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Robe is not famous for robes

Jennifer Wilson, National Museum of Australia 8 July 2009

MICHAEL PARKER: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to this latest in our series of curators talks. I am Michael Parker with the Friends management committee. It is my pleasure today to welcome Jennifer Wilson, who is a curator in the gallery development team at the National Museum of Australia here.

Jennifer joined the Museum in 2005, and prior to that she was curator of the Australian Stockmen’s Hall of Fame and the Qantas Founders Museum at Longreach. Since joining the Museum she has worked in a number of projects and areas, including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Program, the new Australian Journeys and Creating a Country galleries and the Circa refurbishment. Today Jennifer is going to be talking about Robe the township and many aspects of that. Thank you, Jennifer.

JENNIFER WILSON: Thanks, Michael. Welcome everyone today on this lovely day. Robe is not famous for robes. I don’t know if anyone has seen the ad but I decided to steal that because I will be telling you today a little of what Robe is actually famous for.

In November 1880, Mrs Annie Banks, a resident in the town of Robe, wrote to the very Reverend Mother Mary MacKillop. Her words were heartfelt and sincere:

I hope you will be able to send us Sisters soon as we have every chance of a good school. So many are ready to take their children from the Government School as they have not been getting on well.

In December, Annie wrote to Mary MacKillop again, pleading for sisters to reopen the Robe St Joseph’s school:

I hope you have not forgotten your promise to send us Sisters as they are so much wanted. I have been anxiously looking for a letter saying that they are coming as the little ones here will be lost if you do not take pity on us.

These two letters, especially the first one, present some of the issues surrounding religion, education and the politics of choice common to towns throughout South Australia during the late nineteenth century.

The story of schools in the town of Robe has been selected for an exhibit in the new Creating a Country gallery as part of the theme ‘Land of Opportunity’. Three places will be examined through this theme as locations in which Australians have endeavoured to create a just society where all citizens enjoy equality of opportunity and the ability to participate in shaping their society: Robe is the first place; the Melbourne suburb of Sunshine the second; and old Parliament House in Canberra the third. These exhibits will encompass a variety of individual responses to place, different modes of participation, and diverse views about equality in light of community expectations and centralised decision making.

Robe is a town - it is a bit hard to see on this map [slide shown] - fishing port and popular holiday destination in Guichen Bay on the ‘limestone coast’ of South Australia, with a district population of about 1,400. Robe is the main town of the District Council of Robe local government area, located within the state electorate of MacKillop. The County of Robe was proclaimed in 1846. Robe, as it appears today, developed as several distinct townships, sometimes known as suburbs. The government town of Robe comprised 126 allotments, with the Town Beach of Guichen Bay as its northern border and Lake Butler to the west. The suburbs were Lordston, Honeyton or Honey Town, Syleham, East Robe and Newtown.

Robe was South Australia’s third port and by the mid-1850s had become the second largest export port. The port, harbour and jetties quickly became dominated by local business, with imports and exports managed by the South Australian government. During the 1850s and 1860s, as a thriving port, Robe was home to people of many different faiths and backgrounds. With a population of around 400 to 500 persons, Robe boasted amenities not found in most regional centres: churches of several different denominations, a government resident, a court house, a customs house, telegraph station, police station, barracks, gaol and several hotels.

A colourful period in Robe’s history occurred during the late 1850s and 1860s when Robe experienced an increase in population with more than 16,500 Chinese migrants passing through town on their way to the Victorian goldfields. Victoria Street, the main thoroughfare, was originally a bullock track. As you can see in this image [slide shown], the Royal Circus at the end of Victoria Street met the requirements of bullock teams to turn and deliver their loads to the port via the customs house. It’s a pretty big turning circle. This is the customs house as it appears today, now preserved by the National Trust as it, like many buildings, crumble. [slide shown]. This is the sea wall and jetty, which is kind of sinking into the sea, as they appear today [slide shown]. This is the waterfront, the main frontage of the town [slide shown]. These trees were planted by children of the school in 1954. They are now a feature of the town and are also protected under National Trust listing. There is another view of the coast. [slide shown].

Robe declined as a port of importance during the later decades of the nineteenth century. In 1870 inter-colonial exports leaving Robe exceeded £95,000 in value. By 1879 its export value had decreased to only £16,000. The bullock teams were being outmanoeuvred by the railways which bypassed Robe. The jetties and harbour system were also never sufficient, being poorly engineered. It is due to these factors, despite some developments during the twentieth century, that the structure of Robe town remains largely as it was in the 1870s.

While attractive for many reasons, this coastline proved dangerous to shipping, with 14 shipwrecks recorded during Robe’s first 15 years. This shows you the locations of eight of those ship wrecks [slide shown]. An obelisk was constructed of limestone on the cape in 1855 as a government project to help guide ships safely to the port during the day. It was painted with red and white bands at the request of mariners in 1862 so that it could be more easily distinguished from the limestone cliff on which it stands. A lighthouse was not constructed at Robe until 1972 when the Kingston lighthouse ceased operating. That is the new completely automatic lighthouse. [slide shown].

The obelisk is a key feature of the town’s proud shipping heritage. There is a small souvenir obelisk on display today. It appears as Robe’s emblem, used for local government, various organisations and tourism promotion, and it is part of the symbolism of Robe primary school. It is seen here on the school banner, to be loaned for the exhibition, and also on the school emblem. The two main coastal bays of the district are also incorporated into the school’s symbolism as Lacepede and Guichen have been adopted as the names of the school’s sporting houses. These banners will also be loaned.

One shipwreck of interest to the Creating a Country exhibit is that of the Koenig Willem II. The 800-ton Dutch vessel had completed unloading 397 Chinese passengers and cargo on 25 June 1857. Because of bad weather, the Koenig Willem remained anchored in Guichen Bay until 30 June when it was ripped from its mooring lines by strong winds. The captain set sail in an effort to safely beach the vessel but, after a successful grounding off Long Beach, large seas continued to sweep over the ship, making it a total wreck. Only nine crewmen made it safely to shore, thanks largely to the efforts of locals. The other 15 crewmen either died on the vessel or drowned while trying to swim to the beach.

The remains of Koenig Willem were sold to Mr Jacob Chambers of Robe, who dismantled the wreck for various purposes in town. Known remains of the wreck are two cannons, one of which sits here on Flagstaff Hill in the Royal Circus [image shown], and some of the ship’s doors and its timbers were used in the construction of the Caledonian Inn, which was then being built under the ownership of Scotsman Peter McQueen. Two other pieces of the wreck which survived were the ships bells, which have been used at the Robe Primary School for as long as anyone can remember. These school bells are a nice segue from shipwrecks back to matters of education.

Educational institutions in Australia were founded on the principles of the English education system but differed or evolved from that model due to the social, geographic and economic situations in which the colonists found themselves. During the first decades of settlement, education was largely viewed as an opportunity afforded to the wealth, with schools for the poor and lower classes considered an act of charity and the work of religious groups, as they had been in England. From the 1850s to the end of the nineteenth century, the Australian colonies set about restructuring and standardising schools and their educational programs. There was increasing community encouragement not simply for government financial support but for the government’s direct provision of schools and education.

The South Australian government, after a series of acts, implemented a program which would support education, but only in those schools which it operated itself or which met strict conditions. South Australia became the first colony to remove government financial support for denominational schools and religious instruction from the classroom. These actions, the government hoped, would centralise and standardise the training of teachers, curriculum, the construction of school buildings and offer universal education to all children throughout the colony. The question of the provision of education would become one of the key debates in the colony, causing religious denominations to split into factions and the division between church and state to widen.

Interestingly, the tone of Robe is named after Governor Frederick Holt Robe [slide shown] a very charming looking man, who was one of the instigators of this debate. The first South Australian Education Act was introduced in 1847 by Governor Robe. The 1847 act proclaimed a system of grant funding to the various religious denominations for their churches and schools, to be administered by a board of education. This was Governor Robe’s attempt to make ends meet in a colony rife with debt. To appease the denominations that opposed the legislation, Governor Robe introduced subsequent ordinances to organise the distribution of grants and to separate aid for religion from aid for education, but the conflict had been established and would continue.

South Australia was founded with liberal ideals which were resistant to any dominance or authority of one religious group over another. During the 1850s, many people embraced the idea of universal education with a reforming attitude. Growing poverty and crime rates were viewed as products of each other. The implementation of a government funded and administered, standardised system of education offered occasion to use education as a tool for moral and social benefit, and to create a form of equality. An article printed in the Register of March 1850 summarised some of this general attitude:

Intellect is not a matter of inheritance. The cottager is endowed by nature with capacities equal to the peer. Turn them both to the plough and they will be nothing else but ploughmen to the end of their days; but open up the book of knowledge to them - give them a fair start in the race - and the chances will be equal for the prize.

The religious denominations of the colony maintained a desire to educate the children in their own congregations. The population of South Australia continued to practice the religion of their choice, but the government pushed for the creation of a centralised education system which would offer a secular education to all children in the colony, regardless of their religious backgrounds. The very fact that the colony of South Australia had been founded on the principles of religious freedom and equality meant that no one denominational education system could be favoured, and that division along sectarian lines would continue.

In South Australia, the Church of England had inferior position and numbers. The Church of England supported the centralisation of education and the government’s provision of that education, but continued to object to the complete removal of the Bible from the classroom. Rather than establishing dominance in elementary education, the Anglicans focused their efforts on creating prestigious secondary colleges aimed at the colonial elite.

The Wesleyan Methodist Church did have the numbers in South Australia to influence politics. Methodist leaders encouraged their members to take an interest in politics and to vote to ensure their voices were heard. They did not trust government involvement in or funding of religious organisations following their persecutions in England. Methodist support for universal education came from a desire for social reform, especially against drinking and gambling. While the Methodists opposed the removal of religion from the classroom, their strong anti-Catholic sentiments overruled their objections to the government system. The Methodists chose instead to strengthen their Sunday schools. The Lutherans, too, established their own schools and educational systems and opposed government intervention of any kind. The Lutherans established schools in their own townships dedicated to espousing their religious faith and continuing instruction in the German language. The Lutheran community’s ability to maintain those ideals was gradually challenged by an increasingly diverse population in South Australia, and the pressures of standardisation from the government.

The Catholics did not have a large population in South Australia, and they were considered to be poor. The Catholics saw themselves greatly disadvantaged by the removal of government funding for their schools and raised the strongest objections to the government education system. I will talk more about the resulting Catholic education system in a moment.

At greatest disadvantage under any of the education systems were the isolated poor in rural areas. Despite the fact that much of South Australia’s population in the 1850s was rural, the distances between places, the lack of resources and funding, and the fact that education was not necessarily a priority for all, country schools remained poorly funded and understaffed.

The history of schools in Robe is intertwined with the histories of the churches in the town if for no other reason than church buildings were some of the first permanent stone structures in the district. As in other towns throughout the Australia, many of the first schools in Robe were established by the various denominations in residence. Before the construction of church buildings it seemed many of the denominations in Robe shared what space was available. And when schools were established in the churches, they were not exclusive to the members of their congregations. It was stated in the Register on 4 January 1859:

Different denominations at Robe town and in the Guichen Bay District generally are exceedingly liberal and tolerant in their religious opinions towards one another.

This opinion, is, to some degree, supported in the histories of the local churches and schools, though any denominational cooperation may have been the result of a lack of funds and population rather than a realisation of ideals for community cohesion.

There is some debate about which was the first church completed and opened in Robe. What does seem certain is that both the Free Presbyterian Chapel and the Catholic Church were completed in December 1858. The Free Presbyterian Chapel [slide shown] still stands adjacent to St Peter’s Church of England today, which was built in 1859. Despite its modest size, the chapel had many lives. It was used by all Protestant denominations in Robe before other churches were built - obviously one at a time. The Free Presbyterian Chapel was used to house the Mechanics Institute from 1862 to 1868 when it was relocated to a new building. In both locations the institute was a hub of local activity, with meetings of organisations held, a library collected, and lectures and social gatherings hosted there. The chapel was the site of meetings of the Robe Temperance Society from July 1862. It became a museum in 1865. A school was opened in the chapel in 1869 by Reverend Howitt. In later years it was used as the Anglican Sunday school room, as it is to this day.

In 1858 the building of a Catholic Church in Robe was commissioned by Reverend Julian Tenison Woods, priest of the parish of Penola. Along with the churches at Morphett Vale and Penola, St Mary’s Star of the Sea is one of the three oldest Catholic churches in South Australia and one of the few with a chimney and fireplace. The building was made of local limestone quarried from Richmond Park and has many of its original features still intact.

Julian Tenison Woods, religious leader and educator, became priest in charge of the parish of Penola in 1857. He landed in Robe, then the chief sea port of the district, when travelling to Penola to take up his new position. Woods rested for a couple of days in Robe and found about a dozen Catholics of whom only one was a householder and the rest were servants. Indeed the poverty of the local community at that time, especially the small Catholic population, is noted by Woods and a number of other sources. During his time as a priest of the district, Woods visited Robe approximately every three months. It would seem he was well regarded by most people in the area, becoming friends with many land owners and townspeople, both Catholic and non-Catholic.

Woods supported not only the religious interests of the district, but also its civic, economic and academic pursuits. Woods sent botanical and fossil specimens that he collected during his travels to distant scholars, scientists, museums and herbariums, including Baron Ferdinand von Mueller at the Melbourne Botanical Gardens. Woods was also an eager supporter of the mechanics institutes throughout the region, including Robe, recognising their importance for community education and cohesion. He would have viewed them as useful places to discuss his research and ideas. Woods gave several lectures at the Robe institute, including the cover of which is shown here [image shown] ‘Not quite as old as the hills: On the evidences of man’s antiquity’, which was a response to Darwin, and the first reading of this autobiographical account of his time in the Penola district ‘Ten years in the bush’.

In 1862 Woods published his first scientific work Geological observations of South Australia. There is a copy on display here today. This copy was owned by John Baptist Austin, mine agent and broker, who published his own work The Mines of South Australia in 1863. In this book Woods states:

Robe Town, though situated in a most dreary bed of sand-hills, has a cheerful and picturesque appearance. It lies on a limestone tertiary formation, which supplies a pure white and durable stone for its buildings.

Woods was criticised by his contemporaries for spending too much time on scientific endeavour, but Woods maintained that God and his religious work always came first. Woods had been appointed priest of the Penola district at an interesting time. As the debate over secular education raged, Adelaide Bishop Geoghagan declared: ‘We Catholics must have separate schools or none at all aided by the state.’ Despite the poverty in which the congregation lived, Bishop Geoghagan encouraged Catholics of the colony to establish schools in their community, regardless of the cost. A young and enthusiastic Julian Tenison Woods was keen to act upon the bishop’s direction.

In 1861 Woods met Mary MacKillop, then 19 years old. Mary was working as a governess on her uncle’s property at Penola. Mary heard Woods speak of the neglected state of the children in the parish and offered to support his idea for establishing a school where education was free to all children. After much discussion and correspondence, Woods and MacKillop founded a new religious order of nuns who would reach out and spread across regional Australia. Their first school was held in a stable in Penola, but within one year they had raised funds and built a permanent stone structure, which still stands in Penola today.

The Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart was the first Catholic order to be founded in Australia. According to the wishes of its founders, Woods and MacKillop, the order was to be dedicated to the education of poor children throughout regional Australia. Within its first decade the Sisters of St Joseph had enlarged their membership and mission to include more than 30 schools and an orphanage. The Sisters of St Joseph were characterised by their vow of poverty, having few possessions of their own, and what they did have represented their faith and work as part of the Catholic Church.

A St Joseph’s school was established in the Robe Catholic Church in 1869. A room was added to the back of the church to act as the convent, with accommodation for two sisters at a time. It is not very big or comfortable. Mary MacKillop was in Robe to establish the school and make sure the sisters were settled. The sisters who served in Robe were amongst the first postulants in the new order, and some of her closest friends. She kept regular contact with the sisters, acting in a general administration role.

In 1870, Sister Calasanctius wrote to Mary MacKillop, ‘We are very happy here, Sister Michael and I, in our quiet little convent - unworthy of me to be so happy.’ In Robe, as elsewhere, the sisters operated under the strict rules of their order. The Sisters of St Joseph became known as the ‘Josephites’ or ‘Brown Joeys’ amongst their communities. The nickname ‘Brown Joeys’ referred to their distinctive brown habits, a mark of the poverty of their order. In establishing the rules of the order, Woods and MacKillop record in detail the components of the sisters’ dress as a part of their daily ritual. In their words the sisters were to wear a ‘brown woollen dress, gathered at the waist by a leather girdle, from which shall hang a strong chaplet of wood or bone beads joined with iron wire, and terminated by a small cross; they shall wear a small crucifix in their belt.’ The final component of the habit was to be a large blue monogram of the blessed Virgin - an ‘A’ and a ‘M’ - between three letters ‘J’ in honour of Jesus, St Joseph and St John the Baptist, this typifying the holy family. This monogram, which actually looks a lot like the ABC symbol but does predate it, was made of plain blue woollen braid and was worn on the breast of the habit. This arrangement is clearly visible in the nineteenth century photographs of the sisters.

The rules also established what was to be taught in the St Joseph’s schools. According to the customs of the order, the Sisters of St Joseph travelled, worked and lived in twos, so two sisters would have taught at any one time in Robe. According to the rules, the sisters’ daily routine began at 5 a.m., with every hour accounted for until they retired at 10 p.m. Teaching would have been only a small part of that routine, as they were expected to maintain regular prayers and mass, clean, prepare meals for the children, prepare their classes, accompany the children home after school, and visit local families and sick children. For all these activities, the sisters relied on the charity of their community to support them. The Hudson and Ryan families in Robe, for example, supplied the sisters with meat and milk free of charge.

Because the Sisters of St Joseph took a vow of poverty, few material possessions remain for any type of exhibition. It is the letters between Mary MacKillop and the sisters which tell us most of what we know about the early schools. This is the interior of the Robe church - quite simple [slide shown]. It has been renovated a number of times. In Robe, class was held in the main body of the church. The names of four students who attended the Robe St Joseph’s school are shown on a small plaque on the back pew of the church.

The Sisters of St Joseph met with a number of difficulties during the first two decades of operation, including opposition from members of the Catholic Church, especially the hierarchy, and financial and geographical circumstances. Despite community support for the Josephites, the inability of Woods to gain support for the ideals of the system led to its partial failure. On 22 September 1871, Mary MacKillop and 47 of the sisters were excommunicated from Adelaide by Bishop Sheil. The sisters were reinstated quickly on 23 February 1872 but, during the following years, the Institute of the Sisters of St Joseph was brought under direct control and Woods’ involvement ended.

During the period of the sisters’ excommunication, the Robe school was closed for less than six months. Reverend Michael O’Connor, then in charge of the parish of Penola, had been unsupportive of the work of the Sisters of St Joseph for a number of years. The sisters were quickly reinstated in Robe at the insistence of Father Van der Heyden, who took charge of the district in January 1872. We can see a letter from Sister Michael in 1872 to Julian Tenison Woods that comments on her return to Robe:

I suppose you will be surprised to hear that I am back in Robe again. Sister Veronica is with me here. The people here are more than delighted to the to get the sisters back, and I don’t know what they are not threatening to do to anyone that will even think of taking the sisters away again for the next ten years.

For the next seven years activities were fairly normal at the school. Letters from Sister Gaetano to Mary MacKillop are simple, covering daily happenings in Robe. In 1878 she asks for brown cloth and white cotton to make scapulars for the children, and permission for her and Sister Joseph to bathe in their old habits at the Robe beach. That would have been very uncomfortable. In 1879 Sister Gaetano comments on the continued poverty amongst the small Catholic community of the town:

There being so few Catholic children here that even though most all of them gave a shilling each still it does not come to a pound. We put a few shillings with it ourselves to make it the ten.

From its beginnings in South Australia, the Sisters of St Joseph expanded to Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, New Zealand, Peru and Ireland. It was partially due to that rapid expansion and the small number of students in Robe that the St Joseph’s school closed in 1880.

A letter from Sister Gaetano, then in Kadina, to Mary MacKillop on 20 April 1880 provides reference to the closure of the Robe school. Then the letters from Annie Tanks in the late 1880s seeking the return of the sisters confirms the end of the Robe school. Annie’s letter also tells us that things are not going well at the department school. So what was wrong with the government school?

In 1880 the government school was housed in the Bible Christian Chapel, the fourth church built in Robe. The education department purchased the building in 1875, creating the tenth school in town. The establishment of this new school was directly related to events in Adelaide. In 1875 the South Australian government introduced a new Education Act. Its intention was to make education compulsory for children between the ages of seven to 14. Full-time attendance was not necessary, with two-thirds of the year being a minimum, to allow for the continued need for children’s labour on family farms. The act insisted that no sectarian or denominational religious teaching shall be allowed in any school. The government’s mandate for its education system, ‘free, compulsory and secular’ was thereby complete, although the free part would not actually be a reality until 1893.

The architect of the new system was John Anderson Hartley, shown here in the centre sitting on the little table, with other leaders of education at the University of Adelaide in 1891 [slide shown]. Hartley graduated from the University of London with bachelors of arts and science in 1870. He arrived in Adelaide in January 1871 to take up his appointment of as headmaster of Prince Alfred College. In May 1871 Hartley was appointed to the Central Board of Education, and in March 18474 was elected as chairman. Hartley was a devout Methodist, so his approach seemed to appeal to at least that sector of the community.

In 1885 Hartley founded the Education Gazette to carry his ideas to teachers, being its editor until 1896. He developed and prepared arithmetic books and teachers’ manuals, produced primers and reading charts, designed copybooks and in 1889 founded The Children’s Hour and in 1891 the Adelaide Poetry Book as supplementary reading for children. Hartley was also a founder of the University of Adelaide, viewing it as a desirable training ground for better teachers. So he kind of controlled everything.

Under the 1875 act it was the responsibility of local community councils and organisations to seek the provision of schools in their districts. Funding, teachers and resources were allocated by the education department according to student enrolment and performances - not much has changed. Section 8 of the Education Act stated:

Public schools will be established in any locality where the council are satisfied that there are at least twenty children who will attend the school, as soon as a suitable building can be obtained, and the Council are able to appoint a teacher.

Pupil teachers or teaching assistants were appointed to a school after student attendance reached 45, and a further teacher after 75. To exercise supervision over education affairs in each district, communities appointed a Local Board of Advice. The local boards of advice then elected a chairman who was responsible for all correspondence with the education department. The nature of that correspondence was to include reports, if the regulations were not faithfully carried out; reports if school records were not accurately kept; or property not taken care of; consider applications for free education; and to report on complaints against teachers. So a Local Board of Advice was founded in Robe, which began to meet in the Robe Institute building, a centre for education in the Robe community. There is another lengthy talk I could give about the history of institutes in Robe and South Australia, but for the moment I will say that the Institute building to this day houses the local library, which is used as the school library, and is the venue for the school’s annual concert.

The Local Board of Advice maintained correspondence as directed with the government department in Adelaide, making requests for building maintenance, supplies and school holidays each year. This book records correspondence from Robe to Adelaide between 1878 and 1900. The Robe Local Board of Advice met at the institute in November 1878, then with Francis Daniel Hodge, the local bank manager, as chairman. The Local Board of Advice endorsed the compulsory clauses of the 1875 Education Act, believing them to be beneficial to the community.

This is the school and children in 1878 [slide shown]. Complaints were regularly made about the Bible Christian Chapel building. Despite some improvements, it was never appropriate as a school. In 1881 the Local Board of Advice wrote to the Minister of Education complaining that ‘the windows cannot be made watertight’ and ‘the stained glass in different colours is very trying for the children’s eyes when writing, because of the reflection coming on the desks.’

Problems at the school had increased following the closure of the Catholic St Joseph’s school. Many of those students began attending the government school, thereby increasing attendance without adequate furnishings to cope. Further desks and seating were requested, but it was clear that a new building was required. You can see what was included in the school at the time. I am not sure how useful a map of Great Britain was but that is okay. They did order a map of South Australia in about 1900 so caught up eventually [slide shown].

Chief Inspector of Schools John Hartley recommended the building of a new school in Robe in May 1884, but this announcement only came after local petitions. The land for the new school had been reserved in 1880, but the department was slow to act. In January 1884, an interesting comment appeared in the Border Watch. It suggests that Mr Parsons, then Minister for Education, did not announce his visit to the town to avoid local protesters. After numerous letters, local meetings and a petition sent to parliament, work on a new school building was begun in January 1885 and completed by December 1885. The new school opened for business in 1886. This photo commemorates that event.

Newly arrived headteacher Thomas Moore described the school to a friend in 1901:

The school is situated at the foot of a nicely wooded hill and the grounds are the best kept that I have seen. The school contains two large rooms, well lighted ... the house has five rooms. The pupils are a splendid class of youngsters and easily taught.

That was the beginning of the year. I am not sure if he had the same opinion at the end. This is a photo of Mr Moore, who is to the right of the picture, and then students in 1902 or 1903.

[Images shown]

Just to give you a bit of an idea going through some class photos over the years, the school building changes in shape and style, and of course the body of school students changes over the years. The school pipe band was a pretty big feature for many years, and by 1985 we have uniforms and the building has to keep expanding to deal with ever-increasing student numbers. This is the school as it appears today. It is due to celebrate its 125th anniversary next year. This is the oval, which used to be the showgrounds as well. The original building is to the left of that picture and some of the new buildings are to the right. This is the entrance now which looks a little bit more developed than the 1885 picture.

To return to 1878, let’s meet a few of the students and teachers from across the generations. The female assistant teacher in this photo - standing in the lovely black dress on the left of the photo - is Miss Elsie McMcQueen. Elsie’s father, Scotsman Peter McQueen, was the owner of the Caledonian Inn. During the early 1890s Elsie operated a small school from this building, which was known as the school in Rotten Row.

In 1875 Miss Elsie McQueen presented this book to Alice Dawson as a second prize for general proficiency. We do not know much about Alice’s years at the Robe school, but several of her prize books have survived through family generations, indicating that she was a well behaved and intelligent student. According to the family, Alice finished her schooling in Adelaide to escape the interests of a young man - scandalous. Alice eventually married George Bermingham but, as he was Catholic and she Anglican, the couple had to get married in Naracoorte to avoid local controversy.

Alice’s niece, Annie Dawson, lived at Dingley Dell with her family. Named for Adam Lindsay Gordon’s association with the property on which he was a horsebreaker between 1861 and 1863, Dingley Dell is a small building on the outskirts of Robe. Again, there is no time for a complete history of Adam Lindsay Gordon, but the short version is that he was a good friend of Reverend Julian Tenison Woods and he met his wife, a young Scottish woman, at the Caledonian Inn, and his only daughter was worn in Robe, although she didn’t live for very long.

Annie Dawson, her brothers and sisters, all attended Robe Primary School, as had her father and many of his siblings. They walked or rode on horses or bikes the four kilometres to town from Dingley Dell. This is a photo of young Annie and her daughter Helen in Annie’s garden earlier this year, [image shown] one month before Annie’s 99th birthday. No doubt she will make it past 100. As a girl, Annie also made the four-kilometre trip into town each week to attend Sunday school at the Church of England. This was her Sunday school Bible presented to Annie in 1908.

Annie now lives in a house opposite the Robe Primary School, which is where her daughter Helen grew up, so Helen did not have to trek the four kilometres to school each day like her Mum but simply crossed the road. This was Helen’s school dictionary. Helen has returned to Robe after decades of living elsewhere to look after her Mum, and with her husband George is in the process of restoring the Dingley Dell, the former family home.

Annie’s brother Victor Dawson also attended Robe Primary School. His school exit certificate is on loan to the National Museum and is in the showcase today. As the certificate states, after completing the primary school course, Vic was qualified to enter upon a course of higher instruction. Vic pursued a number of different interests after leaving school, but his first work was on the Dingley Dell property with his father.

In 1938 Robert Dawson and his family generously provided land for the research purposes of the CSIR, later CSIRO Division of Animal Health and Nutrition. This research site played a crucial role in identifying the causes of coast disease in sheep. This wasting disease was caused by sheep grazing in paddocks of deficient in both copper and cobalt. The identification of this trace element deficiency has secured the development of large tracts of infertile land for agricultural production and improvements in livestock products. This is a photo of young Vic probably the year after he graduated, with his father and aunt, working at the research station. [image shown]

Because Annie lives opposite the school, most of the young female teachers boarded with her during their time at Robe Primary School. In 1950, Doris Francis travelled from Glasgow to Adelaide under the employment of the South Australian education department. This was the suitcase given to Doris by her students in Glasgow. Doris was a teacher at Robe Primary School from 1953 to 1955 when she married one of Annie’s brothers and became a Dawson herself, and being married had to leave her teaching position. That legislation only ended in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Jenny, who is related to most of the core families in town, started as a student at Robe Primary School in 1960. Hers was one of the first classes to receive formal uniforms, which of course incorporated the obelisk and its red and white colouring. She was also quite small. Robe Primary School has a complete record of Jenny’s schooling. We can see that through roll books, which will be borrowed, and also Jenny’s report cards, which are quite funny and which she has also generously offered for loan. This is a photo of Jenny in her final year of school [image shown]. She is up in the far right corner. And this is a photo of the staff of Robe Primary School today of which Jenny is a member. She has been the student support officer there since 1997. She is in the back row in the red and black T-shirt.

I will conclude today with the words of John Goodchild:

By right of historic fact as well as by what has been handed down, Robe compels curiosity and handsomely rewards anyone thereby indulging.

My research in Robe has been a rewarding experience, and I hope those who visit Creating a Country in 2011 will find the exhibition interesting. Thank you.

QUESTION: How did you come to choose Robe?

JENNIFER WILSON: Good question. I just started basically with the idea of choosing any school in Australia, which is a pretty broad idea. I was led to Robe by reading general histories of education, both of primary schools, high schools and the institutes, because a lot of different levels of education are involved in the story. Robe actually appeals because it is completely normal and very average. It highlights probably the best of any that I could find about the relationship between what was happening in Adelaide, both for the Catholic and for the state school system, as to how that affected a school in regional South Australia, which is very hard to grasp on an object material culture level.

I was led there mainly through both the religious story and the state school story. I found it interesting that, after there had been so many different schools in Robe, in 1880 there is a sharp cut where all of a sudden when there had been 10 different schools then there is one. It is then the story of how the community as a whole decides to get behind that one school and make sure their children get every opportunity that they can. As a regional school, like most in Australia, it was put under constant pressure of threat of closure during the 1950s and 1960s, so it is that ongoing community support for the school which is kind of endearing. You get the generational continuing story where we now have great grandparents taking great grandchildren for reading at the school, and that kind of thing is a nice way to bring out what is a very complex political and social history.

QUESTION: You said that some of the parents were complaining there was a problem in the state schools. What did they see was the problem?

JENNIFER WILSON: There were numerous problems. It depended on what religion you were a part of, and also the school had problems from an environmental concern basically because it wasn’t watertight at that time so they refused to send their children to school, because Robe is really quite cold. It is very close to those Antarctic winds which you can experience at this time of the year. They weren’t willing to send their children to the school for that reason. There were also some fairly dodgy teachers over the years who would hit children and yell at children, which is why most people preferred the Catholic school because the nuns were much more gentle and caring in their attitudes - not completely but they were better than some of the state school teachers who were mostly retired military personnel. It depended basically on what kind of education you wanted your children to have. Those who were completely against what was happening in Robe sent their children to Adelaide, but boarding was very expensive, as it is now, so that wasn’t an option for everyone. So pressure was put on the state system to pick up its act and provide what was needed for the community.

QUESTION: I have heard or read of the name Tenison Woods prior to this talk and I wondered if he was the only Tenison Woods in Australia. Do you know of any others?

JENNIFER WILSON: I don’t know of any others. What was funny was that, having a common name myself, a few years after Tenison Woods leaves as Catholic priest of the district a Father Woods arrives as Anglican priest in the district, but his name is not actually Tenison Woods. I don’t know of any others. Julian Tenison Woods is kind of a shadowy figure in a lot of ways. His name has certainly gotten around but for so many different reasons that it is sometimes hard to pin down where you may have heard it or in what context. He goes on to found another religious order as well, a Catholic order of monks, so basically the male version of the Sisters of St Joseph. He is fairly out there. He also conducts research in Japan and South-East Asia from a geographical and botanical point of view. He is around for a long time in a lot of different areas but he is not the most famous. It is one of those names that comes up every now and again. He is quite an interesting character.

QUESTION: You talked about the institute, and I wondered have you done any more research on the institute system, because my understanding has been that the institute system was actually very important in South Australia and in fact very important in terms of general education where the library became a focal point in Robe and in Kingston?

JENNIFER WILSON: Yes, it is extremely important. I would have loved to have spent more time on the institute but it hasn’t been the main focus. There has been so much with the primary schools that the rest of the story just gets huge. The institute in Robe was extremely important. It is noted fairly regularly in histories of institutes in South Australia, because it was known to have one of the most extensive foreign libraries in the state. There are about 20 different newspapers they get in regularly and so many different books, most of which are donated by the local community. Julian Tenison Woods gave a lot of his own material at certain times.

The institutes are a real focal point for so many things that it’s hard to pin down one thing they did. But certainly there was regular meetings and regular lectures. Julian Tenison Woods is only one of them. Adam Lindsay Gordon certainly gave a few talks. They were all advertised in the Border Watch newspaper, which is the main source of information about what was happening. Those lectures were advertised months in advance and reports on what happened at the lecture afterwards. So there is a real social sense of what was happening there was really important.

The lecture that Woods gives in response to the Darwin theories of evolution is responded to again by a different scientist. It is interesting to watch. There is a couple of weeks’ worth of discussion about these two lectures in the newspaper. People are a bit torn because they are all such big Woods fans that they don’t want to go against Woods but they are also very taken with what was just said about evolution. There is certainly a lot of public discussion. They are real centres of entertainment of activity, especially in small communities. It is so important to have that. It seems to appeal to all ages and all pursuits. It is kind of a side story for me but there is a lot there.

QUESTION: Thank you for your talk. I am interested in where you found the correspondence with Mary MacKillop and the nuns.

JENNIFER WILSON: Thankfully the Sisters of St Joseph have been very helpful. The story of the letters are quite interesting. We won’t be borrowing any of the originals because they are actually bound in several volumes that were used as evidence for Mary’s path to sainthood. When Mary died most people had her on the path to sainthood immediately, but we all know it is not that simple. People were instructed at the time of her death to gather anything they could, letters, memories. People wrote down a lot of their memories and sent them in. People sent any objects that they had that Mary may have touched or used. All of that was gathered together in Sydney - it’s still being gathered basically but over a particular five-year period just after her death in 1912.

The letters are varied. There is not really a rhyme or reason to why some of them may have been kept as opposed to others. But we are lucky that those that have survived do tell us something about the Robe story. The letters are a way of administering the sisters. They request what they need - just like they do with the education department system - such as clothing, supplies, everything. All the requests go to Mary MacKillop or one of her lieutenants, to try to put that together and send out what is needed to the various districts. At the very basics the letters are just administration.

On other levels there is a lot of requests for prayer as well as some very personal things from Mary that we are not able to publish. They are still quite protective of some of her personal views on things and some of her thoughts. She is a prolific letter writer and writes right up until the time she passes away to her various sisters and the communities. She is not able to travel for about the last two decades of life because she is quite ill, so she continues that correspondence to keep in touch. It’s a lovely and quite eye-opening record. They are all kept - I wouldn’t say secretively - quite heavily guarded at the archives in Sydney. There is public access to those archives but mostly, if you are like me, you get access to the reproductions and the rest of the collection is kept under lock and key, because of course they are quite fragile now. Mary MacKillop also wrote on both sides of paper and it is actually really hard to read. That was painstakingly transcribed back in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s by various archivists. So the record we have now is the reproductions. There are so many letters; it’s a really valuable resource; it is mostly all that is left of the early years of the institute.

QUESTION: Having grown up in the post World War II New South Wales Department of Education and then continuing into the department, I can remember being taught by married women way back in the 1950s. Was it political or economic in the South Australian system that married women did not take part up until the 1970s?

JENNIFER WILSON: It’s a bizarre thing - and I probably shouldn’t have referred to it the way I did because it was never a blanket rule, which is why I don’t completely understand it - but there were numerous married women who worked in Robe and other schools at various times. I think Doris - the teacher with the suitcase - gets married earlier in the year and actually works the rest of the year as Doris Dawson and then leaves school. I don’t think it was always something that was forced upon the women necessarily. I think some of the variations of who did leave and who didn’t leave, or who was forced and who wasn’t, comes back to the regional school as well, because it wasn’t always easy to get teachers going to regional schools so some of those women were kept in their positions if possible. Certainly one of the teachers I talked to had to leave in the 1970s when she got married. There doesn’t seem to be a strict rule that governs it. It seems to be on a more case-by-case basis. It mainly comes back to politics rather than economics.

There is certainly a difference in how much women are paid as opposed to men. But maybe it is social rather than political that women should be the at home and have children - that angle comes back into it and is certainly in the parliamentary debates. That is the way it is. But in Robe it’s a shame because in the late 1800s all the schools are run by women like Elsie MacQueen. They start up those schools off their own back basically with maybe a grant for a few pounds from the government, but all the schools pass through numerous women because each one gets married and then they have to pass it on to another unmarried woman who gets married a couple of years later and then you have another one. It’s disruptive but it really does last for a long time that way. Yes, it seems to be case by case and then it is up to the different states thereafter as to what they did in changing those rules.

QUESTION: In that period around 1880s and so on, was it compulsory to send your children to school and was there a minimum standard that children were expected to attain?

JENNIFER WILSON: There certainly was. It depended how closely the teachers were keeping their records. Inspectors would go to the schools at least once a year and inspect class school books and all that kind of thing. It is still done today but it was a little bit different then. Basically the compulsory clauses came in with the act in 1875 but they were not really able to enforce it because children were still required to work on family farms during harvest seasons and that kind of thing. For quite a long time they go about two-thirds of the year which is compulsory, so the roll books are kept to make sure children are attending enough.

The main problem is that the system is not free until 1893. It’s really hard for a lot of people to afford it. Certainly Robe is not really a wealthy community, especially past the 1870s when shipping declines and not as much is coming through town. A lot of people leave or exist on a fairly meagre amount of money. There is not a lot of money to send kids to school. The Local Board of Advice has to take applications for free education at that time. Parents apply to the Local Board of Advice who then send that application to the minister for his sign-off to be able to attend free of charge, so the education department picks up that bill.

There are numerous reasons in the correspondence listed. On one occasion the father is injured so can’t work for a few months, so those children have permission to go to school and then the government picks up the tab. That is kind of how the system works to try to get as many children as possible to attend for the compulsory two-thirds of the year. But as far as I can tell it is not a perfect system. When it comes to assessment and recording the grades of children and all of that, there seems to be a bit of leverage for teachers to perhaps interpret who is okay and who is not. I guess the further away from Adelaide you are, maybe the more leverage you have. It’s not really a perfect system until the first decades of the 1900s when it becomes more regulated. The system is free. The local boards of advice are cut out of the picture and the department has the staff to administer more of it themselves. There is a few changes there.

MICHAEL PARKER: Thanks again, Jennifer. [applause] Please make a note in your diaries that the next curators talk will be on 12 August and we will hear about bushrangers of the 1860s in the Lachlan Valley. Thanks for coming and see you next time.

Date published: 31 July 2009