The Sole Surviving Sydney Academy Medal, 1822

The Sole Surviving Sydney Academy Medal, 1822


Collectors of Australiana, and particularly the work of the acclaimed early Australian colonial silversmith Samuel Clayton, would be familiar with his craftsmanship evident in the Halloran School medals that turn up from time to time. To date eight of these coveted prize medals have surfaced, each bearing the maker’s mark ‘S. Clayton’. The earliest are inscribed in Latin and dated 1819 the year that Laurence Halloran, a convicted felon, established his first private school in Sydney, and the last in 1826 when he headed-up the ‘Sydney Public Free Grammar School.’ This was shortened to ‘Sydney Grammar School’ as it appears in English on the 1826 medal which is why this is sometimes claimed as the starting point of the modern-day ‘Sydney Grammar School’.

Halloran’s schools were recognised for their academia but, he was not the sole provider of quality education to the youth of the Colony. In 1813, another freed convict Isaac Wood had established the ‘Sydney Academy’ at Parramatta which in a search for larger premises moved first to Pitt Street Sydney in 1815, then to Phillip Street in 1816 before settling in Macquarie Street alongside the Sydney Domain in 1819. The ‘Sydney Academy’ was more progressive than the Halloran schools and flirted with co-education in 1820 when it accepted its first girl students.

The school’s founder and preceptor Isaac Wood died in 1823 and Governor Darling fearing it would close persuaded William Cape to take over the running of the school. In April 1824 the ‘Sydney Academy’ was renamed the ‘Sydney Public School’ and its students relocated to the upper rooms of the old Court House in Castlereagh Street. The building designed by the convict architect Francis Greenway sat on the site now occupied by the grand department store David Jones and during its history also housed the Georgian School, St James Parish School, a Roman Catholic School and later the ‘Sydney Boys’ and ‘Sydney Girls’ High schools.

William Cape’s seventeen-year-old son, the great educator William Timothy Cape, started his teaching career in 1823 at the ‘Sydney Academy’ under his father before jumping ship from its offshoot the ‘Sydney Public School’ in 1826 to take up a role as under-master at Halloran’s ‘Sydney (Public Free) Grammar School.’ However, this move was short lived, as Halloran himself was soon to fall out of favour with his trustees and his school closed its doors at the end of 1826.

Seeing an opportunity, Cape senior had plans to make the ‘Sydney Public School’ a grammar school but was thwarted by Archdeacon Thomas Scott who he accused of reducing “this most flourishing establishment to a mere parochial (church) school of St James, and in 1827 he retired from teaching stepping aside for his son W. T. Cape to be appointed as headmaster while he was still only twenty years old. He held this position until 1829 when he established his own private college in King Street most likely with a cross-over of students from the ‘Sydney Public School.’

Cape junior’s reputation as an educator continued to grow, and in 1834 having just turned twenty-eight he was appointed the first headmaster of ‘Sydney College’ which opened in January 1835 predominantly with students he transferred from his own college. It sat on the site of the modern-day ‘Sydney Grammar School’ and whose campus still includes the original College building.

Both Wood and Halloran gave out generous prize or merit awards to their best students in the form of silver medals which were the work of the leading colonial silversmith Samuel Clayton who was so highly regarded that he was also responsible for engraving the printing plates for Australia’s first banknotes issued by the Bank of New South Wales as well as our first postage stamp. The ‘Halloran’ medals are all inscribed ‘S. Clayton’ while the sole surviving prize medal of ‘the Sydney Academy’ is unmarked. However, if you compare the font of the letters on both medals like-for-like then there is no doubt about the authorship of the ‘Sydney Academy’ medal.

The ‘S’, ‘N’, ‘E’, ‘A”, ‘M’ & ‘O’ lettering on the ‘Halloran’ and ‘Academy’ medals all bear the same shape and serifying typical of the hand of Samuel Clayton.

The “Merit” award given by I(saac) Wood Pre(cepto)r to Master Ja(mes) Cunningham for his success in ‘Examinations” in “the various branches of Literature in which he has been instructed” was presented to him “at the Sydney Academy Macquarie Street on December 25th 1822.”

The only James Cunningham of school-age who appears in the New South Wales 1828 Census was born in the Colony on 21 September 1812 and was by then a sixteen-year-old boy living with his younger brother Henry aged ten at the Castlereagh Street residence of the wealthy merchant Henry Marr and his second wife Ann.

On evidence it would appear likely that he was the studious ten-year-old recipient of this prestigious award and was likely still a student at the Sydney Academy when it was rebadged the Sydney Public School in 1824.

Their mother Charlotte Cunningham (nee Driver) died on the 27th September 1821, while their father James Cunningham (senior), who came to Australia on the ‘Second Fleet’ in 1790, looks to have abandoned his family after the birth of the second son Henry in 1814. He is mentioned in 1822 in the ‘Colonial Secretary’s papers’ and the ‘Convict Muster’ as a Government overseer at Windsor (Emu Plains), but by the ‘Convict Muster’ of 1825 he is recorded as a pauper after which time he disappears from official records.

It would appear Marr saved the boys from a life of destitution on the death of their mother taking them in and enrolling James and presumably Henry at the prestigious ‘Sydney Academy.’ The boys were his nephews by marriage to his first wife Elizabeth (nee Driver, Snailham, Needham, Gore) who died in 1825, and he obviously took a shine to them as besides providing them with a fine education they inherited the Castlereagh Street property on the corner of King Street along with a farm at Minto on his death in 1835. The idefatigable Elizabeth Marr was herself a ‘First Fleeter’ who arrived as a convicted shoplifter on the Lady Penrhyn in 1788 having left behind one husband in England before tying the knot three more times in Sydney, the last being to the generous Henry, the reformed convict-made-good.

It may be pure coincidence but the 1828 census also records that Elizabeth and Mary Ann Wood aged eight and six, who were the daughters of Ann Marr from her earlier marriage to Ezekiel Wood, were living at the same Castlereagh Street address. The name Wood is of course synonomous with the Sydney Academy through its founder Isaac, although any familial connection to Ezekiel is yet to be determined.

It is interesting that the modern ‘Sydney Grammar School,’ which did not open its doors until 1857 lays claim to the opening of the ‘Sydney College’ in 1835 on the ‘Grammar’ site as its earliest inception. It has also in the past past linked its history by name to Halloran’s ‘Sydney (Public Free) Grammar School’ to further push back its start date. However, if one looks at ‘teaching staff’ and more particularly ‘headmasters’ rather than the ‘co-incidence of name’ then there is a much more valid link to the ‘Sydney Academy’ (later the ‘Sydney Public School’) which launched the career of the emminent educationalist William Timothy Cape who was the founding headmaster of the ‘Sydney College’ the forerunner to the ‘Sydney Grammar School.’



Headmaster – Isaac Wood (1812-23)

Headmaster – William Cape (1823-24)

Teacher – W(illiam) T(imothy) Cape (1823-24)


Headmaster – William Cape (1824-27)

Teacher – W(illiam) T(imothy) Cape (1824-26). Towards the end of 1826 W.T. Cape was employed as an under-master at Halloran’s Sydney (Public Free) Grammar School’

Headmaster – W(illiam) T(imothy) Cape (1827-29)


Headmaster – W(illiam) T(imothy) Cape (1829-34)


Headmaster – W(illiam) T(imothy) Cape (1835-41)



The sole surviving ‘Sydney Academy Medal’ is pre-dated by only two of the ‘Halloran’ medals confirming it as one of the most important relics of Australia’s early Colonial school’s history.

In our upcoming Sale, Smalls Auctions offers the sole surviving ‘Sydney Academy Medal’ of 1822.


Obverse of Sydney Academy Medal

Reverse of Sydney Academy Medal