She came from a remarkable family. She married a remarkable man. There was perhaps little room for her to be anything other than remarkable—and that she was!
The story of Agnes Dorsch, nee Heyne, is a series of firsts: the first woman to receive a scholarship to the University of Adelaide (and the third to graduate); the first president of the women’s guild at Bethlehem Lutheran congregation in Adelaide; and the first woman appointed to the academic staff of Concordia College, Adelaide.
Her position heralded a new era of co-education in private secondary schooling … [Agnes’s] appointment was used as a reason for turning Concordia College into a co-educational school.
Agnes gained a university education at a time when it was unusual for women to be so highly educated. Able to realise the full potential of her intellectual gifts, Agnes, the wife of a pastor and mother to nine children, forged a distinguished, extensive career as a teacher and tutor—again at that time unusual for a married woman.
Agnes Heyne’s remarkable intelligence was first noticed and encouraged by the Director of Education (her Latin and Greek tutor) John Anderson Hartley, when Agnes was attending the Norwood Model School. She subsequently received a bursary to attend the Advanced School for Girls. In 1889 Agnes ‘sat for a University scholarship, and obtained first place, notwithstanding the fact that the other candidates took Greek and she did not. It was the first time that a University Scholarship had been won in Adelaide by a girl.’
She graduated as a Bachelor of Arts in 1891 and was awarded first-class honours in Classics and Mathematics.
Agnes was born into a highly educated family, which undoubtedly helped her along her path. Nevertheless, her achievements were her own.
She was the daughter of Ernst Bernhardt Heyne and Laura Wilhelmine, nee Hanckel. Her father, born in Saxony, was trained as a botanist, horticulturalist, linguist and mathematician. He migrated to Melbourne following the failed 1848 German revolution. Many other people of significance to South Australian history migrated at the same time, including the Schomburgk botanists and silversmiths and the musician and composer Carl Linger. Ernst Heyne is noted for his position as chief plantsman at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens (working alongside Dr Friedrich von Mueller) and for identifying and documenting many South Australian plants. His legacy continues in the form of Adelaide company Heyne’s Nurseries, established by Ernst in the early 1870s and still a Heyne family business today.
Agnes’s mother was the daughter of a bookbinder—a lover of books whose passion flowed to Agnes and her siblings. In 1903, at the behest of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod in Australia (ELSA), Agnes’s two sisters Ida and Laura (who were both studying for Arts degrees) opened and ran a Lutheran bookshop behind Bethlehem Church in Adelaide. Laura was also the teacher at Martin Luther school, the Bethlehem congregational school. The Heyne sisters sold their business to the church in 1913 and it became part of the retail arm of Lutheran Publishing Company and eventually Openbook Publishers. What a remarkable legacy the Heyne family left!
While working as a teacher and tutor, Agnes was also a mother and a wife—a pastor’s wife, no less, which meant carrying out the additional duties that came with this role, such as running the Bethlehem women’s guild, which, it is believed, she established. Agnes was the second wife of Pastor Caspar Dorsch, whom she married in 1893. Caspar himself is noteworthy as the first Missouri Synod–trained pastor to come to Australia to minister in ELSA congregations. His theological insights offered much to the synod, which he served from Bethlehem in Adelaide. Together Caspar and Agnes raised academically gifted children—seven of them receiving bursaries and scholarships for academic study, while at least two were Tennyson medallists (Irma Dorsch was awarded the medal twice) and one was a Rhodes Scholar.
When illness forced Caspar to retire from full-time ministry in 1897, Agnes became the primary financial provider for the family. She held teaching positions at the Advanced School for Girls, Tormore House, Queens School and Prince Alfred College, as well as offering private tutoring. She is known to have tutored the children of at least four governors of South Australia, including the grandchildren of Alfred Lord Tennyson—a significant achievement in itself. Subjects she taught included English, German, French, Latin, Greek, Mathematics and Physiology. This included teaching classical languages to students for the ministry.
Agnes’s longest and arguably most significant contribution to South Australian education was her teaching appointment at Concordia College from 1923 until 1943. She holds the distinction of being the first woman appointed to Concordia’s academic staff. Her position heralded a new era of co-education in private secondary schooling. The question of higher education for females arose in 1924: in recognition of her outstanding teaching skills, Agnes’s appointment was used as a reason for turning Concordia College into a co-educational school. ‘We earnestly recommend to the committee not to allow the scheme [for female higher education] to lapse, as in that case we may lose the services of Mrs Dorsch, whose service we believe should, if possible, be retained for the benefit of the church’, an informal group of pastors (and others interested in the provision of higher education to girls) told the South Australian district of ELSA in 1925. Agnes Dorsch was made a permanent staff member in 1927—the year that Concordia College first admitted girls, becoming the first college in South Australia to do so.
Rachel Kuchel is LCA Archivist.