The University of Adelaide is a commanding presence on North Terrace. When it began in 1874 South Australia was less than 40 years old, with a population of a mere 200,00 or so. But as in many other ways, the colony looked firmly to a progressive future, confident that it would grow into its aspirations. This was a time of changing views on education in general. In 1875 elementary education was made compulsory for all South Australian children and state-funded schools were built to provide it. There were new concepts of university education too, placing more emphasis on 'modern' subjects like science, mathematics and modern languages, and less on the 'classics' which had dominated the curricula of the older universities. The original vision for the University of Adelaide embraced this brave new world. Its founding Act provided that it be open to all classes and denominations and early supporters argued that it should teach both modern subjects, even 'practical' subjects like engineering, as well as the classics. Even more radical was a proposal that it have the power to admit women to degrees. This was too much for the Colonial Secretary in London however. He rejected this proposal initially, along with an intention to confer degrees in science. Both points were conceded in 1880, after strong insistence from South Australia, making the University of Adelaide the first university in Australia with the power to admit women to degrees. The first woman duly graduated (in science) in 1885, two years after the first female graduate from the University of Melbourne. 

Although parliament reserved land for the university adjacent to North Terrace, it was some years before building began.  This initial university reserve was quite modest - a mere 98 metres wide by 195 metres deep - with boundaries near the present laneway by the Art Gallery and to the west of Bonython Hall.  Luckily for the university, the area to the north remained empty, part of the North Parklands. For the first few years the university conducted classes in the Teachers Training School in Grote Street, but in 1877 South Australian architect James McGeorge won a competition to design the university's first building. This proved a contentious decision and McGeorge was replaced by the second prize-winner Michael Egan of Melbourne. Egan too fell foul of the university council (his building was thought to be too expensive) and another local architect, William McMinn, was asked to modify Egan's design. McWinn is usually accredited with the design of the building, although the original concept was actually developed by Egan. Not surprisingly, given all this controversy, the foundation stone of what was known simply as the University Building was not laid until July 1879. Two years later students moved into the still-incomplete building and classes began on site. University Building opened officially in April 1882. Vice-Chancellor Sir Samuel Way noted proudly that there were then 87 students enrolled. The University Building, renamed the Mitchell Building in 1961, accommodated all classes in arts, science, law and music, as well as the library and administration, until the end of the nineteenth century. Looking at the extensive building on the university's current, much-expanded reserve, this is hard to imagine. There are now 25,000 students at the University of Adelaide.

Access to education

In truth though, a university education was well beyond the aspirations of most South Australians at this time. Despite the university's admirable intention to accept all classes and denominations, relatively few families could afford to support their children through the extended years of secondary schooling required to qualify for university entrance, let alone through the additional time required to take out a degree. Until 1875 elementary education was not even compulsory and even after this, many children failed to attend school either consistently, or for very long. Access to secondary education was limited too. The first state-funded secondary school was actually the Advanced School for Girls, established in Franklin Street in 1879, but parents wishing to send their girls there were still required to pay fees.  No equivalent for boys was established for another 30 years, although some government scholarships were available to send boys to private schools. Until well after the Second World War, a university education was the preserve of a very small minority. Despite the existence of the Advanced School for girls the barriers to women attending university were far greater than for boys. Most parents concentrated their efforts (and their investment) on educating their boys, assuming that their girls would simply marry and raise families.  Indeed many workplaces refused to emply women once they married. And without any system of childcare, the advent of children was a further barrier. Prejudice, both within the university and outside in the workforce, also meant that these early female students had to be very determined indeed, especially in particularly male-dominated professions like medicine or engineering. Accommodation was also a problem for women students. The first university college for women, St Ann's, was not established until 1939, although in fact it did not open until 1947 because the Second World War intervened. Until then female undergraduates had to find their own, private accommodation. It was not until the Women's Liberation Movement of the 1970s that issues of gender equity were addressed systematically by universities in Australia. There are now slightly more female students than male at most Ausralian universities.

Growth of the campus

As the number of students grew, so too did buildings to accommodate them. One of the first to be added was another of the university's heritage buildings on North Terrace - the Elder Hall, home to the Elder Conservatorium of Music. The Elder Conservatorium is the oldest tertiary music school in Australia and traces its history to 1883. Elder Hall, named for its benefactor, Sir Thomas Elder, opened to students in 1900. Elder's statue stands on the lawn outside the building. The building features a notable hammer-beam roof, modelled on the Middle Temple in London, and a contemporary organ, built by Canadian Casavant Frères. Regular concerts are performed there. Next door heading east is Bonython Hall, which functions as the university's 'great hall'.  It was built in 1933-36 after a substantial donation from Sir John Langdon Bonython.  Bonython Hall is listed on the State Heritage Register. Also significant is the original reading room of the Barr Smith Library, which opened in 1932. The library was named for the Barr Smith family who had already provided generous endowments for book purchases, then followed these with a large gift (some £30,000) to build a suitable library. Architect Walter H. Bagot designed the bulding, which is in a classic Renaissance style thought to be particularly suited to Adelaide's Mediterranean climate.  When it opened in 1932 it was thought that the library 'should be ample for one hundred years to come'. It seems a touchingly naive aspiration now. However the beauty of the reading room, with its gilded ceiling and Latin inscribed freize, continues to delight readers who seek its quiet corners. The frieze salutes the generosity of the Barr Smith family and bears more than a passing resemblance to similar inscriptions on Renaissance buildings in Europe.

Over successive decades the University expanded further both east and west. In the 1960s the rather splendid 1880s Julilee Exhibition Building on North Terrace was demolished to make way for a much less splendid Arts Faculty block, while the Ligertwood Building was built to house the Law School. Two notable contemporary buldings adjacent to the Barr Smith Library opened in 2012 and 2013. They are the Ingkarni Wardli building, home to the Faculty of Engineering, Hub Central, the most recent of several expansions of the Barr Smith Library, and The Braggs, named after two Nobel Prize recipients and graduates of the University of Adelaide, Sir William Henry Bragg and his son Sir William Lawrence Bragg. Five university staff or alumni have been awarded Nobel prizes over the years for physics (2), medicine (2) and literature (1). 

Mark Trevor Nicholas's picture
Mark Trevor Nicholas says:

I believe my paternal /paternal great grandmother , Mary Maude Kirby, was a science graduate of the University of Adelaide in 1895 - was she your first woman graduate? Can you add anything of note - ? her major.

Thank You

Dr Mark Nicholas

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References: 

Rob Linn The spirit of knowledge: A social history of the University of Adelaide North Terrace campus Adelaide, Barr Smith Press, 2011

Alison Mackinnon Women, Love and Learning: the double bind  Peter Long, Bern, 2010

Alison Mackinnon 'Girls, Schools and Society: a generation of change', Australian Feminist Studies, Vol. 21, No. 50, July 2006, pp. 275-88.