Carmel Court (formerly Hofwyl House Academy)

188 Barkly Street, St Kilda


This unpretentious 1930s two-storied cream brick block of 13 flats fronted with five shops (188A-E), conceals a remarkable survivor: an early purpose-built private bluestone school and brick residence built by James Bonwick.

Bonwick (1817-1906) was an extraordinary and tirelessly entrepreneurial figure: teacher, author, historian and anthropologist.  He built and operated the private school here, the Hofwyl House Academy, from 1862.  It never received any government funding, but became very prosperous, with an enrolment of over 150 boys.

The brick building, also behind the flats, presumably Bonwick’s residence was built first, in 1865-66 and the ten-roomed Gothic bluestone school, over 1866-67.  Later, a rear brick wing was added.  The school was designed by important Melbourne architects Crouch and Wilson (8).  Bluestone buildings are rare south of the river, due to cartage costs of the stone from the western suburbs.


Plan of former Hofwyl House Academy

No other non-denominational boys’ private school is known in St Kilda, but the Priory (28), Oberwyl (27), and Wattle House (23) operated as private schools for girls.

The late Vida Horn has noticed the curious similarity between the name ‘Hofwyl’, (in German, hof meaning ‘court’, or ’smallholding’ and wyl, a place name suffix) and ‘Oberwyl’, (ober, in German, being ‘higher’).  Oberwyl was a girls’ school named two years later, in 1867, after its founder, Madame Pfund’s birthplace in Switzerland.  Apart from their location in the same street, no connection between the two private schools; one for boys, the other for girls, is known (27).

In 1869, Bonwick travelled to England, making the mistake of leaving the school in the charge of his son, William.  He soon mismanaged the school and Bonwick had to return to arrange a lease of the school operation in 1871.  Later, it was known as Queens’ College.

Bonwick finally sold the school and its property in 1875, but it continued operating as a private school into the twentieth century.  In the 1930s, a block of flats was built across the front of the bluestone building.

Crouch and Wilson (1854-89), founded by Thomas James Crouch (1833-89) and Ralph Wilson (active 1865-89), were particularly prolific architects of churches, banks, public buildings and houses.  Over 358 buildings are known and a further 90 by Crouch alone.  The Albert Street, East Melbourne Synagogue (1877 & 1883), and 196 Little Bourke Street Mission Church (1872), are examples of their work.  This little bluestone school is one of the first known works of the practice.  In 1876, 1881 and 1892, Crouch and Wilson were in the vicinity again, doing repairs at Linden (8).

Bonwick was born at Lingfield, a big village in the Surrey Weald, north of East Grinstead.  He was the son of a carpenter.  The family then moved to Southwark, South London where James was educated at the Borough Road School.  At 16, he went straight from school to teaching and had charge of several primary schools.  He took the temperance pledge to abstain from alcohol.

 In 1841, he and his wife were engaged to manage the new chief government school in Hobart Town.  Two years later he resigned, due to poor conditions at the school and established his own boarding school in Hobart.  He began writing his own textbooks.

He was a founder of both the Hobart Town and Van Diemen’s Land Total Abstinence Societies. He became interested in the study of the aboriginals, mysticism and freemasonry. In 1850 he opened a private school in Adelaide, and became first secretary of the first Australian YMCA and founded an association for teachers.

His school-building had left him in debt, so in 1852 he left for the Victorian goldfields.  After a brief stay, he settled in Melbourne, working as a lecturer and proprietor of The Australian Gold Diggers’ Monthly Magazine, and Colonial Family Visitor.  He opened a land agency and lectured for the Colonial Association, who radically sought to ‘unlock the lands’.  He helped found the Victorian Liquor Law League, aiming to introduce legislation to prohibit alcohol.

The land agency failed and he opened a private school at Kew, which closed the next year.  From 1856, he continued publishing books and was appointed an inspector of the Denominational Schools Board, in Victoria.  For three years he toured western Victoria on horseback, visiting schools.  After a serious coaching accident he used his 300 pounds compensation to return to England.

 Back in Melbourne in 1862, he founded his Barkly Street school.  Four more books were published by 1870, on the early colonies, John Batman and the Tasmanian aboriginals.  The Queensland colonial government appointed him as an immigration agent in England.  Over the years 1882-83, he travelled in Europe.

He began researching Australian topics in London and was amazed at the wealth of archive material available there. He offered to transcribe it for the Queensland government. He continued producing transcriptions for South Australia (1885), the Melbourne Public Library (1887), New South Wales (1837-1902) and Tasmania.  All of the NSW archive transcription was published.  In 1902 he published his memoir An Octogenarian’s Reminiscences before dying at Southwick, near Brighton, Sussex.

His biographer, Guy Featherstone, describes him as amiable and quick to make friends, full of nervous energy and with a passion for work. Yet for a mind of such breadth, it had little depth.  Like his slightly younger contemporary, Dr I.E. Watkin of Ulimaroa (48) he was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1865 (Watkin was its honorary secretary), and of the Anthropological Institute in 1869.

Though he often gave evidence to select committees on education, his philosophy was derivative, stemming from an overbearing belief in the potential moral regeneration of educational facilities.  He absorbed myriad facts, without imaginative analysis.   Yet as a teacher, he pioneered new methods which encouraged pupils to experiment and observe, rather than learn by rote. He was unable to manage his finances and, despite a life of work, he died poor.

His brother, Walter (1824-83) was a talented music teacher: one of the first employed by the Board of Education and the Education Department of Victoria.  He published several song collections and The Australian School Song Book (1871?), known to generations of scholars.

There are fine portraits of James Bonwick in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery and in the Royal Historical Society of Victoria. 



Bick, David with Wilson Sayer Core Pty.LtdSt Kilda Conservation Study.  Area 2.  (Undated).  Pp 103-105.

Gibbney & Smith. A Biographical Register 1788-1939. p152.

Goad, Philip.  Melbourne Architecture.  The Watermark Press, Sydney  1999 pp 30, 44, 47, 261 & 262.

Lewis, Miles.  (Architects’ Index). Architectural Survey.  Final Report.  The University of Melbourne.  Melbourne 1977. p107.

Nairn N.B., Serle A.G., & Ward R.B..  (Eds).  The Australian Dictionary of Biography.  Vol 3:  1851-90.  Melbourne University Press, Carlton 1969.  pp 191 & 192.


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