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Tasmania’s first Professor of English celebrated

Research | Newsroom

He was Tasmania’s first Professor of English, but William Henry Williams was also the only lecturer in the subject for the first three decades of the University’s life.

Williams was one of just three academics hired as the entire teaching staff of the new University of Tasmania in 1892.

He would teach English, solo, until 1925, receiving the odd bit of help from interstate colleagues with setting and marking papers.

The cover of Dr Ralph Spaulding's book about Professor William Henry Williams,
Dr Ralph Spaulding's new book

Williams is the subject of a new book by Dr Ralph Spaulding, William Henry Williams: Tasmania’s First Professor of English, published this month by Australian Scholarly Publishing.

“William's teaching schedule was very heavy,” Dr Spaulding says.

“At its height he was conducting seven to nine hours of English lectures a week and at least the same number of hours in Classics (until a lecturer arrived in 1906).

“He coped with these demands, in part at least, by not changing the undergraduate English course content he prescribed in the early 1890s for the next 30 years.”

Born in England in 1852, Williams was appointed alongside Jethro Brown (Law and History) and Alexander McAulay (Mathematics and Physics) to get the University’s teaching underway. All three were promoted to professors in 1896.

He was also a poet and essayist remembered by students as kind and shy.

“Some remembered how he became flustered when reading the more risqué passages from the works being studied,” Dr Spaulding says.

“When he was incapacitated with a serious leg injury in 1922, he invited students to his home to ensure their tuition continued.”

Married with three children, he lived in north-eastern wing of Domain House until 1907. His children, who’d play on the banister of the building’s stairs, were often warned about noise when lectures were taking place. The family eventually moved to a home they built in Wellesley Street, South Hobart. Williams was well regarded by the community for his public lectures and as a deacon at Davey Street Congregational Church.

Among a host of firsts, he was inaugural Dean of the Faculty of Letters (Arts), Chair of the Professorial Board, Chair of the Board of Examinations, first staff member to be elected to the University Council and first to be accorded the title of Emeritus Professor.

He retired in 1925 and died in 1941, aged 88.

Dr Spaulding says Williams’ legacy is his well-regarded research, a host of successful students and his significant contribution to getting the University started.

“Both his conscientious and thorough leadership and his participation in public activities contributed significantly to the University's survival and ultimate success,” he says.

William Henry Williams: Tasmania’s First Professor of English is available for $39.95 at