Northcote Primary School, located in Helen Street was the first state school to open in the Northcote area after the government passed the Education Act in 1872 a year and a half earlier. Northcote State School SS1401 opened on the 1st of May 1874.
Francis Beaver and the Board of Advice decided on the Helen Street location after looking at the local educational needs. The Wesleyan School was too small, and the Church of England school was not in an ideal location to serve the community. Both schools had no playground. The Helen Street location was in the perfect area to accommodate the number of pupils expected and in a central area.
The schools first headmaster was Richard Tobin, who was formerly teaching at the Wesleyan school in High Street. His wife, Mrs. F. L. Tobin was appointed as his assistant.
During the first decade of operation, the school fence was reported to be flimsy and in disrepair. Even after the fence was repaired, fence rails were being removed resulting in cattle invading the grounds. It didn’t help that nearby residents with drays continued to use the right-of-way along side of the school and often hitting the fence causing further damage. Often cows and youths from nearby suburbs would leave the school ground having broken windows and trampled trees.
Some of the classes being taught when the school first opened included physics, chemistry, book keeping and military drill for the boys, as well as the general curriculum. Throughout it’s life, Helen Street Primary School has at times taught secondary classes, technical classes, and woodwork, needlework and cookery.
When the decision to build Northcote Primary School was made it was intended to accommodate 500 pupils. When it was built it was large enough to hold 250 pupils. This seemed like enough space at first as attendance during the first year of operation was around 165. As the years progressed this number continually increased, causing the need for much additional space for the Helen St pupils.
During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s the school suffered from severe overcrowding. Between 1888 and 1898 enrolments grew by 350 to over 1000 pupils. A number of additional rooms and spaces were constructed during this time but enrolments continued to grow as the population of Northcote increased. Even the opening of a second State School in the area (Wales Street Primary School) in 1891 did little to control the overcrowding. In 1914 there was an average of 1369 pupils attending and in 1922 it was noted that children were being given lessons in corridors outside the classrooms!
Numbers decreased in the middle of the century as people moved away from the area, with only 381 enrolled in 1961. Today there are 249 enrolled.
Darebin Libraries. Local History File: Schools - Helen St.
Lemon, Andrew (1983). The Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen.
Swift, William George (1928). The history of Northcote: From its first settlement to a city. Northcote, Vic: Leader Publishing.