the publications of early nineteenth-century reformist educational societies, such as the Kildare Place Society and the Association for Discountenancing Vice. More was a member of the Association by the mid-1790s and worked closely with them to reprint and distribute in Ireland significant numbers of her religious tracts; ‘[t]he scale of the Dublin operation . . . was substantial’ (Ó Cíosaín 138). Designed to imitate the ‘outward forms of the chapbook’, Niall Ó Cíosaín demonstrates how these tracts were addressed to a lower-class audience in ‘simple and direct language’ and served to reform the kind of popular literature that Lovell Edgeworth viewed as foolish and improper for the native Irish peasantry, as well as ‘accommodate’ this literature ‘to the social order’ (137). Ó Cíosaín notes that the tracts were ‘part of a wider [reformist] project whose best-known representative in Ireland was Maria Edgeworth’ (149).

Boyd, again, seems to follow in these footsteps in her frequent recommendations of the ‘interesting cheap publications’ by the Australian Religious Tract Society in Letters on Education (19). She also praises the ‘opportunities of education’ (61) provided by the Kildare Place Society in Ireland for the country’s ‘poor inhabitants’ (60) and castigates Irish nationalist political leader, Daniel O’Connell (1775–1847), for opposing the Society’s schools and reading books. Boyd blames the ‘ignorance’ of the Irish immigrants in Australia on O’Connell’s resistance which, claims Boyd, played a part in ‘keeping their minds in bondage’ to the Catholic church, instead of freeing them to exercise their ‘reasoning faculties’ (61–2). Recognising the cultural supremacy at play in the Society’s supposedly benevolent didactic machinations, the Irish political rebel and teacher, Patrick Pearse (1879–1916), would much later enunciate and recall the British imperial educational project in Ireland as one ‘founded on a denial of the Irish nation’ (10). ‘To invent such a system of teaching and to persuade us that it is an education system’, wrote Pearse, ‘is the most wonderful thing the English have accomplished in Ireland; and the most wicked (11). Boyd’s treatise transmutes these cultural concerns into an Australian context across the full class spectrum. In her broader suggestions for directing Fanny’s ‘taste’ in reading (12), Boyd further maintains the ‘cultural hegemony’ that Raftery detects in the dominant circulation of English writing in Ireland, not just in the lower classes of Australia, but also the emerging middle-class rural gentry. As well as Britain’s ‘celebrated female authors’, Mrs Adam is encouraged to open Fanny’s eyes to ‘Shakspear, Milton, Cowper, Thompson’ and ‘all the other stars of the [English] literary world’ (13). If the effect of English writing on the lower orders is to remind them of their ‘subservient social position’ (Raftery 160), the reverse impression is assumedly produced in young colonial settler children like Fanny.


Windschuttle maintains that the ‘beginning of British society in colonial NSW saw the ruling class use education as an important means of reproducing its values and culture’ (105), but it is clear that Boyd’s text decidedly inflects these values and associated culture through an Irish Protestant lens. Her repeated utilisation of More and Edgeworth further bolsters the propagation in Letters on Education of colonial Irish ruling class ideologies by variously restating and echoing their pedagogic philosophies, ideas that were distinctively fashioned and tested in the ‘educational laboratory’ of Ireland before their relocation to Australia (Colby 100). Boyd’s utopian vision for the future Australian nation is one set against the educational failures of the old world, a vision that requires ‘the mothers of Australia [to] do their duty’ in order to ‘teach the Europeans a practical moral lesson’ (58). However, this imagined new world nation is also one meant to more specifically displace an increasingly contested Protestant Ireland; nowhere is this more apparent than in Boyd’s mockery of O’Connell in Letters on Education. During the campaign for Irish repeal of the British Act of Union in the 1840s, O’Connell frequently and publicly cited lines from ‘Remember Thee’ by Irish poet, Thomas Moore (1779–1852), which are scathingly appropriated by Boyd. ‘O’Connell is dead’, writes Boyd, ‘so I may take up his text, and apply it to this land’:

Then Australia shall be

Great, glorious, and free,

First flower of the earth, first gem of the sea! (60)

Boyd concludes that Australia ‘certainly deserves the appellation of “first gem of the sea” much better than ever “Old Ireland” did’ (60).

As this essay has attempted to demonstrate, Boyd’s disarticulation of ‘Old Ireland’ by an emergent Australian nation is also reliant on an idealised mother figure who is both ‘imperial’ and ‘empirical’ or, in the words of Carolyn Lawes, a type of ‘domestic Napoleon’ (100). While Boyd largely mirrors British and American evangelising discourse in continually likening this venerated figure in Letters on Education to ‘mother Eve when she was driven from Paradise’ (4), Boyd unusually associates this same figure with a very different female model. In directing Mrs Adam to ‘[i]mpress on Fanny’s mind the value of time’ (16), she suggests adhering to strict lesson times:

You will find the advantage of breaking off, when the last grain of sand is run down, as much as Scheherazade did, when . . . she succeeded in saving, not only her own life, but the lives of at least a thousand and one of her fellow-country women. (17)

This unlikely analogy arguably only makes sense within Boyd’s repeated attempts throughout her educational treatise to maintain the Irish Protestant social order that so much of her pedagogical approach to Australian education is geared towards. Effaced from the first European editions of the tales of the Arabian Nights, Scheherazade's frame story reappears with renewed interest in the orientalising English translations of the 1840s. As Margaret Sironval details, the Arabian Nights tales themselves became ‘less important than the conditions imposed on [Scheherazade] to remain alive’ (223). During this period, Scheherazade is translated into a ‘champion of freedom against despotism’ and a self-sacrificing female ‘model for Victorian society’ (Sironval 232).

Most significantly, Scheherazade embodies female empowerment via self-culture and the moral teaching of others, as well as the self-conviction and success of a ruling class authority without disrupting the social order. Like the educational writings of More and Edgeworth, the frame tale of the Arabian Nights does not imagine ‘the levelling of class distinctions’ (Weiss, ‘The Formation of Social Class and the Reformation of Ireland’ 12); social justice is benevolently restored to the Sultan’s kingdom by his own – re-educated – hand. Moreover, Scheherazade’s contribution to social progress in the kingdom via the telling of moral tales is, potentially, Edgeworth’s and More’s story of how a ‘privileged intellectual woman might improve society without . . . [a] revolution in female manners’ (Weiss, The Female Philosopher and Her Afterlives 177–8); such preservation of women’s traditional social position within their otherwise reforming movements of the time was both typical and increasingly problematic for the broader success of such initiatives (see Delamont). Boyd’s seemingly incongruous alliance with the heroine of the Arabian Nights thus draws Scheherazade into the textual community of evangelical and Enlightenment thinkers in Letters on Education and, once again, exposes the ways in which Irish Protestant social and cultural ideologies are not simply a backdrop to Boyd’s text, but an influential force that determines Boyd’s approach to education in nineteenth-century Australia.


  1. Paddle and Peterson provide the only comprehensive biographical account of Boyd’s life. Unless otherwise indicated, the biographical details included in this essay derive from this account.

  2. Stefani suggests that there is also ‘evidence of a third work’ in preparation in the mid 1850s entitled Some Passages in the Life of a Governess. ‘This work’, demonstrates Stefani, ‘was advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald on 20 and 24 March 1854, entreating persons desirous of procuring copies to submit subscription to publishers Waugh and Cox of George Street, Sydney’ (165). A copy has yet to be discovered.

  3. Paddle and Peterson provide extensive notes at the end of their 1992 edition of Letters on Education that identify and contextualise the texts and authors quoted and referenced in Boyd’s treatise.

Published 30 September 2021 in Special Issue: The Uses of Irish-Australian Literature . Subjects: Australian literature - Comparisons with overseas literature, Education, Spiritual & religious beliefs, 19th Century Women Writers, Hannah Villiers Boyd, Irish-Australian Literature, Epistolary writing, Maria Edgeworth, Parenting Treatise.

Cite as: Jamison, Anne. ‘Irish Protestant Colonialism and Educational Ideology in Australia: Hannah Boyd’s Letters on Education (1848).’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 36, no. 2, 2021, doi: 10.20314/als.44fc162634.