Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pearson, Charles Henry

PEARSON, CHARLES HENRY (1830–1894), colonial minister and historian, born at Islington on 7 Sept. 1830, was fourth son of the Rev. John Norman Pearson [q. v.] His brother, Sir John Pearson [q. v.] the judge, is separately noticed. He was a quiet boy, and, his parents belonging to the evangelical party, he was when quite young accustomed to read many religious books. Having, until the age of twelve, been taught by his father, he was in 1843 sent to Rugby school, where he remained until May 1846. After being for a year with a private tutor, he entered King's College, London, in 1847, and that year obtained the prize for English poetry. At King's College he was diligent, became a disciple of Frederick Denison Maurice [q. v.], and highly valued the teaching of Professor John Sherren Brewer [q. v.] While acting as a special constable on 10 April 1848, the day of the chartist demonstration, he contracted a chill, which brought on a long and severe illness and left permanent bad effects on his constitution. He matriculated as a commoner from Oriel College, Oxford, in June 1849, obtained a scholarship at Exeter College the next year, and was in the first class in the literæ humaniores examination in the Michaelmas term of 1852. He graduated B.A. in 1853, proceeding M.A. in 1856. From boyhood he knew French, and while an undergraduate he studied, in addition to his university work, German, of which he read much, Bohemian, Italian, and Swedish; he belonged to a small society for intellectual discussion, which included some of the most promising among the younger members of the university, and he was president of the Union debating society. Intending to enter the medical profession, he read anatomy and physiology at Oxford for about two years after taking his degree, employing himself also in private tuition. In Easter term 1854 he was elected a fellow of Oriel, and soon after, being attacked by pleurisy, gave up his intention of becoming a physician, on the advice of his doctors. In the following year he was appointed lecturer on English literature, and shortly afterwards professor of modern history at King's College, London. He obtained the prize for a poem on a sacred subject at Oxford in 1857 with a poem on the death of Jacob, and about that time became a contributor to the ‘Saturday Review.’ He was editor of the short-lived ‘National Review’ in 1862–3. Believing that his religious opinions were not in harmony with those held by the authorities at King's College, he proposed to the principal, Dr. Richard William Jelf [q. v.], to resign his professorship without making the cause of his resignation public, but was persuaded by Jelf to retain office, and did so until 1865. For several years he travelled much in Europe, applying himself when abroad to the study of foreign languages, and in 1865 visited Australia, and remained there about a year. From 1869 to 1871 he lectured on modern history at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Finding that his eyesight was suffering, he resolved to emigrate in 1871, and to engage in sheep-farming in South Australia. He landed in Australia in December, and his health was much strengthened by his new mode of life. On 6 Dec. 1872 he married, at Gawler, Edith Lucille, daughter of Philip Butler of Tickford Abbey, Buckinghamshire. About a year after his marriage he gave up farming, and, leaving South Australia, became in 1874 lecturer on history at the university of Melbourne. He resigned this post in 1875, and was appointed to the head-mastership of the Ladies' Presbyterian College, which he resigned in 1877, on account of the dislike with which the patrons of the college regarded his advocacy of a policy with reference to the land question contrary to their own (The Age, 4 June 1894). He took a deep interest in the public affairs of the colony; from this time onwards contributed freely to its newspapers; and in 1877 unsuccessfully contested the representation of Boroondara in the liberal interest. Having been appointed by the minister of education to inquire into, and report on, the state of education in Victoria, and the best and most economical mode of rendering it completely free, he drew up an exhaustive report, issued in the spring of 1878, advocating several changes of system, some of which have since been adopted. For this report, which involved much labour, he received a fee of 1,000l. He was in the same year elected member of the legislative assembly for Castlemaine. He advocated an advanced liberal policy, specially with regard to a progressive taxation of landed estates. Being chosen to accompany Mr. (afterwards Sir) Graham Berry on his unsuccessful mission to England to request the intervention of the home government in a difficulty between the houses of the legislature, he left Australia on 27 Dec. and returned in June 1879. He was re-elected for Castlemaine in 1880, and was minister without portfolio in the Berry administration from the August of that year until July 1881, when he was offered the agent-generalship of Victoria; but the ministry being then on the point of being turned out, he did not think that it would be honourable to take the office, and accordingly declined it. He was elected in 1883 for the East Bourke boroughs, for which he sat until the general election in April 1892, when he did not contest the seat. On the formation of the Gillies and Deakin administration, in February 1886, he became minister of education, and held that office until November 1890.

His official duties were congenial to him, and he performed them zealously, introducing many changes into the system of education in the colony. Working in opposition to the general colonial tendency, he set himself to separate primary from secondary education, and to this end founded two hundred scholarships, admitting the holders of them to pass from primary to high schools. He tried, though without success, to make the compulsory clauses of the Education Act as operative as like provisions in Switzerland, reduced the limit of compulsory attendance at school from fifteen to thirteen years of age, and the statutory amount of attendances from forty to thirty days a quarter. He largely raised the pay of certificated teachers, though he made some saving in that direction by employing teachers of inferior quality in very small schools. Believing strongly in the importance of technical education, he procured liberal endowments for technical schools, and increased their number; and, having obtained the assistance of an expert from England, he reorganised the teaching of drawing. He was a firm supporter of secular education as established in the colony, thinking it the only means of securing perfect fairness towards all religious denominations. Some parts of his work as minister are embodied in the Act for Amending the Education Act, which he succeeded in carrying through both the houses of the colonial parliament in 1889. At the time of his resignation of office he was preparing a scheme for the abolition of the system of payment by results.

An attack of influenza with pneumonia in 1892 led to his retirement from the assembly and to his return to England, where for a time his health was restored. Owing to pecuniary losses he accepted in 1893 the post of permanent secretary to the agent-general. He contributed to some English journals, and in 1893 published his ‘National Life and Character: a Forecast,’ which attracted general attention. In this book Pearson arrived at very pessimistic conclusions respecting the future of mankind. He prophesied the triumph of state socialism, the substitution of the state for the church, the loosening of family bonds, the tyranny of industrial organisations, and other developments consequent on the growth of modern democracy in highly civilised countries. He pointed out that these developments imply the decay of character, of independent genius, and of all that is best and noblest; and he argued that the time will come when Europeans will find that the increase of the black and yellow races will be so far greater in proportion to the white that Chinamen and negroes will become masterful factors in the trade and politics of the world. A second edition appeared in 1894, and the reception of the work held out to its author the hope of further literary success. He died in London on 29 May 1894, in his sixty-fourth year, his wife and three daughters surviving him. Speeches were made by the head of the government of Victoria and others in the assembly on 5 June expressing the general regret with which the news of his death had been received, and the high esteem felt for him by men of different parties. In 1895 his widow was granted a pension of 100l. on the civil list.

Pearson was a polished speaker, and his literary style was simple and graceful. Though he was primarily a man of letters, he showed practical ability in public affairs. His convictions were strong, and he stated them courageously and in forcible language, yet he never spoke harshly of his opponents; and one of the foremost of them, in a speech made in the legislative assembly on his death, declared that he had not left a personal enemy, and that he had raised the tone of debate in the house. Throughout his whole career he showed a fine sense of honour, and was always ready to sacrifice his personal interests to what he believed to be right. He was an honorary LL.D. of the university of St. Andrews.

In addition to ‘National Life and Character,’ magazine articles, contributions to journalism, and the report already noticed, his published works are:

  1. ‘Russia, by a recent Traveller,’ 1859, written after a visit to that country in the previous year.
  2. ‘The Early and Middle Ages of England,’ 1861, a brightly written and interesting book, though not fully representing the then state of historical scholarship, and afterwards held unsatisfactory by the author, who extensively revised it, and republished it as the first volume of
  3. ‘The History of England during the Early and Middle Ages,’ 1867, 2 vols., the second volume of which continues the history from the accession of John to the death of Edward I. This book was reviewed with some bitterness by E. A. Freeman in the ‘Fortnightly Review,’ 1868 (vol. ix. new ser. iii. pp. 397 sqq.), though the value of the second volume was acknowledged by him as well as by all others. Pearson replied to Freeman's review, referring to other criticisms which had appeared elsewhere anonymously, though coming, as he believed, from the same quarter, in a pamphlet entitled
  4. ‘A Short Answer to Mr. Freeman's Strictures,’ &c.
  5. ‘An Essay on the Working of Australian Institutions’ in ‘Essays on Reform,’ 1867.
  6. ‘An Essay’ in ‘Essays on Woman's Work,’ 1869.
  7. ‘Historic Maps of England during the first Thirteen Centuries,’ 1870, a work of much value.
  8. ‘English History in the Fourteenth Century,’ 1873, a handbook.
  9. ‘A Brief Statement of the Constitutional Question in Victoria’ [1879?], a pamphlet.
  10. ‘An English Grammar,’ with Professor H. A. Strong, published in Australia. Pearson also edited Blaauw's [see Blaauw, William Henry] ‘Barons' War,’ 1871, and Thirteen Satires of Juvenal, with Professor Strong, Oxford, 1887, 1892.

[Mennell's Dict. of Australian Biogr.; Age (Melbourne), 4 and 6 June 1894; Argus (Melbourne), 2 June 1894; Westminster Gazette, 1 June 1894, with portrait; Academy, 9 June 1894; Sydney Mail, 16 June 1894, with portrait; private information.]

W. H.