Attention Internet Explorer User

Your web browser has been identified as Internet Explorer .

In the coming months this site is going to be updated to improve security, accessibility and mobile experience. Older versions of Internet Explorer do not provide the functionality required for these changes and as such your browser will no longer be supported as of September 2020. If you require continued access to this site then you will need to install a different browser such as Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome.

People Australia

  • searches all National Centre of Biography websites
  • searches all National Centre of Biography websites
  • searches all National Centre of Biography websites

Browse Lists:

O'Connor, Janet (1827–1895)

by Elisabeth Wheeler

Janet O’Connor was born near Truro, Cornwall, in 1827, and was the daughter of Captain Andrew Dods MD, RN, and Eleanor Mein, daughter of Dr William Pattison and Margaret (nee Rashleigh) of Duporth, Cornwall. Janet was likely tutored at home, and then attended a college in Bath where she received a good education by the standards of the day for women. She grew up during a time when the movement for the education of young women was gaining momentum and academies for young women’s education were being established, particularly in London and Bath. Her family background was one of learning, education and civic service. 

Janet married Daniel O’Connor, merchant, in London in 1852. Daniel was the son of Captain Daniel O’Connor of the St Helena Guard (to Napolean). After their marriage the O’Connors emigrated to Victoria, Daniel arriving first, with Janet and their son arriving in 1855 on the Goldfinder. The family settled in Ballarat. The couple had four more children in Victoria – in all three girls and two boys, Daniel (b.1852), Alice (b.1856), Thomas (b.1857), Kate (b.1859) and Janet (b.1860). 

Janet opened her own school in Ballarat in about 1864, which she ran successfully until January 1873 when it was sold. She appears to have been on the staff of Mrs Wigmore’s girls’ school Leigh House, Richmond, in 1874 as, towards the end of the year, she applied from the school for the position of first Lady Principal of the new Brisbane Girls Grammar. On the strength of her application and references, Janet was subsequently appointed and commenced in the role in March 1875. By this time she was a known author having written and published a poem Ich Dien (Melbourne, 1872) dedicated to the Prince of Wales on his marriage to Princess Alexandra; her second literary work was a poetic address Resurgens (London, 1873) for the unveiling of a statue in Melbourne to the explorers, Burke and Wills. Her literary works would later be described as ‘Tennysonian’. 

Brisbane Girls Grammar was established under the Queensland Grammar Schools Act 1860 and was the first of its kind in Australia. Under the Act, Grammar schools could be established with the financial support of government which awarded scholarships to its brightest students, provided for fee-paying students, and was non-denominational. Each grammar school was run by a Board of Trustees, with some nominees appointed by government. Janet O’Connor was offered the position by the Brisbane Grammar School’s Board chairman, Justice Charles Lilley. In accepting the role O’Connor stated that ‘she was aware that the position afforded opportunities for the realisation of many ideals in respect to the higher development of women’. Her philosophy of education, however, would differ to the established grammar mode and, after two years and having built up the curriculum, she resigned by mutual agreement as from 1 January 1877. She quickly established her own school in the city, offering education for girls from early primary through to senior, and appointed the best teachers. Mrs O’Connor’s School offered a broad, liberal education with emphasis on English, languages, music and art. She was known as a woman of intelligence, culture and high character and believed in the education of women, their independence and emancipation from the strictures of the Victorian Age. O’Connor’s method was to instil a love of learning and appreciation for the arts; she allowed girls to progress at their own pace in a nurturing environment. She wanted her young women to emerge with cultivated minds and to contribute to society. The school’s enrolments represented the professional, legislative, judicial, pastoral and emergent middle classes, and ran successfully from 1877 to 1887. During this time her husband, Daniel, had been supportive of Janet’s profession and commitment to girls’ education. He settled into life in Brisbane and became a member of the Royal Society of Queensland and Natural History Society, and joined the staff of the Australian Joint Stock Bank, a position he held for many years until retirement.

Wanting to provide a superior boarding and day school for girls in a healthy atmosphere and spacious grounds, O’Connor relocated her school and founded Duporth at Oxley, on the outskirts of Brisbane in 1888. Duporth was designed by the leading architectural firm, John Hall and Son, and was purpose-built. The school thrived in the new environment and gained a reputation as one of the leading schools in Brisbane and Queensland. As in the city school, Duporth presented candidates for the junior and senior examinations, set by the University of Sydney and, later, by the University of Queensland. 

Janet O’Connor died in July 1895, greatly mourned by her family, students and many friends. A devoted educator, she had dedicated herself to the education of girls for over three decades, the last twenty years in Queensland. Duporth continued under her daughters; Kate O’Connor became principal on her mother’s death. The reputation of the school did not diminish. Duporth women went on to become teachers, nurses, doctors, writers, artists, and musicians. Among the friends of Duporth was the renowned opera singer, Nellie Melba. She and Janet O’Connor's Janet had been friends since their shared school days at Leigh House, Richmond, and Melba would visit Duporth when in Queensland. In 1909, during her tour of Queensland, Melba stayed at Duporth as the official guest of the O’Connors. The school closed in 1920, but was continued under the Ursuline Sisters from 1925 to 1957. 

Select Bibliography

  • Spencer Browne, ‘A Journalist’s Memories, 1877-1925’, Brisbane Courier, 26 September 1925, p 18
  • Lorraine Cazalar, Diana Hacker, and Patricia Hallam, Recalling the unsung carers of body, mind and soul, Bowen Hills, QWHA, 1998
  • Ralph Fones, ed., Oxley-Chelmer, the dynamic and the genteel, Papers IV, Sherwood, Oxley-Chelmer History Group, 2004
  • Matthew Fox, The history of Queensland: its people and industries: an historical and commercial review, descriptive and biographical facts, figures and illustrations: an epitome of progress, Brisbane, States Publishing Company, 1923
  • Judith Hancock, The emergence of secondary education for girls in Queensland: the case of the Girls Grammar School, Brisbane, 1875-1882, Master of Philosophy Thesis, University of Southern Queensland, 1995
  • Greg Logan, ‘A woman of substance: Janet O’Connor and the education of girls in a masculine society’, The Educational Historian, vol 5, no 3, 1992, pp 1-7
  • Peter Prideaux, Brisbane Girls Grammar School: the first sixty years 1875-1935, Brisbane, Boolarong Publications, 1985
  • Elisabeth Wheeler, ‘Mrs Janet O’Connor: educator and the Duporth School for Young Women — a Melba connection’, Queensland History Journal, vol. 23, no. 4, February 2017, pp. 255-269
  • Queensland Women’s Historical Association, Meeting of 19 April 1956, Address given by Mrs CM Bancroft
  • Queenslander, ‘The late Mrs O’Connor’, 20 July 1895, p 124

Original Publication

  • People Australia, 28 July 2020

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Elisabeth Wheeler, 'O'Connor, Janet (1827–1895)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/oconnor-janet-30750/text38095, accessed 27 September 2020.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012