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Annie Hughston (1859–1943)

by Prudence Gill

Annie Hughston founded Fintona Ladies College, later to become Fintona Girls’ school, with her brother William, in Hawthorn, Melbourne in 1896. She was the owner and principal of the school until 1935 when it was sold to Margaret Cunningham. For the majority of those years: 1896–1921, and then again 1924–1927, she was also Headmistress. She was one of a number of remarkable women who owned and operated girls’ schools in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. However, she was distinguished in particular for her success, and Fintona was named in The Argus, in 1920, as the largest privately owned (as distinct from Church or company owned) school for girls in Melbourne.

If girls wanted education beyond the eight years provided free by Common schools in the 1890s, particularly if they wanted to qualify for University entrance, it was most likely they would pay for their tuition in a private school, rather than travel to the inner city government co-educational secondary school. In one regard, the conditions were ripe to open a new school for girls in the developing eastern suburbs of Melbourne. The Women’s Suffrage petition of 30,000 signatures, one of them Hughston’s, had been presented to the Victorian Parliament in 1891, attesting to a growing dissatisfaction with the social and political constraints on women’s lives. Nevertheless, it was a risky act to open a school so swiftly on the tail of the depression of the early 1890s. More so since neither Hughston, nor her brother William was backed by fortune or renown. For a young woman who first left school before she was 14 years of age, to become a pupil teacher in the Wesleyan School in Daylesford where her father was Head Teacher and her mother 1st assistant, it could be regarded as an audacious step.

Annie Hughston’s parents both grew up in Northern Ireland, and emigrated to Australia to settle in Victoria — her mother Catherine’s family in 1841, her father Johnston in 1855. They married in 1858, and Annie was born in 1859 in the Victorian town of Heathcote, where both parents were teachers at the Heathcote school. Four more children survived in the family. After leaving Heathcote and a brief spell as Head teacher at Berwick, in 1867 Johnston was appointed to the Wesleyan school, Daylesford, and it was there that the family was raised.

Annie matriculated in 1879 from Daylesford Grammar, having previously appeared briefly on Presbyterian Ladies’ College’s books. Following her training she was licensed to teach in 1881 and despite an appointment to Common school 262 in Gisborne, she swiftly switched to PLC where she taught for 13 years under the mentorship of the eminent mathematician John Purves Wilson. It was these years that she always cited to establish her professional status. Then, in 1894, she joined her brother William and sister Violet in the Camperdown High School they had opened some months before. That school was a success while operated by the Hughstons, but they sold it at the end of 1895 and returned to Melbourne with a new and ambitious plan in mind.

When Fintona opened, with 14 pupils on the first day, 4 February 1896, it was housed in a mansion rented by the Hughston family in Mayston St, Hawthorn, close to the boundary with Camberwell and advertised as ‘3 minutes from the Camberwell station’. Annie, William and Violet lived there with the boarders, the resident mistress, and perhaps their parents. While William was a co-founder with his sister, very quickly it was Annie who became the central figure of the school. William came and went, and in 1911 opened his own school for boys in Sandringham.

Surviving reminiscences from early pupils give a warm account of their relationship with Hughston, and she is described as leading Saturday evening games and charades for the boarders with ‘a good deal of hilarity and fun’. But games aside, Hughston ran the school with the clear belief that women could succeed in any field, and while domestic life might be the expected future for many girls, it was not, and should not be, their only option. Hughston was serious about scholarly education. She encouraged achievement by establishing an unusual non competitive system of prizes, such that any girl who achieved a set standard would receive a prize. For many years she taught three matriculation mathematics subjects, including the very difficult Euclid. She brought Physics and Chemistry into the curriculum in about 1915, subjects not then available in most independent girls’ schools. She celebrated the passing of public examinations, entry to University and the gaining of degrees. Music, science literature, languages, painting, elocution and needlework were all offered, and a non examination stream was introduced for those who did not wish to go on to tertiary studies. All girls were prepared for ‘intelligent citizenship’, and to develop the social skills that meant they could behave appropriately in a range of situations.

While Fintona was recognised (as distinct from owned) by the Presbyterian Church in 1909, entitling it to incorporate ‘Presbyterian’ in the school title, it was not particularly religious by the standards of the day. Against the trend, Hughston chose a secular motto — ‘Age Quod Agis’ which she interpreted as ‘do one thing at a time, and do it thoroughly’. When the school was later sold, it was described as ‘non-denominational’.

There are other ways in which Hughston could be said to have a progressive educational philosophy. Daily sessions of physical education were introduced, and in 1912, a neighbouring house was bought and converted to open air classrooms. New boarding accommodation included open-air cubicles for bedrooms. Hughston offered girls responsibilities — such as playing a role in daily assembly, electing prefects (an honour which was ultimately removed) and expressing their views freely in the school magazine. It was publicly reported that ‘both teachers and prefects are allowed more liberty, and undertake more responsibility than most schools.’ 

Hughston saw early childhood education as crucial and emphasised the importance of play in learning. She gave children a garden in which to grow things, and selectively adopted the Montessori system. Later, in the early 1920s, the school experimented with the Dalton Plan, a student centred approach to learning. In 1923 the house system was introduced, and it became the unit of organisation of the school, giving it a vertical structure in which girls were daily in contact with those both younger and older than themselves. The house mistress followed the girls throughout their secondary years, making for consistent pastoral care. 

Beyond the school, Hughston was on the committee of management of the Boroondara Free Kindergarten, and was an elected council member of the IARTV (the incorporated association of registered teachers of Victoria).

In an act quite unconventional for the time, particularly for a woman with such responsibilities, Hughston adopted a daughter, Betty, most probably in 1908, thus becoming a single parent. By that time her own parents were failing, close to death, and her siblings had made their lives quite separate from Fintona, so responsibility for Betty was entirely hers. Betty became a pupil at the school, and the two lived together well into Hughston’s old age.

By 1920, when the school’s numbers were at their peak, Hughston owned the goodwill of Fintona and all the land, equipment, and buildings – except for the flagship mansion. Furthermore, she ran the school as such a highly successful business that it was flourishing and in demand. Now she was faced with having to plan a building project to accommodate the student growth. This coincided with the first of her attempts to reduce her responsibilities. She appointed the first of three Headmistresses — their tenure all short lived, leaving her to pick up the role herself in the gaps between, despite being well beyond retirement age. It was not until 1935 at 76 years old that she was able to ‘release’ herself from the onerous stewardship of the school, by selling to the very colourful Margaret Cunningham, then a science teacher on her staff. Fintona continued to have a reputation as a progressive school for girls after it was sold.

Annie Hughston was a confident, courageous educationalist, held affectionately by students in her youthful years according to their own testimony, and respected as a more distant figure as she aged and the school grew. She was also complex: a risk taker, yet in many ways, conservative; a public figure, yet retiring from publicity; an innovator and yet an upholder of the social values of her milieu. The best of the ‘lady principals’ in the early years of the 20th century were strong women with business acumen and high ideals for the education of girls. Hughston, who for most of her long career had no personal or professional partners, stands out amongst them. Her achievements were hers alone. 

* This summary is based on a longer, referenced essay: Mary Lush, Elisabeth Christensen, Prudence Gill and Elizabeth Roberts, 'The Lady Principal, Miss Annie Hughston (1859 -1943)', Australian Journal of Biography and History, no 1, 2018, pp 23-57

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Citation details

Prudence Gill, 'Hughston, Annie (1859–1943)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 13 June 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


23 May, 1859
Heathcote, Victoria, Australia


16 April, 1943 (aged 83)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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