CHILDERS, Hugh Culling Eardley (1827-1896)

CHILDERS, Hugh Culling Eardley (1827-1896)
founder of the university of Melbourne
was born at London on 25 June 1827, the son of the Rev. Eardley Childers, who died when the boy was three years old. He had distinguished and remarkable people among his ancestors for some generations back. His mother, Maria Charlotte, the eldest daughter of Sir Culling Smith, was his father's cousin and was the descendant of a refugee from France. When Childers was seven years old his mother lived for a time in France and Italy, and the boy made an early acquaintance with both languages. On his return to England in 1836 he was sent to an excellent school at Cheam in Surrey, kept by the Rev. Charles Mayo, LL.D., an early follower of Pestalozzi. Leaving school in 1843 Childers had some private tuition, and in 1845 went to Wadham College, Oxford. A year later he transferred to Trinity College, Cambridge. His course there was interrupted by an illness, and he did not take his B.A. degree until 1850, when he was a senior optime in mathematics. He had for some time been engaged to be married and it was necessary to earn a living. The choice seemed to be between waiting for years while he established a practice as a barrister, or emigrating to a colony. Through a family connexion he learned from Lord Grey, then secretary for the colonies, that there were good prospects in the Port Phillip district. He married on 28 May 1850, on 10 July sailed for Australia, and arrived at Melbourne on 26 October, bearing a letter of introduction from Lord Grey to the superintendent, C. J. La Trobe (q.v.).
Childers had scarcely landed before he heard that applications were being called for an inspectorship of denominational schools. He immediately applied for the position, and in the meanwhile became a tally clerk on Cole's wharf on the Yarra. On 6 January 1851 he received his appointment as inspector of schools at a salary of £250 a year. On 19 July 1851 Childers submitted his first half-yearly report. He had visited about 100 schools in Melbourne and in country districts. His report was comprehensive, business-like, and full of wisdom. On 31 July he submitted a further report on the national school system. In October he mentions in a letter to his sister that at the moment he held four offices under the Crown. He had been appointed immigration agent at a salary Of £350 a year, and he was receiving £100 a year as secretary to the educational board. On 1 January 1852 he became one of the national commissioners of education. An education commission bill, largely based on Childer's reports, had just been brought before the legislative council, but had been withdrawn on account of religious difficulties. In July 1852 a select committee on education was appointed, before which Childers gave much valuable evidence. In 1853 another bill was brought in by the government, but sectarian difficulties again prevented its adoption. It was not until 1862 that a really comprehensive education act was passed, many of the important provisions of which had been recommended by Childers in 1851.
Childers had a great capacity for work. While almost everyone was rushing to the diggings, the value of an able, conscientious and hard-working official. such as Childers was, could hardly escape recognition. In October 1852 he was appointed auditor-general of the colony at a salary of £1200 a year. He was then only twenty-five years of age and had had no training in finance. An unwise system of advances to departments known as "imprests" introduced by him led to great extravagance and irregularities, and eventually a sum of £280,000 remained unaccounted for. Childers was better employed in educational projects. He had given much time to primary education and now gave his consideration to the founding of the university of Melbourne. Childers never claimed to have first suggested it. More than two years before, in July 1850, commenting on a letter written by Bishop Perry (q.v.), the editor of the Melbourne Morning Herald had said: "The colony is ripe for the establishment of a University", Childers, however, was the first man to do anything positive. He and (Sir) William Stawell (q.v.) worked together over the estimates introduced on 4 November 1852, which included £10,000 for the proposed university, and together they made the original draft, which is in Childers's writing, of the university bill. On 1 December Childers moved, in the legislative council, that a committee of seven should be appointed to consider the establishing of the university, and on 11 January 1853, as chairman of this committee, he submitted its report. This was approved and on the same date he brought in the "bill to establish and endow a University at Melbourne", which was passed practically without opposition. When the council of the university was appointed (Sir) Redmond Barry (q.v.) was appointed chancellor and Childers vice-chancellor. Another institution that owes much to Childers is the Melbourne public library, though we need not necessarily regard him as the founder of it. He himself said in a letter written in 1881: "I also proposed to Mr La Trobe to found the Public Library", but it is likely that Barry may have raised the question before Childers did so. However, it is certainly true that it was Childers who, in January 1853, proposed to the legislative council that £3000 should be provided for a public library. Later on the sum was increased to £10,000 for the building and £3000 for books. Childers was also one of the five members of the original board of trustees.
In December 1853 Childers was appointed collector of customs at a salary of £2000 a year. In 1855, after responsible government had been granted to Victoria, he became commissioner of trade and customs in the first Victorian ministry with Haines (q.v.) as premier, but was in office for only three months. In September 1856, he was elected for Portland in the legislative assembly, in 1857 was appointed "Agent for Victoria" in London, at a salary of £1200 a year, and on 14 March Mr and Mrs Childers and their four boys sailed for England. However, one of the first letters received on his arrival informed Childers that his position had not been confirmed, and that the appointment would cease at the end of the year. On 12 March 1858 he went to Melbourne as representative of the well-known bankers, Baring and Company, in connexion with a proposed government loan of £7,000,000 which, however, fell through. He stayed in Melbourne for only two months, and during that time was offered a partnership by Mr F. G. Dalgety, founder of the house of Dalgety and Company Limited. Childers and his wife were, however, both anxious to return to London, and they finally left Australia on 16 July 1858.
Back in England, Childers was advised to stand for the house of commons, and on 30 January 1860 he was returned for Pontefract. He kept in touch with the anti-transportation league in Australia, and used his influence in the successful fight against sending more convicts to Western Australia. For some years he was a kind of unofficial representative of Victoria, but in November 1862 (Sir) John O'Shanassy (q.v.) wrote to inform him that in future he was to be called the "Agent for Victoria". In 1864 he entered Lord Palmerston's government as a junior lord of the admiralty, and showed administrative ability, especially in the bringing in of an audit act which worked successfully and without amendment for many years. In December 1868 he became first lord of the admiralty. In September 1870 the loss of the Captain with his own son on board, and the worries connected with the inquiries into the disaster, coupled with the long official hours he worked, led to a breakdown in health in 1871, and his retirement from office. In August 1872, with health restored, he was back in the cabinet as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. He resigned this position about a year later, and in February 1874 the Gladstone ministry was defeated at the general election. Out of office for the following six years, Childers spent much of his time in city business, being a director of several companies. In 1880 Gladstone came back to power and Childers became secretary of state for war. He was offered and declined the honour of G.C.B. in October 1882, and two months later became chancellor of the exchequer. He held this position until the defeat of the government in June 1885. At the next election he was defeated for Pontefract, but was returned for Edinburgh and became home secretary. On the defeat of Gladestone's home rule bill in June 1886, Childers finally went out of office. He retained his seat in the house of commons until his death at London on 29 January 1896. He was twice married (1) to Emily Walker, who died in 1875, (2) in 1879 to Mrs Elliot, who died in 1895. He was survived by his son, Lieut.-Colonel Spencer Childers, C.B., who wrote his life, and other sons and a daughter by the first marriage.
Childers was six feet high, and from middle life onwards, somewhat heavily built. He was not a great orator, scarcely more than a moderately good debater, but he had a remarkable grasp of detail, which made his speaking effective. He was an excellent administrator, and few men in the house of commons have held the successive offices of the admiralty, the war office, and the treasury with equal ability. Australia owes him a real debt for his work at Melbourne on primary education, the university and the public library.
Spencer Childers, The Life and Correspondence of the Right Hon. Hugh C. E. Childers; E. Sweetman, The Educational Activities in Victoria of the Right Hon. H. C. E. Childers; H. G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria; G. W. Rusden, History of Australia; P. Mennell, The Dictionary of Australasian Biography.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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