Schools in the early part of the 20th century were very different places than they are today. By the age of 14 most children had left school to enter the workforce and many did not progress beyond year 6, the final year of primary school at the time. It was commonplace for children to walk to school - there were hardly any cars - and many went home to have their lunch. Much of the learning was done through repetitive copying and memorising of facts.
On January 1, 1873 the Victorian Government passed a law - the Education Act - that made it free and compulsory for all children to attend school. For the constituents of the towns of Preston and Northcote this meant that a local, state run school was required for the growing young population to attend.
In 1874, after much community discussion, the first state school was opened in Helen Street Northcote with a Mr. Richard Tobin as the headmaster.
The school fence was a source of grief for Mr. Tobin, with cows often walking onto the school grounds and local thieves walking off with the fence posts. When Mr. Tobin complained that the school needed the fence replaced, the Education Department’s Architect responded:
“I think the teacher must be very much to blame if he allows the rails to be removed and to let the cows in”.
At that time teachers – and in the instance of the Helen St. School, poor old Mr. Tobin – were paid extra for the cleaning and maintenance of the school and, as a result, were expected to pay for any damages - such as broken windows - to school property. The Helen St. School windows were often smashed and, when asked to explain the vandalism, the local police claimed that they where accidental broken by boys shooting birds with slingshots in the nearby paddocks. Judging by the frequency of broken windows at the school, these boys where not a very good shots.
The first school to be built in Preston was named the Tyler Street Primary School – now named Preston South Primary school – and was opened in 1865. At the time the parents in the community had to pay 1 shilling per student to cover the teacher’s salary and pay for general running and maintenance costs.
Punishments ran from being kept after school to the strap. It was rare - though not unheard of - for girls to get the strap; boys who misbehaved would get it more often.
A student at Helen Street School in the early 1900’s remembers “If a troublesome boy was sent to the headmaster… [The teacher] would get the strap out and say “well, this is my doctor and if you can’t be a good boy you will have a dose of this medicine”. That generally was enough to stop them”
He remembers being “given the cuts with a leather strap and as [we] got older certain teachers were very strong with it...one fellow would hit you from the side in such a way the strap stuck to your fingers and wrapped around your hand”. Some other ex-students remember getting into trouble:
“We never used to stay at school…my cousin and I …we left after ten minutes, we’d just say to each other we’d had enough and get up and leave…but we’d eventually get dragged back again. We’d get five to ten cuts per week”
“I remember my teacher…had a stick about 15 foot long…once you lifted you’re head off your papers you were doing your work on , you’d get a clout across the head with this big stick he used.”
In the early 1900’s children in the Darebin area had a lot more space to play. There were fewer roads and houses. Children used their imagination to create games that required little, if any, money or equipment. After school, local children would spend their time catching grasshoppers, bullfrogs and butterflies, collecting bird’s eggs, looking for snake skins, playing with billy carts, flying kites, fishing and swimming in rivers and creeks. One Darebin resident remembers “gathering wildflowers, fishing with a stick and a bent pin, mushrooming….these were all exciting things to do back then.”
Darebin Creek was a popular swimming spot and also, apparently, the perfect place to wag school: “near Bell St….we always swam naked…because our parents did not know that we were [there] swimming…the bottom was always so soft and muddy”
Tobogganing – sliding down a steep muddy slope - near the creek, was also a popular pastime. Kids would fill buckets with water from the creek and carry them to the top of a hill and poor them down the slope to make it as muddy and slippery as possible. Once this was achieved they would slide down the track on old sheets of galvanized, corrugated, roofing iron. One tobbogganist remembers making the slopes “nice and slippery, oh boy! And then [we’d] go home and get a hiding off mum for being so dirty and muddy.”
Mulberry fights were another headache for overworked mothers without the luxury of modern day washing machines and stain removers: “we would climb the trees and gorge ourselves on mulberries, then [we had] mulberry fights, and we would go home with mulberry stains from head to toe.”
Keeping Silkworms was another popular hobby: “we all had silkworms…we used to weave the silk on little looms. We’d warm the cocoon in warm water and unwind the silk strands onto little bobbins. You got lovely golden silk”
Shanghais (or sling shots) were hugely popular with boys. They’d use them to hunt rats, “the biggest you’ve ever seen…we shot anything. We chased everything and everything that moved was fair game” Some of the local boys “rigged up a flying fox with ropes, wire and an old tire to swing across the creek. An old mattress was tied to a tree to land on.”
Cherry bobs was a popular game; kids would try and lob a cherry pip (or bob) into a hole. If he or she succeeded then they would win all of the pips in the hole along with the one they threw.
“We’d eat heaps of cherries in summer and they [the pips] would be used in a lot of our games. We’d play a game where different coloured cherry bobs were placed in a matchbox with a little hole and you had to guess which colour would come out. You would bet cherry bobs on the outcome”
“Cherry bobs or pips were played in the cherry season…playing [cherry bobs] was looked on as a sort of gambling by some headmasters”
“[Spinning] tops was also a good game. My brother and I had no trouble getting tops as my dad had a lathe and made them for us”
Marbles was also a favourite game amongst boys: “we’d play in a big ring or a small ring. It got very, very heated and was taken most seriously.”
Children would go down the Darebin or Merri creeks with a piece of string with a bit of meat tied on the end and try to catch yabbies. They’d scoop them out of the water with a net made out of an old sock: “My word, beautiful!...take them home and eat [them]. Even used to suck the claws on them.”
At the end of the school year the children at Tyler St. had a picnic in a paddock north of Bell St. they ate sandwiches, buns, fruit, and cakes and drank tea. At the end of the picnic the owner of the paddock would throw a bunch of lollies into the air and the children would scramble to pick up as many of them as they could.
Girls wore dresses that went down to the knee and long socks and boys wore long trousers that also reached their knees.
“I wore my second best dress to school (first dress for church and special occasions)… boy’s trousers… were called apple catchers or knickerbockers”
During the depression one student remembers that: “those…who had shoes would take them off on the way to school, not so much out of sympathy for those who didn’t but so we’d fit in and wouldn’t get our heads punched in at lunch time”
Most of the children lived on properties and were expected to help with milking the cows before and after school, cleaning out stables and brushing down horses. This meant that they had to get out of bed before the sun came up and had lots of work to do when they got home from school too!
Once a child had finished primary school they were expected to enter the workforce. A boy employed to carry bricks at the Northcote brickworks would earn around fifteen shillings (approximately $1.50), and would be expected to pay at least a quarter of that to their mother for food and board.
In what year was your school founded?
What games do you play now that they might have played back then?
Do you think you could do your school work on a slate board with chalk?
Can you swim in creeks and rivers near where you live? If the answer is no, why not?
Do you know anybody who has to milk cows before they go to school?
What sort of chores do you do around the house that they may have done back then too?
Carroll, Brian & Rule, Ian. 1985. Preston: an illustrated history. Preston: City of Preston.
Collingwood History Committee. 1979. In those days: Collingwood remembered. Richmond: Richmond Hill Press.
Fiddler, Michelle. 2009. Alphington Primary School: 100 years of learning. Alphington: Alphington Primary School Centenary Committee.
Green, Juanita & Michell, Paul.1998. Voices from the archives: Northcote people talking. Northcote: Northcote Historical & Conservation Society.
Jones, Roger J. & Keddie, Lisa.1994. Back in them days: an oral history of Preston. Preston: City of Darebin.
Lemon, Andrew. 1983. Northcote Side of the River. North Melbourne: Hargreen Publishing Co.
Northcote Historical & Conservation Society. 1988. Northcote: Glimpses of Our Past. Northcote: NHCS.
Russell, Emma. 2010. Fairfield Primary School 2711: the Langridge Street knowledge emporium, celebrating 125 years: 1885-2010. Fairfield: Fairfield Primary School.
Watson, Kelly. 1998. Recollections of the Darebin Creek Valley. Alphington: Darebin Creek Co-ordinating Committee.