James Corrigan (1823-1871), educationist, was born on 14 February 1823 in Pettigo, County Donegal, Ireland, son of William Corrigan, mathematician and teacher, in a Wesleyan Methodist school, and his wife Ann. James became a teacher and was later headmaster of a Wesleyan school in north Ireland. At 25 he became principal of the Wesleyan Training School in Dublin. There he matriculated at Trinity College (M.A., LL.B., 1861; LL.D., 1864). In 1856 he had married Lucy, daughter of George Chapman of Belfast; they had three daughters and a son.
In 1865 Corrigan left the Dublin Training School and, after some months at the Westminster Normal Institution, was appointed inspector of National schools in Ireland. Later that year he accepted the first headmastership of Wesley College, Melbourne, where he arrived in February 1866. He soon became one of the best known educationists in Victoria. The new college flourished under his headmastership and the presidency of his close friend, Rev. James Waugh. Within a year he had 80 boys enrolled, and four years later 207, of whom 62 were boarders. This figure made Wesley probably the largest boarding school in Victoria and was a tribute to the success Corrigan was enjoying as an able, well-liked headmaster. He did not live at the school, but was simply the scholastic head, while Waugh had control outside formal teaching hours. This unusual arrangement lasted until 1890 and it worked smoothly.
Corrigan was active in the general educational life of Victoria. In September 1866 he was appointed to the royal commission on education which, under the chairmanship of George Higinbotham, examined the controversial question of church-state relations. Corrigan attended forty-seven of the fifty-two meetings of the commission and took an important part in its special sub-committees. His knowledge of the Irish and English National systems and his convictions on the value of National schools made him one of the ‘four most active and influential men on the Commission’. Although Corrigan shared the determination of other commissioners to stop assistance to Denominational schools he believed, like Higinbotham, that religion had a place in education, and supported the final ‘compromise’ recommended by the commission which allowed for undogmatic religious instruction, based on a ‘common Christianity’, in the National schools. The bill was introduced on 7 May 1867 but failed to win sufficient support and was withdrawn on 4 June by a bitter and disappointed Higinbotham.
Corrigan was also an energetic member of the Board of Education, which controlled the colony’s primary common schools. He joined the board in September 1867 and became its chairman in October 1870. As effective head of the government schools, he clearly showed that he believed in them, in compulsory attendance and in strict supervision of the qualifications of teachers. He helped to establish a system of government exhibitions whereby boys with ability could attend secondary school and university. He was a member of the Council of the Royal Society of Victoria, of the University Senate, and of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, with which he was associated at St Kilda where he lived. There he died on 7 January 1871 from rheumatic fever. His wife returned to Ireland with the surviving children and died at Belfast in 1872.
E. Nye (ed), The History of Wesley College 1865-1919 (Melb, 1921); G. M. Dow, George Higinbotham: Church and State (Melb, 1964); G. Blainey et al, Wesley College: The First Hundred Years (Melb, 1967); Age (Melbourne), 9 Jan 1871; Argus (Melbourne), 9 Jan 1871; Illustrated Australian News, 30 Jan 1871.
Author: Peter Gill
Print Publication Details: Peter Gill, ‘Corrigan, James (1823 – 1871)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, Melbourne University Press, 1969, pp 464-465.