Founders of the Royal Australian Historical Society: Arthur Ashworth Aspinall (1847-1929)

by Geoffrey Sherington (Councillor and Fellow)

The Rev. Arthur Ashworth Aspinall, member of the first Council and fourth President of the Society, was born in Yorkshire and came to Australia aged ten. His education was a mixture of Congregationalist and Presbyterian influences. Ordained a Presbyterian Minister in 1873, he became founding Principal of The Scots College Sydney in 1893.

The interest of Aspinall in Australian history and the Society seemed to have various origins. Early in life he had developed a strong admiration and respect for that influential figure in the Australian colonies: the Rev. J.D.Lang. A personal friend and mentor, Lang officiated at the wedding in 1877 of Aspinall to Helen Strahorn, daughter of a wealthy pastoralist in the Forbes district. From 1874 to 1889 Aspinall was Presbyterian minister at Forbes becoming committed to encouraging an Australian nativism in the Church so that ministers would become more sympathetic with their locally born parishioners.

Aspinall also sought to encourage the education of the colonial born. With financial support from his wife's family, Aspinall provided the funds necessary to establish The Scots College. While the College was under the nominal control of the Presbyterian Church for its first decade it was essentially Aspinall's school as he recruited the boys, many of whom were the sons of his former parishioners at Forbes, and also provided the site and paid the staff. Established first at Lady Robinson's Beach close to Rockdale, the school moved to Bellevue Hill in 1895 when Aspinall bought St Killian's, one of the grand mansions built in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney on land of the former estate of Sir Daniel Cooper.

By 1901 when the RAHS was founded Aspinall had a number of important social connections. He was a personal friend of the architect John Horbury Hunt who had designed many of the villas in the Eastern Suburbs, including Cranbrook just down the hill from St Killian's. ( In 1904 Aspinall buried Hunt after helping to save him from a pauper's grave). At the same time, his personal circumstances were changing. Now aged in his mid-fifties, his family had grown up with all five children, four sons and a daughter, becoming medical doctors. From 1902 he was negotiating to sell the College to the Presbyterian Church. The transfer finally occurred in 1907 after the Presbyterian Assembly agreed to his price of 7000 pounds. Aspinall would remain as Principal but his interests had already become more focused on literary matters, including Australian history.

In the early months of the Society Aspinall attended only a few Council meetings. By 1902 he was more active in Society affairs. In November 1902, a Council meeting of the Society was held at The Scots College In August 1903 Aspinall delivered a paper on 'The Administration of Governor Bligh'. The Society minutes recorded that 'A number of youths from the Scots College were also present, through the kindness of Principal Aspinall'. Three months later Aspinall was elected President of the Society for the following year.

As President, Apsinall was notable for his lack of attendance at both Council and General meetings. He did deliver his Presidential address at the March 1904 General Meeting at which there were also a number of The Scots College boys present. Otherwise, he often left the chair of meetings to be taken by the Rev. Yarrington, who had preceded him as President in 1903, or Dr Houison who would become President in 1908.

Following his year as President, Aspinall remained on the Council for 1905 but did not attend any Council meetings and from then appears to have taken no further part as a leading member of the Society. Other interests distracted him. In 1906, he played a major part in the campaign to secure the appointment of his daughter Jessie as the first female medical registrar at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He also turned more to his own scholarly interests enrolling at the University of Sydney to study the Elizabethan period, and being awarded a Master's degree in 1912 at the age of 66 for his thesis on 'The metaphysical significance of the Renaissance'.

Aspinall retired from The Scots College in 1913. He returned to Britain with a hope of finding ministerial work but his wife died there in 1915. His four sons enlisted in the First World War and the youngest was killed in Belgium in 1917. Returning to Australia he lived quietly with his family at Turramurra along with his long-time Japanese servant, Jack Morita, and an elderly Scotsman, George Edwards, until his death aged 83 in 1929.

The association of Aspinall with the Society reveals a number of factors. First, there was the importance of the clergy as scholars and leading members of the educated elite in colonial society. Secondly, there was the importance of the social status of the Society involving the Principal of a leading boys' school. Finally, there was the personal interests of Aspinall himself in the study of the past - both Australian colonial and British. In this combination of the social and the personal we can perhaps find some of the reasons that also brought together many of the initial Council of the Society.


ADB, Vol. 7.

Royal Australian Historical Society Archives

Geoffrey Sherington and Malcolm Prentis, Scots to the Fore, Sydney, 1993

Magazine of the Royal Australian Historical Society, June 1993

J.M. Freeland, Architect Extraordinary, Melbourne, 1970