Countrymindedness and the democratic intellect: permutations and combinations in a Victorian country state school, 1853 to 2007.
'The Democratic Intellect' is a phrase of George Davie in his 1961, The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect. His subject was the civic and utilitarian ethos of the five Scottish universities. This ethos accommodated meritocratic privilege in civil society, sacralising the Calvinistic principle that civic privilege was not inherited but earned, including by the 'lad (occasionally lass) o' parts'. In the second half of the nineteenth century, this ethos was increasingly challenged in Scotland by elitist Oxbridge modalities, although it had strong defenders. (3)
In the wake of the 1867 Report of the Argyle Commission, and the 1872 Scottish Education Act, the idea of the democratic intellect', and meritocratic preconceptions, were energised or confirmed in many erstwhile parish schools. There were exceptions. In many lowland industrial areas, for instance, and parts of the Highlands and Islands, little scope existed for the democratic intellect' in either pupils or dominies. (4)
'Countrymindedness', applied to Australian settlement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, denotes an enduring sense of both belonging to a place and owning it. That place might be town, region, or city, but in this study is part of a valley--the Plenty Valley in Victoria. But as foreshadowed, the term is extended in two ways. First, it is extended to hopes anteriorto the process of settlement. These were aspirations of economic man (and woman) moving from a metropole, in which labour and capital tended to be abundant relative to land and raw materials, to colonies in which the converse was the case. Second, this objective structural imbalance made reasonable the colonist's hope of securing proprietorial and financial independence, and a new family home, as rewards for supplying skills, services and capital in a resource-rich colonial settlement (and, of course, the United States). In Australia, doing well' was usually more likely in colonial capitals and large towns than rural hinterlands, but there were spectacular exceptions. Most Scottish immigrants eventually settled on the coastal fringe, and some, seeing better prospects elsewhere, re-migrated--for instance to New Zealand.
In 1853, when the Victorian school in question was founded, one of the chief propagandists of the National System of which it formed a part, George Rusden, declared that this system would foster 'a very high degree of enlightenment', which would lay 'a firm foundation' for a life of mental action, virtue, wisdom, reflection and ingenuity', (5)--just what young colonies soon to gain substantial self-government needed. Educational historian, Geoffrey Sherington, recently stated that the Scottish influence on education was most evident [in primary education] when, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the colonies adopted the model of state-directed schooling'. Echoing Davie's democratic intellect' theme, Sherington added that, despite damage to the Scottish parish school system in the nineteenth century through demographic, industrial and urban changes, Scottish migrants brought to the colonies the ideal of a democratic national education'. (6) Malcolm Prentis, in his recent The Scots in Australia, (7) an extensive revision of a work of 1983, (8) reached a like conclusion: 'the democratic outlook of the Scots was strengthened by the wide availability of education from parish school to university'.
Rusden also declared that Scottish parochial schools helped transform the bigoted and riotous Scotland of 1696, when that system was established, into the intelligent and mainly prosperous Scotland of 1850. He acknowledged a Presbyterian bias' in such schools, but thought catechetical requirements were subordinated, overall, to those of general instruction. The teachers, as teachers, mostly regarded religion in much the same unsectarian way as did teachers in the Irish National system. The Irish National School experiment proved that a general non-sectarian elementary education was possible; while the Scottish system showed that a practically non-sectarian system worked well, too. That is, I think, the line of thinking behind Sherington and Prentis's claim that Scottish immigrants often carried, in their cultural baggage, the ideal of democratic national education.
The religious question remained sensitive in Scotland, as in Victoria in the 1850s, not least in respect to the National Board school studied here. Under the 1962 Common Schools Act, this became School 488.
The purpose of this study is to trace in this school a process and a command idea. The process is settling into a locality, finding and/or making a home. The command idea is aspects of Rusden's high degree of enlightenment'. But all things change. The enlightenment focus common among early decades of Scottish settlers, and of course among many non-Scottish ones, came, in time, to develop progressivist and civic-nationalist inflections.
The school buildings and bluestone teacher's house of the original school survive in good order, preserved with tact and intelligence by the English owners of what became, from 1976, the abandoned school site. When the school moved, it left behind neighbouring buildings about as old as itself. These are, to the north, a bluestone Presbyterian church, built during 1860-61, in which Presbyterian services are still held. Directly south is a bluestone house, which began life in the early 1860s as the Britannia Inn. This it remained to 1879, when it obtained a new owner, Walter Thomas, and new name--'The Poplars'. The building, which remains, now gained educational resonance. Thomas became chairman of Department of Public Instruction Board of Advice 134, under whom school 488 fell, and was a keen Rechabite (total abstainer). Immediately to the south of the Britannia Inn/Poplars, stood, since 1872, the timber hall of the Independent Order or Rechabites. By the 1970s this had no local members, and the building, leaning dangerously, was removed.
Suburban development now surrounds the school--church--Poplars' precint, as planners now call it. The interest of myself and my wife in this set of buildings began in the mid-1980s when we purchased 'The Poplars'. As historians, we hoped to understand the site as a whole and in cultural and value terms, to discern the imperative mores or command values expressed from time to time at the site. The challenge was to offer what Clifford Geertz, in The Interpretation of Cultures, called thick description'. (9) An ethnographically-keyed study of the heritage site as a whole is being drafted by the present writer.
During the school's first half century, there was a marked Scottish dimension to expressions of countrymindedness in the school, and to efforts to cultivate the democratic intellect. Much in the Valley had a Scottish ambience, and Scots predominate in its early institutional life. The Plenty was one of a small number of Australian localities where this was so, although it was commoner in New Zealand and Canada. (10)
Scottish elements are evident in the founding years of the school. The 1855 school Report by Inspector Orlebar confirms this, but analysis is needed. Total enrolment at the Plenty School, as it was then called, was ninety-three, and only twenty-four came from Presbyterian homes. Closer inspection of Orlebar's religious and occupational data shows, however, a more complex picture. Church of England: Occupation of the father of twenty-one of thirty-seven C of E children was carrier. No occupation was specified for parents of the remaining sixteen. Wesleyan: Two families only; male parents were farmers. Roman Catholic: Father's occupation for thirteen of sixteen Catholic children was labourer. No Denomination: Fathers of the fourteen in this category were miller, gardener, brickmaker, artisan and tradesman. By contrast, fathers of all twenty-four Presbyterian children were freeholders'.
This distribution of parental occupations puzzles, but local circumstances clarify. At this time a large transient workforce was employed building the Yan Yean Reservoir, and the Plenty School was near the worksite. Factoring in the relative transience of reservoir workers, the Presbyterian parents--all freeholders--represent a significant percentage of local Valley dwellers there to stay. Later Inspectors consistently represent Presbyterian parents as close to a majority of parents of children at the school.
There is, however, clearer evidence of a local Presbyterian and Scottish semi-hegemony, relating to churches and church schools. By 1863 the valley contained three Presbyterian churches. 1861 saw Presbyterian churches at Morang (Mayfield Church) and Janefield. A third Presbyterian church was built at Whittlesea in 1863. Later, Presbyterian congregations formed at Yan Yean, and Kinglake, near the rise of the Plenty. No other denomination achieved this penetration. (11) The Methodists had a small chapel at Separation, near Morang. Anglicans set up in 1866 at Whittlesea. Catholics established in the 1880s at Morang, and, in the 1890s, at Whittlesea, but only on a small scale.
In respect to schools, the same Scottish pervasiveness is evident. In the 1850s there were two Presbyterian elementary schools in the Valley--schools, that is, under the Denominational Board. One, at Janefield, was opened in 1850; (12) the other, at Yan Yean, about 15 kilometres north, opened in 1861. (13) The former came under the Board of Education in the early 1860s; the latter came under the Education Department in 1873. When Scots were relatively thick on the ground, the Scottish parochial model had appeal. Prentis, in The Scots in Australia, referring implicitly to the Scottish lowlands, mentions a class of educated farming people imbued with not only traditional Scottish virtues [perhaps meaning puritan ones], but also those of economy'. Guarded words. Prentis cautiously refers to localities with 'a certain Caledonian flavour'. (14)
When a school was established at Morang, it is reasonable to wonder why application was made to the National rather than Denominational Board. A circumstantial answer is plausible. Moses Thomas, arriving in the Valley in 1851--stonemason, builder, farmer, teacher at James Forbes's Scots School in Melbourne and, later, miller on the Plenty--came from a family of Scottish Presbyterian dissenters, that is, dissenters from the established Church of Scotland. (15) Dissenters objected, principally, to that church's official link to civic authorities. National Board policy of keeping colonial churches, as institutions, at arms length from school administration, may have been congenial to Moses.
A teacher recommended by the local patrons was appointed, and Thomas remained close to the school until his death in 1878. At first he was Correspondent and Chairman of the committee of local patrons. Under the 1872 Act, when local patrons were replaced by district Boards of Advice, Thomas became correspondent and chairman of Board of Advice 134, responsible for six schools, including 488.
Walter Thomas, oldest son of Moses, writing in a local newspaper in 1923, invited readers to cast their mind's eye back to the year 1854, when he was a boy wearing a tartan jumper, traveling across the paddocks to the very same school-ground as State School 488 was built on'. (16) Precisely, the Caledonian flavour'.
Finally, on Ethnic Dimensions' one can note a single instance of an intra-ethnic Scottish dimension. The reference is to Gaelic speakers, that is emigrants from the Scottish Highlands and Islands for whom Gaelic was the first language. A controversy surfaced in the Morang church in 1863. At issue was whether a service could be conducted in Gaelic, as well as English. The only evidence of this dispute is a single request made that year to the Presbytery of Melbourne. (17) The single mention suggests the dispute was resolved, but not how. One infers that, for some Scots in the Valley, Gaelic, rather than English, was the domestic, perhaps the only, language. The dispute reflects the extensiveness of Scottish settlement in the Valley.
Existing histories and chronicles of school 488
School 488 has been often noticed by historians. Walter Thomas wrote a brief but thoughtful history in 1914. (18) The school is the subject of a one paragraph history in Vision and Realization: a Centenary History of State Education in Victoria, issued in 1973, under the general editorship of L J Blake. (19) In 1976 an individual school history was published by the History Section of the Victorian Education Department, (20) the author Neville Drummond. This had more a building than classroom focus, but that reflected an unusual purpose. It was written to accompany a proposed effort to have the school registered with the National Trust of Victoria. (21) Finally, Chris Noonan, currently principal of Mernda Primary School, has written a concise documentary chronicle of administrative steps involved in the school's move to Mernda township. A copy is held by the Mernda school. Can more usefully be said about the school as historical subject?
The democratic intellect: further dimensions
My purpose now is to sketch, in a broadly chronological way, democratic intellect' themes in the life of the school. A core question respecting the democratic intellect theme in Australia is how far a distinctively Scottish contribution can be identified. More generally how far can Caledonian enlightenment themes be traced in the larger conversations of mankind--in Europe, Ireland, the Americas, etc. Parallel questions can be asked about Presbyterianism, in its ambivalent Scottish modes: alternating between, and sometimes mixing, doctrinal combativeness and discursive openness.
Knowledge is power. This axiom, reflecting enduring command ideas, was coined by Francis Bacon, an Englishman admired by many Scots; but it was a bona fide Scot, Henry Brougham, who declared in 1825 that 'The schoolmaster is abroad'. A family of command ideas is implied. By the 1830s, in the British Isles, Bacon's and Brougham's axioms were often warp and woof of public reflection about elementary education. In the 1840s deference to the two axioms found expression in the increasingly fashionable pupil-teacher training system, and, where practical, Stow's gallery designs of teaching spaces. The challenge to trained teachers' increasingly was to manage simultaneous' instruction, deploying what Bruce Smith calls the apparatus' of the liberal classroom'. (22) The subject of this study is one such class-room, and, especially, aspects of what Robert G Collingwood would have called its thought side'. (23)
Example One: The Higgs classroom, 1857-1870: four glimpses
According to Walter Thomas's school history, Inspector Orlebar told Moses Thomas 'he had never met Mr Higgs's superior as a scholar'. (24) How alive, though, was the democratic intellect in what, from Drummond's history, we know to have been an austerely equipped classroom? Answering, it is helpful to note Higgs's energy. He was active in some improving' institutions of the locality: secretary of the Cornucopia Lodge of the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows, a savings' society founded in 1859, and also an elder of the Presbyterian Church. (25)
Glimpse One come from Walter Thomas. It suggests how highly Higgs was regarded by the National Board.
A new classification of teachers was made, giving those in the service the option of being examined for a first class certificate. Mr Higgs was one of the first, if not the first, in the colony to be examined, coming out with all but the maximum number of points in each subject. (26)
Glimpse Two is of process and product in the Higgs classroom--an austere apparatus' in Smith's sense. Thomas wrote:
In September 1857 the best scholar ... in the Plenty School was sent by his father to the Scotch College to study for the law. The then teacher of the Morang School ... sent a letter to the Principal of the Scotch College saying that the scholar in question [Walter himself] was the best of his school. The Principal [Morrrison] smiled and put the best boy in the country school in the second class of the college. Within fourteen days that country boy was in the Upper 6th of the college in those subjects Mr Higgs had taught ... and the following year was runner up at the examination in his class at the college. (27)
Glimpse Three, from a reminiscence by Walter of 1927, has a boastful side. Modesty about his own handwriting turned quickly into praising Higgs as supreme instructor of mental arithmetic, exemplified by his own prowess.
[John Higgs] was a beautiful [hand]writer. And many of his scholars [still living] ... show the excellence of his teaching by the good writing they produce. ... I was not one of the best writers produced by Mr Higgs, but in every other branch of education I held my own.
Especially in mental arithmetic.
[Higgs] was ... a very apt teacher of mental arithmetic, and I am ... indebted to his tuition for many short roads of solving sums. But of all the mental arithmetic sums that I worked the worst [he meant hardest] to do was one that we had at the Scotch College. The Governor [Sir Henry Barkley] gave a sum to be worked, for which he promised and gave a prize. The question was given in a quaint way. ... A gentleman was traveling in Scotland on the Sabbath Day when his horse cast a shoe. He called at a Blacksmith's to have it put on, but being a true Scot he, the blacksmith, could not put on a shoe on the Sabbath Day. The gentleman said, 'I will give you whatever you like to charge'. He replied, 'I will only put it on if you give me a farthing for the first nail and double it every time for 32 nails (the number required). This the gentleman agreed to pay. The result was that he was horror-stricken to find out [it] came to some millions of pounds. I worked it in two and a half minutes, but the sum was so large that I went over it again to verify it, and then I had plenty of time to spare. I was proud to win Sir Henry Barkley's prize, but I had to thank Mr Higgs for his tuition. (28)
This story is not Scottish. The original, set in India, referred to the sixty-four squares of a chessboard, and pre-dates western civilization.
Glimpse Four is of an 1863 physical fragment from the Higgs classroom. It is a letter, written in copperplate, from a pupil at the school to her parents. The father was John Cockerell, local blacksmith and related to Moses Thomas. A sense of fun, perhaps cheek, is evident, but also an aspirational culture. How many of Mary's fellow pupils wrote similar invitations to the usual Annual Examination'?
The subjects presently pursued are Reading with Rhetorical Accuracy & Intelligence, Fractional & Mental Arithmetic, English Grammar, Mathematical, Physical, Political & Descriptive Geography, Natural Philosophy, Calligraphy & Animal Physiology: Hydrostatics, Pneumatics, Optics, etc. To avail myself of present opportunities is a threefold duty which I owe to you, to my teacher & to myself.
Reflected is what Bruce Smith, following Foucault, meant by calling the classroom 'an apparatus'. 'It' could succeed where the monitorial system mostly failed. (29) But questions remain? Did Higgs, as a teacher, preside over an educational powerhouse beside the Plenty? Was he typical? Was Mary? Decidedly, Higgs she was a very able pedagogue, and Mary a lass o' parts'. Other pupils of 488 will be noted in this study, among them some of Mary's descendants. The metaphor of a powerhouse is not empty.
Example Two. Countrymindedness, and the death of a local titan The death of Moses Thomas in 1878, aged only 53, left a space hard to fill. He was a man of many parts, proud, public spirited and hospitable. He also had a talent, shared only with intimates, for satiric and religious verse.
What follows is a word-picture of the funeral procession carrying Moses's remains from his home, Mayfield, to the Yan Yean burying ground, further north on the Plenty Road. (30) The obituary writer, James Tait, was a close friend from Thomas's Glasgow days. In the days of Thomas's youth, Tait wrote, a satirical poem by Moses mocking clerical hypocrisy attracted adverse church criticism. Discouraged from ministerial study, in the early 1840s he emigrated to new climes--to Port Phillip, where an older brother, David, was making a good living. In his Glasgow days Moses was intellectually precocious, and Tait recalled 'Noctes Ambrosianianae' (Ambrosian Nights) shared between himself, Moses, and a third friend, also an emigrant to Victoria, who had traveled from the colony's north to attend the funeral. That Latinism would have evoked, in readers of Blackwood's Magazine, from which it comes, images of convivial evenings of shared literary, perhaps bibulous, pleasures--high cultural moments in a Scottish idiom. (31) Tait continued: Alas, the blithe genial spirit of those social hours has fled, leaving recollections that will be fondly cherished until we, his dear auld cronies, likewise go over to the Great Majority'. (32)
It was difficult, Tait wrote, to estimate the length of the procession wending from Mayfield; at no point could the entire procession be seen. He continued:
Perhaps a more impressive scene was never witnessed in that locality before. The long line of vehicles, all moving in the same track, presented a singular spectacle as it wound its way along the not unpicturesque road. At times, when the road was perfectly straight, on looking back, nothing but an endless, even wall of equipages met the eye, ... [W]hen the road became sinuous ..., the procession might be seen winding through the trees as far as the eye could reach, the sombre garb of mourners contrasting with the fresh verdure by which they were surrounded; and not the least touching part of the spectacle was the quiet homage paid by the country children, who stood with uncovered heads while the procession filed past their homes. It was a sight ... that will long be remembered in the Yan Yean district.
Countrymindedness is not a term which lends itself to precise definition, yet is apt in seeking understanding of perceptions of Moses Thomas by children in the Morang and Yan Yean parish. Richly expressive is the tribute of the children uncovering their heads.
Example Three: Countrymindedness and the displacement of Scottish by local identity
Moses's eldest son Walter quickly stepped into his father's shoes as a member of the Whittlesea Shire Council and Correspondent and Chairman of Board of Advice 134. He did so despite considerable physical disability. In the mid-1860s, just after marrying, he was badly injured dynamiting a drain on the Plenty Road. He lost one eye completely, retaining only partial sight in the other. He might have died had not his uncle, John Cockerell, Mary's father, heard the misfire from his blacksmith's forge nearby. He ran to the spot and stopped the bleeding.
Walter combined intelligence, lively curiosity about fellow humans, conspicuous affability, trustworthiness, and quiet determination. Far less flamboyant than his father, he came to fill an even larger space in the life of the Valley.
Like father, like son? Yes and No. The question often in the background is the process whereby the children of immigrants, and their children, often develop loyalty to the land as their native place.
Early in the 1860s Walter Thomas abandoned law studies in Melbourne, returning to the family's home at Morang. Partly this was to help his father at the Bridge Inn store, and partly to strike out on his own. Now followed for Walter about four years of intense and happy busyness; that is, until the dynamiting accident. He became toll collector for the Morang Roads Board, of which his father was secretary. Getting road users to pay sometimes needed firmness of character, but he had that. He also won haulage contracts, running his own team of bullocks. He stored a rich fund of memories to draw on later.
One contract he vividly recalled: it was to clear 33 feet of road for 40 chains, up to Tommy's Hut, a rough hostelry near where the present Yea Road branches east to what is now Kinglake. His team camped near Tommy's Hut, but sometimes he spent an evening at home, two hour's ride away. Leaving home before dark, one time, he joined his workers for breakfast.
One such ride was long remembered. 'I remember now, with pleasant thoughts', he wrote in 1928: (34)
a meal I had in the seventies at that historical spot called Tommy's Hut. I had got up in the early morning, about 3 o'clock, and ridden about 15 miles when I arrived at Tommy's Hut, on the top of the Plenty Mountains. The morn was a fresh, crisp one, and the long ride created a healthy appetite in me, and I arrived where my teams and others were camped at about 5 a.m. The cook, an artist at his work, had just taken a beautiful damper from the fire, and I never in my life made a better meal than I did on that spring morning over 50 years ago, of hot damper, butter, and billy tea without milk.
Perhaps through epiphanies such as this, Walter was inducted into the 'cameraderie' of the bush colonials. (35)
One outcome of Walter's nativisation was a mild rift with his father. In a 1931 reminiscence, Walter remarked that, as an Australian, he took offence at a derisory prediction by his father about the fighting quality of the native born. Come war, said his father, what the enemy would see would not be the faces of the colonial soldiers. (36) Was this more a generational or ethnic-cultural dispute?
Example Four: Countrymindedness and country rights
Country schools often lacked facilities available to city ones. One such inequality much vexed Walter: while metropolitan State elementary schools were visited regularly by music teachers drawn from an accredited list, (37) no country schools received this boon. Walter described a Board of Advice campaign in the late 1870s or early 80s to rectify this of which he was the instigator. G W Brown, Secretary of the Department of Public Instruction, the perceived eminence gris at the centre, was an acquaintance of Walter's, although not a close one. When Walter attended Scotch College, Brown taught mathematics and classics. When Brown became a school inspector in the 1860s, the Morang school was in his area, and Walter met him then, too. Many years ago', Walter Thomas wrote in 1927:
on looking over the cost of teaching singing in the metropolitan schools, the thought struck me: 'Why should not country schools have the same privileges, provided the cost of teaching was no more per head ... ?' The members of the then school Board of Advice 134, of which I was chairman and correspondent, supported the proposal, and we convened a meeting of four boards of advice, viz., Whittlesea, Diamond Creek, Epping and Morang ... . We ... interviewed the Secretary of the Education Department [Brown], who at once said the idea was absurd ... . I asked him why... His reply was that the country could not bear the cost. We were not satisfied, so our [local] member, ... arranged a deputation to the Premier, Sir Graham Berry, ... . Mr Brown strenuously opposed our request, but the Premier at once said, provided the cost was no more, that he would leave a memo granting our request. We had advertised and got a duly qualified man--a Mr Thomas ... . [But] strange to say, shortly afterwards all the singing masters in the State were dismissed ... . Result--after a short interval, those in the metropolis, etc., were reappointed, and our position was left vacant, (38)
Example Five: Local friends of Bacon's axiom that 'knowledge is power' in action.
A meeting was held in 1883 at School 488 proposing establishment of a local Mechanics Institute and Free Library. (39) Walter Thomas, then shire President, presided, but there was no immediate outcome. In 1920, in a short history of the Mechanics Institute, Thomas recalled a more successful meeting at the school three years later. (40) The Institute, about a mile north of the school, opened in 1888. Walter Thomas became a trustee and also librarian. In the 1920 history he said the library contained about 3,500 volumes, and opened at least once a week. That's a lot of books; but attention to detail was his forty.
Example Six: The ladder of opportunity
Walter was emphatically education-minded, but not himself a teacher. His father taught briefly in the 1840s at Forbes's Scots School in Melbourne, and his grandfather was a teacher in Scotland. He wrote with pride:
I come of a teaching family, many of whose members have made their mark in school life, and I personally for forty five years have been closely associated with the education of the children of my district. (41)
Nor was his horizon limited to elementary schooling. Around 1912, when the Morang school came to be called Mernda Primary, this signified that educational change was in the air. Walter showed himself as an educational progressive, and, in the Scottish sense, a friend of the democratic intellect. Prophetically, he trusted, that before long,
the poorest man's child, if he had the ability, would be able to go right through to the university; a child that had the ability should not be kept back for want of means in a democratic community like ours. ... His heart was bound up in the children. (42)
Importantly, he wrote 'a child'. not 'a son'. Thomases were intensely education conscious, not least for their women. Of course nobody is perfect. A great grand-daughter of Moses Thomas, Faye Thomas, custodian of the Moses Thomas Papers, told me a family story about Moses's second wife, Ann, by whom he was to have twelve children, in addition to six from the first family. Ann's children were mostly female. Ann, the second family story runs, took strong issue with Moses over schooling of these daughters, saying he worked them too hard in the family butter factory, (43) and they should have more time for school work. Perhaps she was as strong-minded as Moses. Was protest effective? That several daughters in the second family became teachers suggests so.
Example Seven: Countrymindedness, the democratic intellect, and geographic mobility.
By the time of the 1952 Back to Mernda' reunion, the fifth, Walter Thomas was twenty years dead. Sometimes an interpretative historian recognises a school as distinctively of a place, yet as transcending it in memory. Localness and transcendence through memory is precisely what the detailed 1952 report of the reunion discloses. The date was 1 March; the place the Mernda Mechanics Institute. Although the population of the parish of Morang was now well under 300, over 500 attended (some 350 individually named). There are surprises for the historian. Although this was the fifth reunion, it was the first at Mernda. Earlier gatherings had been at the Fitzroy Gardens in Melbourne. The explanation of this seeming oddity is revealing.
A fact of life for Plenty Valley children between the world wars was that while most Valley soil was arable, it was not rich. Much was covered by crumbled basalt and basaltic soil, which looked rich but, when ploughed after stones were cleared, was apt, unless crops were rotated or land left fallow, to turn to dust. For a short time history was kind to Plenty farmers. Back in the 1850s most good Victorian agricultural land, north and west of Melbourne, was held by pastoralists under fourteen-year leases issued under New South Wales Acts of Council of 1846 and 1847.
Moses Thomas, stonemason and contract builder, who entered the colony in 1842, was fortunate to buy in the Valley in 1851, a few months before gold was found in the colony. Entrepreneurially focused and cashed up, he bought land suitable for a mill and which already stood the Bridge Inn. When gold was shortly after found in the colony, Thomas doubtless considered himself lucky.
Part of Thomas's good fortune, as things turned out, was that tenure in the Plenty and nearby localities was not under the fourteen-year leases, but freehold or under short-term pastoral license. The discovery of gold meant a rapid rise in Melbourne's population and consequent demand for food. Hence a small rush for farmland in the Valley ensued, and briefly it became Melbourne's granary. Thomas's mill, completed in the mid-50s, was busy!
But the economic situation of the Valley began to change in the wake of the Victorian Free Selection Acts of 1860 and 1861, passed on expiry of the fourteen-year leases. Would-be farmers hoped agricultural and pastoral land west and north of Melbourne would open to free selection. That hope was deferred but not stopped by defensive manouvres of former leaseholders. (44) Selector produce gradually entered Melbourne, and the Valley lost competitive edge. Valley population, like Valley productivity, remained static for near a century. An article of 1886 derisively referred to a kind of stupor' in the district. (45) The Valley got a railway only in 1889. (46)
Relative economic stagnation became a macro-fact facing generations of children growing to maturity in the Valley. This was reflected in State School 488 enrolments, mostly varying between thirty-something and eighty-something, but occasionally reaching about a hundred. Current enrolment at 488, according to the Mernda State School Home Page, is ninety-nine.
Into the twentieth century a circumstance facing most Valley children was the material imperative of leaving home places only one could inherit. The way forward for most must be out. Some made their way to more fertile rural regions. Some married into sufficiency. But this was the twentieth century, and for a growing number the way forward was taking advantage of various forms of post-primary or continuation or technical or secondary education.
The truth of the axiom that knowledge is power became obvious early and often. A partial reflection, on the state level, of a macro-shift in perceptions and expectations is State secondary and technical enrolment figures from 1930, when the world economic depression began to set in, to 1939, when it had partly lifted. In 1930 these enrolments stood just below 31,000; by 1939 they had risen to just under 36,800. (47)
This meant, on an experiential level, a sustained shift by young Valley males, and increasingly females, to the Melbourne area seeking training and employment opportunities. Relatively full postwar employment facilitated two interestingly linked results. First, expatriates became, compared to their parents, increasingly well off. Second, better served by transport facilities, they were more likely to remain in touch with each other.
This helps explain why the annual Back to Mernda' meetings were mostly held in a city park. Countrymindedness transmuted into pride of background, sometimes mixed with careerist pride in making it'. Yet this time they did return to Mernda, and in such numbers to make the very detailed 1952 Whittlesea Post report an interesting document. The interest is enhanced when one recalls the sheer smallness of the civil parish of Morang. According to the 1933 census, total population was only 272, living in seventy-four dwellings. Yet statistical smallness misleads. Mernda, through housing successive generations, grew large in memory.
Scottishness was evident only incidentally. 'Auld Lang Syne' was sung and danced to, but this, by mid-twentieth century, formed part of the British-Australian cultural vernacular. Reading the song as such as a Scottish-Australian vestige is unsafe, although that it was sung twice remains food for thought. Especially, that the first singing was unpremeditated has interest. After deciding at afternoon tea that next year's gathering would be at Fitzroy Gardens, and formally thanking the organizers, something unscripted happened:
Mr Turley and Mrs Crozier [respectively Supervisor and Hostess] joined hands, and soon the handclasp became contagious, and the strong links of friendship forged in the singing of 'Auld Lang Syne'.
'Forged', or reflected?
Striking was absence of reference to the school's immediate neighbour, the Mayfield Presbyterian Church. That still functioned, although numerically diminished, and several church members were present.
The absence of official Presbyterian representation is surprising; but two circumstances help reduce puzzlement. Parochial poverty, by Presbyterian parish standards, is relevant. Since 1929, the Whittlesea parish, of which Mernda formed a part, was unable to raise the minimum stipend to rate as a full parish; and call' its own minister. Whittlesea then became a home mission parish, served by later-year theology students, or graduates waiting for a call to a full parish. (48) In 1952 these arrangements remained, and may help explain the silence. Perhaps attending civil parish reunions was not in the home missioner's brief.
In contrast, Anglican Padre; Herbert Hayes, was present, and read a poem 'To the children'. Although ex-communicated by his church for heresy in the mid-1930s, he was of independent means and simply stayed put, continuing his ministry on his own terms. The Church of England, perhaps because there were few Mernda Anglicans anyway, chose to forget him. (49) Locals liked him, but the church was largely empty. (50)
One other denomination was represented. Hayes, introduced two former Methodist (circuit) ministers at Mernda. The town had had a Methodist chapel since 1888. The main shared commonality at the reunion was bound to be the school, and certain collective actions reflected this. The report proceeds:
School children under the direction of the Head Master (SS 488) in action and story gave their 'W E L C O M E' following which item some home brewed' verses by the conductress were sung, accompanied by a ballet effect by the following girls (ages 20 to 70): Mary Shanks, Edie Smith, Hettie Shanks, Alma Smith, Alice, Nellie, Elsie and Grace Bodycoat, Alice Humphries, Mabel Hicks, Dorothy Knox, Alice Jolley, Alison Graff, Rene Smith, Emma Giddens. 'The Inventors Wife' humorously recited by Grace Dohnt, ably prompted by her former teacher, Miss Grace Thomas, was well received.
The conductress, Grace Thomas, granddaughter of Moses Thomas, for decades was assistant teacher at the school. All performers lived locally. Alison Graff was one of Mary Cockerell's granddaughters.
Another performance was even more remarkable, strikingly confirming the emigration pattern of former Mernda-ites to the big smoke and beyond. What made it even more remarkable was that all performers were schoolteachers: Twenty old [that is, former] pupils of SS 488, who have taken up the profession of teaching, sang lustily "Waltzing Matilda"'. Twenty of them! And singing that song. Food for thought.
One wonders what the shade of Moses Thomas, supposing there was one, would have thought of this performance; but that of Walter Thomas (entering the same agnostic proviso) may have been pleased, as would be any Australian friend of the democratic intellect. Walter, celebrator of the camaraderie of the road, would have been amused by the choice of song; his father probably appalled.
Another striking ceremony attested intimate links between countrymindedness and memory. This was the formal remembrance of local pioneers. Names honoured included Thomas (Moses and Walter)'. Shortly after:
The members of the Thomas, Cockerell and Wheeler families present were asked to stand ...
Countrymindedness and the democratic intellect, the former transfigured and the latter naturalized, were alive and well in 1952.
Example Eight: How alive are countrymindedness and the democratic intellect in Mernda Today?
The question remains worth asking. The datum is the current Vision Statement' on the Mernda Primary School Home Page. The first sentence is the salient one. The up-to-date idiom won't appeal to all--although, the command values underlying the Statement would have been congenial to John Higgs and Mary Cockerell, not to mention Moses Thomas and son Walter.
We promote ourselves 'as a School of Thinkers' offering 'Quality Schooling in a Country Setting'.
'Countrymindedness' and the democratic intellect' both underwent a sea-change from Scotland to Australia. The former was expressed as a disposition, sentimentally to attach to a new place, thereby finding a new home. The latter was expressed as anticipation of material betterment in a rudimentary civil and meritocratic society. A precondition of both disposition and anticipation was colonial provision of elementary schooling that approached or surpassed the Scottish standard.
Aspects of that immodest Scottish hope, and brushes with reality, came under scrutiny in this study of a single public Australian elementary school. The study (especially Examples One, Three, Six and Seven) carries the story beyond clever out-migrants from Scotland, to clever out migrants from the Valley, including some Thomas children. Example Seven showed many Valley out-migrants to the fifties doing well in a relatively open civil society. Example Eight shows this hope surviving into the present.
University of Tasmania
(1) "'Countrymindedness": the Spread of an Idea', Australian Cultural History 4 (1985): 14-41. I was present when Aitkin gave this paper in Canberra, and recall wondering whether so evocative a word deserved a broader future.
(2) It might have proved useful in the recent Oxford History of the British Empire in distinguishing colonies of settlement from those obtained by cession, conquest or imposition of protectorates.
(3) See generally, George Davie, The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and her Universities in the Nineteenth Century (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, c1961.) See also by the same author, referring to the twentieth century, but of special interest for Australian references, The Crisis of the Democratic Intellect: The Problem of Generalism and Specialization in Twentieth Century Scotland (Edinburgh: Polygon, c1986.)
(4) Useful as background are James Scotland, The History of Scottish Education (2 vols, London: University of London Press, 1969); Robert D. Anderson, 'In Search of the "Lad of Parts": the Mythical History of Scottish Education, History Workshop Issue 19, (1985), and Robert D. Anderson, Education and the Scottish People, 1750-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995). On female education in this context, see lane McDermid, 'Gender and Geography: the Schooling of Poor Girls in the Highlands and Islands of Nineteenth Century Scotland', History of Education Review 32/2, (2003).
(5) Cited by Richard J.w Selleck in 'Education and Culture', in S Sam Goldberg and F.B (Barry) Smith (eds), Australian Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988,): 78-94. The quotation comes from National Education, (Melbourne, 1853,): 218.
(6) Geoff Sherington, 'Enlightenment and Education' in Under New Heavens: Cultural Transmission and the Making of Australia ed. Neville Meaney, (Sydney: Heinemann Education, 1989): 210-211. See also pp. 212-219.
(7) Malcolm Prentis, The Scots in Australia: A Study of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1983.)
(8) Malcolm Prentis, The Scots in Australia (Sydney: University of New South Press, 2008): 19. Unlike the 1983 study, this covers all states
(9) New York, 1973.
(10) Prentis, The Scots in Australia, 100.
(11) A distinct ethnic concentration a few miles south-west of Morang, near Merri and Darebin creeks, deserves brief notice. This was the small German and Swabian (that is, Slavic) settlement sponsored by William Westgarth, admirer of German farming settlements in South Australia. These arrived in Victoria in the late 1840s and early 1850s, in what was called Westgarthtown, but now Thomastown (No reference to Moses). Descendants farmed here for many generations, worshipping in the bluestone Lutheran church. These spoke German or Swabian domestically, so German was the usual language of worship. That most Plenty Scots and Thomastown Germans were Protestant meant occasional fraternisation. Alison Graff, referred to later in reference to the Mayfield Church and School 488, was of Swabian descent. See, generally, the fine study by Robert Wuchatsch, Westgarthtown: The German Settlement at Thomastown, (Self published, Melbourne, 1985).
(12) Leslie J Blake, Vision and Realization: A Centenary History of State Education in Victoria (Melbourne: Education Department of Victoria, 1973) 3: 30, 76.
(13) Blake, Vision and Realization, 30, 76. The only early non-Presbyterian denominational school was Wesleyan, at Yan Yean. Blake, Vision and Realization, 305. This survived from 1857 to 1876.
(14) Prentis, The Scots in Australia, 107.
(15) A nephew of Moses Thomas, Dr Walter Thomas, prepared an annotated family tree of the Scottish Thomases while studying medicine in Scotland, and circulated this among the Australian Thomas's in 1881. I have made a copy of this, courtesy of the late Ian Kilmister, great grandson of Moses Thomas. I have also copied comments on this by David Thomas, Moses's brother. The latter is held among records of present-day State School 488. The genealogy by Dr Walter Thomas implied rather than stated that two of Moses's ancestors ministered to Presbyterian dissenter congregations.
(16) Advertiser, 1 June 1923.
(17) Minutes, Presbytery of Melbourne, 6 October 1863. Presbyterian Church of Victoria Archives.
(18) 'Memories of State School 488, Mernda,' Evelyn Observer, 9 January 1914.
(19) Blake, Vision and Realization, Vol. 3: 38-9.
(20) Neville Drummond, School 488, Mernda, (Melbourne: Education Department, 1976.) On how this came to be written, See Public Record Office, Victoria, VPRS 14519/P0001/, History Section, Education Department, re Primary School 488. National Trust records reveal no application.
(21) PROV (Public Record Office Victoria), VPRS: 14519/P0001/Records of the History Section, Education Department, re Primary School 488.
(22) Bruce Smith, 'William Wilkins's Saddle Bags: State Education and Local Control', in Family, School and State in Australian History ed. Marjorie Theobald and Richard J.W Selleck (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1990): 68-73.
(23) R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History, Revised Edition, (Oxford, 1994): 213-6
(24) 'Memories of State School 488', Evelyn Observer, 9 January 1914.
(25) How typical was Higgs as a teacher? The question is reasonable, and the historian should note Thomas's implied answer: Not very. He respected the school's first Head Teacher, Thomas Noble (1853-1856) as 'severe but capable'; but recalled most for his' delight in teaching boys to box and wrestle'. Thomas was complimentary about Higgs's successors, but represented none as Higgs's equal.
(26) Evelyn Observer, 9 January 1914.
(27) Evelyn Observer, 9 January 1914.
(28) Advertiser, 22 July 1927.
(29) Smith, 'William Wilkins's Saddle-bags', in Theobald and Selleck, Family School and State, 71.
(30) (Fitzroy) Advertiser and Observer, 18 May 1878.
(31) Referring to a series of satiric articles in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine from 1822 to 1835. Some leading figures in Scottish high culture met convivially in Ambrose's Edinburgh Tavern. Among them were Byron, James Hogg, de Quincey, James G Lockhart and John Wilson. Cognate with this high cultural allusion is Tait's reference to Moses's fondness for 'national poets'--meaning, of course, Scottish ones.
(32) Dying. Probably from the Latin 'abiit ad plures', which Tait Scotticises.
(34) Advertiser, 21 September 1928.
(35) 'Thoughts', Advertiser, 26 January 1923.
(36) 'Thoughts', Advertiser, 16 January 1931. See also, 'Thoughts', Advertiser, 26 January 1923. In Walter's younger days his 'respected and much-loved parent ... was in the habit of extolling the ability of the folk in the Auld Country, and making no favourable comparison between the Australian natives and their future, as compared with their British forefathers.' [H]ad he lived, what a change he would have seen.' The 'spirit of camaraderie in your colonials', said Walter, has 'my unbounded admiration.'
(37) Annually, as Appendices to the Report of the Minister of Public Instruction in the Victorian Parliamentary Papers.
(38) Advertiser, 20 May 1927. Thomas mentions no year, but around 1880-81 is likely. The Minister, Collard Smith, in his 'Report to Parliament' in 1880-81, refers to the need to reduce costs of special teaching of singing and drawing. Victorian Parliamentary Papers, 1880-81, Paper 31: viii. Reference to 'Mr Thomas' gains credibility from the appearance of David Thomas in the list of teachers qualified to teach singing, in one of the Appendices to the Minister's Report.
(39) Evelyn Observer, 26 October, 2 November 1883.
(40) 'Mernda, by WT', Advertiser, 13 February 1920.
(41) 'Thoughts', Advertiser, 16 February 1923.
(42) Evelyn Observer, 1 March 1912.
(43) An austerely elegant bluestone building beside Plenty Road, housing a deep well to cool butter.
(44) Cockying, dummying, etc.
(45) Illustrated Australian News, May 1886.
(46) Useful here is Michael Jones, Nature's Plenty: History of the City of Whittlesea (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1992.) See especially chapter 5: 'The Railways', and chapter 7: 'A kind of stupor'.
(47) Blake, Vision and Realization, 1, 505.
(48) Briefly in the 1960s the parish was served by an appointed minister. In 2008, parish membership increasing somewhat, this arrangement was restored.
(49) In a history of the Whittlesea Anglican parish, including Mernda, Hayes's activities are noted but only to the mid-1930s. William Payne, The English Church at Whittlesea (Whittlesea: Self published, 1982.)
(50) Source, Robert (Bob) Child.
Author: Dr Richard Ely has been a member of ANZHES since the mid-1970s, and was President in 1981-2. In 2000 he retired from what by then was called the School of History and Classics at the University of Tasmania. He is currently a Research Fellow of that School, and a Senior Research Fellow of the School of History at the University of Melbourne.
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|Publication:||History of Education Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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