Victorian Schools – An Accidental History

On our travels around the state of Victoria, we have come across many historic school buildings in cities, towns and isolated bush locations. Looking through some of my photos, I realised that unknowingly,I have been recording something of a history of school buildings and philosophy of education.

Every little town obviously had a a school building. They were essential for children’s education and were a place where kids spent their formative years. Here are some of the more notable ones we have photographed on our travels. I’m sure that there are dozens of others that we yet to discover, but we haven’t come across them all yet.

Gower State School

Gower State School

The gold rush of the 1he late 1800s was the impetus that first opened Regional Victoria. Miners’s children needed an education, so little schools like this sprang up in the bush all over the state. The ruins of the Gowar State School No. 1149 stand in the bushland beside Gower Road, just off the Castlemaine –  Maldon Road, in Gower, near Muckleford. In those days, Australian students sat at fixed wooden desks with all eyes on the teacher who stood next to a blackboard at the front of the class. The curriculum was very formal and children were to be ‘seen and not heard’. Learning was by rote, with no analysis or investigation.

This school opened in the early 1870s and closed in 1908. The remains of its stone building have been reinforced with steel and fully fenced for preservation. Gower was originally known as Muckleford North until 1880.  It is thought that the name, Gowar, derived from an Aboriginal word meaning big hill. There were minor gold rushes at Muckleford but nothing permanent eventuated. 

(Victorian schools were originally numbered in the sequence in which they were built, but sometime later, they were reallocated a number alphabetically. Jill began her teaching at Warrandyte Primary School – the town where gold was first discovered in Victoria. Its school is number 12 because the original name of the town was Andersons Creek.)

Tower Hill Common School

Koroit School

This former colonial era common school was once known as the Tower Hill Lake National School No. 618 and from 1873 as the Koroit State School No. 618. It opened in November 1857. It is now the home of the local historic society at Koroit and is used intermittently by the local fire brigade. Tenders were accepted for the limited construction of the combined school and teacher’s dwelling at a cost of £750 in December 1856. The school opened a year later. 

The building has two wings and a centre section. The east wing was for teaching; the west and centre section accommodated the teacher. Later the west wing was also used as a classroom and a detached kitchen was built at the rear. When a new school was built in 1878 this old school was converted into a teacher’s residence. In December 1879 the Education Department gave it to the police as a residence. From 1885 it was used for agricultural show purposes.  

Stawell State School

Stawell State School

Built a little later, the rather grand Stawell State School buildings shows something of the wealth of the gold field days when public buildings became quite extravagant. This was the building in which Jill started her schooling in the 1950s. It was constructed between 1865 and 1875 to a design by the head of the Architecture branch of the Department of Education in Victoria, Henry Bastow. 

It is noted for its steeply pitched gable roof that traverses the structure, together with two projecting gables at the front, a central projecting roof, small hipped roof wings at the sides, and additional gables at the rear. Some high windows give the impression that this building has more than one storey although it is all single level building.  It has old English style chimneys with ornate tops, galvanised steel ventilation stacks, ventilation dormes, narrow eaves, a steeply pitched spire supported by four timber posts that provide uninterrupted views of the school bell, and a pair of large, vertically proportioned clerestory windows above the glazed doors on the central bay.

The architecture still follows the same teaching philosophy of children sitting in rows and learning from the teacher’s writing on the blackboard, except that the building has now become more ornate in style. 

Clunes South School

Clunes South Schooll

This old school is another example of schools built on the wealth of the goldfields. In the late 1800s, over 6000 people lived in Clunes. The population today sits at around 1700 people. In the gold rush days, government architects had imagination and the government had the money to put their elegant designs into practice. 

This former state school No 136 was built in 1881 on the site of an earlier temporary school. The building was also designed by Education Department architect Henry Bastow and the new school was opened on 1st January 1882. The building design was first used in Horsham and includes an early example of a large verandah. Moreover, the manner in which the verandah’s are integral with the main roof gives the building a very distinctive appearance.

In 1892 this school amalgamated with another school in the town and was used as the infant school. It closed its doors in 1922 and was used as a mill for the Clunes Knitting and Manufacturing Company Limited. The original building has had numerous additions which relate to its use as a mill. Much of the original slate roof has been replaced with corrugated iron. Presumably in the process many roof details have been changed. Architecturally this is one of the most sophisticated schools erected locally and despite its conversion to knitting mills most of these qualities have been retained. It now houses the Clunes bottle museum.

Yambuck Primary School

Yambuck School

This small rural school house is now a private residence. Probably built in the early 1900s, it would have had just one teacher. When they were built, children came to schools like this from nearby places by walking, bicycle or on horse back. As transport technology developed, it became easier to travel to school in large towns by bus. This school is therefore a victim of the rationalisation of schools during the 1980s.  At that time, the government decided that one or two teacher schools like this, whilst offering a very personalised education, were unable to provide a breadth of education to students in a cost effective way. Schools in many country towns were closed and students were consolidated into schools in larger towns.

Broadwater Primary

IMG 6142

This little school at Broadwater, near McArthur in Victoria’s Western District as another victim of progress.

Bullarto Primary School

Bullarto school

One school that survived being closed was this one at Bullarto, near Trentham.  It is a small rural one-teacher school set in fertile farmland on the edge of the Wombat State Forest. My brother began his teaching career at this school. At that time, the original school building on the left was the main classroom. The more modern room with many windows to the right is a more recent addition. An average of 18 children attend this school.

I remember my brother commenting on the strange spelling of the names of some children on the school roll. Apparently, when  a woman gave birth, she would ask her  husband to register the birth. The relatively poorly educated farmers wrote the names phonetically, resulting in some quite understandable pronunciations but some weird forms of spelling of their children’s names. 

Lloyd Street Primary School – East Malvern

Lloyd Steet  SharpenAI Motion

Built in 1923, This school was one of a number of schools built to service the then opening suburbs within six or seven miles of Melbourne’s CBD. What we now see as relatively inner suburbs, the 1920’s saw rapid development as semi rural areas were becoming urbanised. This school provided me with my primary and early secondary education. In those days it operated as a ‘Central School’, providing seven levels of primary school and two years of secondary school (Forms One and Two). This was a hangover from my parents days when children could leave school at 14 years of age with their ‘Merit Certificate..

I remember it having around forty to fifty children in each class and a couple of classes at each level. That probably meant around 800 children. Today, around 500 pupils attend this school. It once had a large green shelter shed in the playground where we could shelter from any rain during breaks. That area is now a modern gymnasium.

The advantage of me going to this school was that it was one of the ‘feeder schools’ in the inner south-eastern suburbs for Melbourne High School. 

Melbourne High School

MHS Screen Shot

Melbourne High School (The Castle on the Hill) was erected in Alexandra Avenue, South Yarra in 1927 to designs by the chief architect of the Public Works Department, Edwin Evan Smith and departmental architect, Raymond Clayton Davey. (Public Service architects at that time still had some style and creativity).  It is located on a twelve and a half acre site, known originally as Forrest Hill, it was designed to accommodate about seven hundred boys.

The school was the successor of the Model and Training School established in Spring Street in 1854 on the site now occupied by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. The Model School became the first state secondary school in 1905, initially known as the Melbourne Continuation School, and renamed Melbourne High School in 1912. In October 1927,  two schools were formed, Melbourne Boys High School and a separate Melbourne Girls High School, which became MacRobertson Girls’ High School in1934.

The building contains two and three levels of classrooms which are accessed from a corridor that runs along the main length of the building. These classrooms are well lit from glazing on the east and west sides. A memorial hall, centrally located to the rear, is accessed from the main entrance hall.

When I attended Melbourne High, the principal was William Woodffull, one of Australia;’s greatest cricketers. I can still remember him hitting a six onto the adjoining railway line in a match between staff and students. A previous principal, George Langley had seen numerous men drown during WW2 because they couldn’t swim. His policy was that boys were not allowed to participate in any sport until they could swim at least 50 metres.

This school was very academic. It selected only the best students from its feeder schools and most student s continued on to university even though in this days less that 30% of the population had a tertiary education. I struggled through my time here and didn’t think that I was bright enough to go on to university. So, instead, I found a job and went to work. I began a part time degree after completing my 2 years of National Service in the army. To my amazement, I was getting high distinctions in subjects that I failed at  in school.

The school had an active Cadet Corps which I tried to avoid. In those days, students took their rifles home and back again on the train or tram. I doubt that the mortar company is still allowed to shoot mortars from the Hockey field , across the corner of the school building, onto the oval.

Templestowe Valley Primary School

Tempy Valley

By the 1970s when our kids started school, the government architects had lost all sense of design and beauty. The schools that opened during the  post-war baby boom period were built quickly, and had to process large numbers of students. Bricks and concrete were scarce, giving rise to the Light Timber Construction schools. They had long corridors, with classrooms on either side and zig-zag steel rafters. Governments wanted to create well-lit spaces and move away from the shadowy schools of yesteryear. More and more portable classrooms were rolled out across the country to accommodate the baby boom.

By this time, schools had become more flexible, with walls and furniture that could be easily moved. The teacher’s desk was relocated from the centre of the room to the side and schools created spaces for children to socialise inside and outside. Children were now seennow seen as more of a person than a child that should sit down and listen.

The Public Works Department – which was responsible for the design, construction and maintenance of schools – was abolished in 1987. This meant the design of state schools was outsourced to different architecture firms, leading to more diversity. Schools also started using computers in the ’90s, with the clunky machines stored in designated classrooms that were locked up at night.

The modern schools that I now see in new suburbs are very different. There is a lot of colour  Schools seem to be less worried about getting battered, and there is a lot more soft furniture. “They no longer design interiors as though the worst is going to happen. There is an attempt to delight and interest children without talking down to them.

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