Stanmore Public School opened in 1884, just 96 years after the Supply anchored in Botany Bay in January 1788.
Following the Public Instruction Act of 1880, the Department of Public Instruction, now the Department of Education and Training, decided to acquire a site for a public school in Stanmore. It identified a site of just under an acre on the corner of Cavendish and Holt Streets and had it surveyed late in 1880 and resumed it in February 1881 from Mr William Paling. A number of local residents persuaded the Minister to double the site for the proposed school by resuming the block on the corner of Holt and Cambridge Streets in February 1882. The whole site of nearly two acres cost £5,248 plus interest, a considerable sum for the 1880s.
In 1882 architects, Blackman and Parkes sketched plans the school building, a residence for the headmaster, weather sheds, toilets and fencing and the establishment of Stanmore Public School was approved by the Minister on 19 August. The full plans and specifications were not ready until March 1883, and two months later the tender of C.E. Mayes for approximately £5,300 pounds was accepted. The work took ten months.
The main building was designed to impress with its arched verandah, three sets of steps and the bell tower above. It was also designed to allow for easy extension to meet the expected rapid growth in the area. The structure was u-shaped, with the centre front area containing two classrooms measuring 24 feet by 21 each for the infants, the west wing a primary school room 56 feet by 24, two classrooms (one 24 feet by 16 and the other 22 by 16) and a small teachers’ room, and an identical east wing minus the teachers’ room. There were also the usual corridors, hatrooms and lavatories (toilets). The east wing was not built at this time.
Stanmore Public School opened in April 1884, probably on Monday, 7 April. The Principal was James Hooworth and the Infants Mistress was Ellen Halley. Hooworth sent in the standard return for the first four weeks, showing an enrolment of 240. By the end of the year the enrolment was 539 and the average attendance was 359.
The kind of education offered at Stanmore in the nineteenth century was narrow and bleak by modern standards. Students studied reading, writing, arithmetic, singing and scripture and children were generally drilled in their lessons until they were word perfect. The internal arrangements of the Stanmore building reflected the prevailing attitude to instruction. The primary schoolroom accommodated 168 pupils with three blocks of long desks and forms on a stepped floor, plus a steep gallery containing forms only. It could therefore easily house four teachers and their classes.
The school experienced rapid growth during its first years. In 1885, the additional wing provided for in the original plans was constructed to create a girls’ department and one of the weathersheds was fitted with long forms to accommodate another 96 pupils. By 1886 the infants department was very crowded and in late 1888 Hooworth asked for an additional classroom. The work was quickly approved and a separate building at the back of the school was finished late in 1889. The single room was designed for 100 infants. The staff worked to keep their older children at school and the school was reclassified as a Superior Public School, similar to a modern Central Schools. The school’s enrolment passed 1,000 in 1893 and there was serious overcrowding. The Department decided to erect a new two-storey building on Cambridge Street and this was started late in 1894 and completed during the Christmas vacation. The school continued to grow and in 1899 enrolments passed 1400 despite continued application of the ‘nearest school’ rule.
At its inaugural Arbor Day 1 September 1888 the school planted over 100 trees and shrubs to provide shelter from the sun. The ceremony was attended by the Minister and other dignitaries. It may have been on this occasion that Sir Henry Parkes planted the Norfolk Island pine still growing at the school today.
Sport featured in the early days of the school with the formation of a tennis court and swimming clubs for boys and girls. Each club visited baths once a week in summer. The depression had little impact in the relatively well off area of Stanmore.
In 1894, Hooworth was replaced by Thomas Walker. The following year saw the resignation of one of the school’s assistant teachers, Mary Cameron, who is better known as Dame Mary Gilmour. She had been teaching in the girls department at Stanmore since 1891. She had also been involved in a variety of radical causes, including the great strikes of the 1890s and the plans of the “New Australia” movement to establish a Utopian settlement in South America. After resigning, she sailed to the new settlement in Paraguay. She was to return to Australia in 1902, and her distinguished career spanned the next 60 years.
The infants building of 1894 was the last permanent addition to the accommodation to made until 1923 although accommodation problems continued to dominate records in the years 1902 to 1924 despite the excellent educational work of the school, which was rarely written about. When the new Crystal Street Public School (now Taverners Hill Infants School) did little to alleviate the problem, new additions to the school were approved in 1904 and the weather sheds were enclosed.
That same year, the Department embarked on a sweeping series of reforms, broadly known as the New Education, which were to bring education in New South Wales up to date with overseas and interstate developments. The New Education was a convenient label to describe a reform movement which included the application of new psychological knowledge to teaching, new interest in the physical welfare of pupils, relating education more closely to real life and placing an emphasis on the social and moral aspects of education. The new syllabus in New South Wales emphasised the correlation of the various subjects and the need to make them practical and interesting. Pupils were to learn by doing and understand what they learned, rather than the old rote method. Manual training and nature study were introduced, and kindergarten work was encouraged. The pupil-teacher system was phased out from 1906 and replaced by proper training for teachers. Fees were abolished and education became truly compulsory.
All these changes could only be introduced if the traditional buildings were altered. The long schoolrooms, stepped floors and inflexible furniture were abolished and replaced with rooms designed for one class and one teacher, furnished with dual desks or moveable tables and chairs for the infants. The Department also recognised that nineteenth century lighting and ventilation were inadequate: Stanmore’s high windows, glazed with blue glass and placed without regard for the position of the pupils, were typical.
The Department’s architect carefully examined Stanmore’s crowded site in mid 1904 and presented two options. One was to completely remodel the 1884 building and add a second storey while the other was to erect a two-storey building, in accordance with the principals of New Education, right on the Cambridge and Holt Street frontages, and then to demolish the original building. The Department made no firm decision at that time because the whole project was deferred in 1904 and again in 1905 due to shortage of funds. The building project was further deferred in 1907, due to some decline in enrolments.
Meanwhile the main schoolrooms at Stanmore continued to be places of “din and bustle”, where four and sometimes five classes worked together, making “satisfactory practical work” very difficult, according to Inspector Cooper in 1909. In 1907, for example, they organised a concert to raise funds to establish a school library and provide materials for science lessons. Around that time the Principal, William Broome, reported that the library held 268 books and he had about 10 pounds to spend on new books and science materials.
The change in standards early this century was reflected in Inspector Parkinson’s 1910 report that Stanmore urgently needed 6 new classrooms plus science and manual training rooms and other improvements. He found the accommodation quite insufficient and criticised the crowding of children onto long desks. At this time the new School Medical Service was regularly examining schools, and severe criticism was made of the dark and dingy rooms at Stanmore which had been regarded as first rate twenty years before.
Parkinson’s initiative led to a re-examination of the 1904 plans and it was decided that the foundations of the 1884 building could not carry a second storey. By the end of 1910 sketch plans were ready for remodelling and adding to the 1884 and 1894 buildings, erecting a new infants building and a science/manual training building and providing new or remodelled toilets. This set of plans was ready late in 1912 with a building estimate of £10,000 pounds. In January 1913, the Director of Education, Peter Board, questioned whether, given the very limited playground available, that amount would be better spent on buying the adjoining house and grounds and building a separate building on it. This would avoid the need to accommodate the students while the school was remodelled and extend the grounds.
Following this, the Department purchased the next door property, “Mona Villa”, for £3,100 and planned to spend £14,000 to build the new building and take care of the numerous repairs needed to the increasingly dilapidated buildings. At the same time he asked that provision be made to relieve the school’s immediate difficulties and, in August 1913, ‘two pavilion classrooms’ were ready for occupation. These rooms were designed in 1913 when fresh air was something of an obsession. They were open on two sides, with canvas blinds that could be lowered in bad weather. They were cheap and quickly erected but cold and draughty and were greeted by complaints from teachers and parents at most of the schools where they were erected. The Department began enclosing them to make conventional classrooms in 1914; those at Stanmore were enclosed in 1916.
The completed plans and specifications for the agreed works at Stanmore were finished in January 1914 but did not proceed owing to the considerable backlog in the Department’s building program and a shortage of funds. This was worsened by the outbreak of the war and Stanmore’s case was not even considered until late 1915, and then it was deferred. Consequently, the plans for the new works did not proceed until 1923 but the efforts of the local people were instrumental in producing two major improvements. Firstly, “Mona Villa” was remodelled to produce three classrooms for the infants, plus staffrooms and storerooms at the back and new toilets and washrooms were erected and the old ones remodelled.
Stanmore finally reached top priority in the building program late in 1921, and the 1914 plans were dusted off. Tenders for all the major work were called in March and in October 1922, Fred Dinham’s tender for £15,972 was accepted. Over the next twelve months, a massive building programme was finally carried out. The first job completed was a two-story building along the Cavendish Street frontage. It contained ten classrooms and, together with the two portable rooms nearby which were now fitted up for science and manual training, accommodated the boys department.
The two storey infants building erected in 1894 was extended at both ends and remodelled to form six classrooms for the girls. A classroom to be used for sewing was added at the back of the east wing of the 1884 building and the whole building was remodelled to make nine classrooms plus staffrooms, hatrooms etc. The infants took five of these rooms, plus the renovated kindergarten room dating back to 1889 and the two former pavilion classrooms. The new and refurbished accommodation was occupied progressively between May and October 1923. All sorts of other work was done and one building – a former weathershed – was removed from the crowded site.
By mid 1923 it was clear that the ten year old building plans would not provide enough accommodation, mainly because of the growth in the numbers of secondary girls. There were now 178 of them, and they needed at least four ordinary classrooms even if the Seventh Class girls were to continue to go to Camperdown for cookery and the older girls to use the back rooms of Mona Villa for typing, reading and other activities. By now Mona Villa was in very bad condition, but since there seemed to be no alternative the whole house was renovated early in 1924 for use solely by the secondary girls.
Proposals to convert the principal’s residence into classrooms had been discussed on and off since 1917 and they were revived in 1923 by the resident of the P&C, Dr. C.A. Verco. The residence had been rented out and the house and grounds were in a state of disrepair. Although the Department admitted that the use of Camperdown School for cookery was hardly satisfactory, and the residence at Stanmore could be converted in to domestic science rooms as had been done at several other schools, the cost of repairs to make the house habitable was considered too high.
The whole question was debated again during 1925 and 1926, and it was finally decided to renovate the old house and provide cookery, sewing and laundry areas, plus a bedroom and a sitting room for use in home management training. The conversion of the old residence early in 1927 facilitated the sense of separate identity and pride which was being encouraged among the secondary girls by the Girls’ Mistress, Emily MacWhirter. Under her energetic direction the girls developed the gardens and lawns around the buildings and a lawnmower was bought with school funds so the older girls could now mow the lawns. School funds were spent on a variety of needs: for example, 20 typewriters were purchased between 1925 and 1930.
The rapid growth in the numbers of Secondary boys led to renting the Methodist Church Hall in Stanmore Road. This growth was reduced by the establishment in 1930 of Newtown Central School, now Newtown High School. The hall was then used for primary classes who marched with the aid of a side drum to the school playground for lunch each day. This practice resulted in an unfortunate incident in 1930 when the beating of the drum startled a horse pulling a fruiterer’s van and the horse was badly injured and the cart damaged. Fortunately, no student was injured.
By 1930, the effects of the Great Depression were beginning to be felt. It had a greater impact on Stanmore than the 1830s depression, because the demographic character of Stanmore had changed over the years. The nature of the change was summed up by the Principal, Joseph Vivian, when he stated in 1932 “Stanmore has a moving population with many flats”.
The determination of governments to reduce expenditure during the Depression seriously affected accommodation, class sizes, and individual teachers. In 1932 the government decided to save money and redistribute unemployment by passing the Married Women (Lecturers and Teachers) Act, which allowed for the dismissal of women whose husbands earned a minimum wage, regardless of the circumstances or service of the women involved. An early victim was Grace O’Brien, a temporary assistant at Stanmore since 1921 and before that a temporary teacher during the emergency of the war. Mrs O’Brien was a superb singing teacher, and the Stanmore girls had won first place in the annual Tonic Sol-fa Competition for School Choirs on nine out of twelve occasions since 1921. The Girls’ Mistress, Ethel Wicht, was most upset when she heard of O’Brien’s impending dismissal, and having read in the newspapers that teachers whose dismissal would inflict hardship on schools or examination classes could be retained for a specific period, she asked the Department in 1932 to keep O’Brien until the end of the year. The reason was that the choral performances were very important in raising school funds at Stanmore, and since the Department had announced that it would provide no textbooks in 1933, school funds would be desperately needed by the examination classes. The plea was to no avail, and O’Brien was dismissed in August.
By early 1932 there were nine secondary and eight primary boys classes and Inspector Riley was very conscious of the fact that the primary boys had been pushed into “wretched and intolerable” accommodation. Three classes were in the “undivided (Methodist) hall, badly ventilated and worse lighted”; and one in the small room at the back of the hall. After a considerable struggle, space was found on the crowded school site for four portable classrooms. The rooms were placed where the back fence of the old residence had been and although domestic science drying area was lost, everyone agreed it was an improvement on the hall.
The date at which these rooms were occupied may well have been Stanmore’s peak enrolment. In June 1932, the school had 2008 pupils. Throughout the 1930s the accommodation arrangements for secondary pupils at Stanmore were officially regarded as temporary because of the pending erection of separate secondary schools. The main hope for the Stanmore area was the site the Department had long owned in Livingstone road but the financial situation prevented the building of a school there. The site was to be sold at the end of the 1930s only to be purchased again in the 1970s. Wilkins Public School is now situated there.
During the 1930s few improvements were made to the accommodation. A grant from the Unemployment Relief Council of about £1,200 made it possible to carry out a five-year accumulation of repairs in 1934. There was only one addition to the accommodation, the erection of yet another temporary classroom in 1936 to provide extra facilities for teaching science to the boys. The space between the back of Mona Villa and the portable rooms of 1922 was just big enough to squeeze it in.
Parent’s Organisations were active at Stanmore during the 1930s, although relatively little is recorded about them in the school files. The P&C succeeded in 1933 in persuading the Department of Motor Transport to establish “crossing lanes” in Trafalgar Street where the school had operated safety patrols for some time. The first reference to an Infants Mothers Club occurred that year, when the secretary was Mrs E Byrne. In 1936 the club persuaded the Department to install extra windows in the dark Kindergarten room, while the P&C installed electric lights in some rooms in the girls building. In addition to the parent’s direct efforts, fundraising by teachers and pupils continued to be important. School funds were used to buy textbooks which were lent to secondary pupils and for pupils whose families were poor, workbooks were supplied. Typewriters and other equipment had to be purchased from school funds, and in 1939 the Domestic Science section bought its first electric sewing machine; the Department installed the power point and paid for electricity.
In 1940 the enrolment at Stanmore was 1388, a considerable drop from the peak figure of eight years earlier. After 1944 there were no secondary boys at the school but the secondary girls now formed a separate department. In 1962 this was converted in to a separate secondary school, Stanmore Girls Junior High School, although it shared the site with the primary school. At the end of 1964 the secondary girls were transferred to Petersham Girls High School and the primary pupils had the site for themselves for the first time since 1886.
The gradual fall in enrolments and the departure of the secondary students enabled substantial improvements to be made on the accommodation. During the first half of the 1960s the former principal’s residence and Mona villa were demolished, classrooms were converted into such facilities as a library and an assembly hall, and other much needed work was carried out. In the early 1970s the site was considerably extended by purchases of adjoining houses and flats and new buildings were also erected.
The years following the Second World War saw a continued change in the demographics of the Stanmore area with many newly arrived immigrant families settling there in the many flats in the converted terrace houses and the newly constructed blocks of units close to the railway line. The school was classified as a Disadvantaged School in the mid 1970s along with most other inner city schools in Sydney and Melbourne. This entitled the school to receive additional funding to support educational programs aimed at improving educational outcomes for the 88% of students who came from language backgrounds other than English.
Stanmore Public School today is accommodated in a variety of buildings representing most of the major educational styles of the last 100 years.