Botany Heads Public School
- 1868 - Botany Heads Provisional School opens in Tower
- 1873 - Additional building of about 3.6 by 3 metres opened for school use
- 1890 - School closes
- 1892 - School re-opens as La Perouse Public School
- 1910 - School relocated to Bunnerong Road
- 1944 - School located on present site at Yarra Bay
In 1868 the Botany Heads Provision School (later known as the La Perouse Public School), the first school in Australia to enrol Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children, was established by Customs Officer Michael McDermott. It began with 25 students.
McDermott and his family lived in the Watchtower and they made their living room and the children’s governess, Delia O’Brien, available to teach local children. Later his 17 year old daughter took up the challenge as teacher in a school with little resources but which is recorded by an inspector as being “the best school I’ve ever seen.”
In the files of Randwick and District Historical Society and at State Records NSW there are documents that describe and inform us of the founding and growth of Botany Heads School within the framework of the State developing a comprehensive public school system. Records of building details and the maintenance issues of the day give an insight in to
conditions on the peninsula at the time.
La Perouse, or Botany Heads as it was then known, was an isolated and remote place which meant on those striving to provide school services faced many problems.
Letters reveal grave concerns and on-going complaints from Customs House, regarding the state of the “water closets” (WCs) and the overwhelming stench emanating from Botany Heads Provisional School located up hill, in the Watch Tower buildings. It took tragic events in 1880 when children died and the School had to close for two months because of a diphtheria epidemic for anything to be done. Extensions to overcome over-crowding in the class rooms were built and there were discussions about a fresh water supply.
Shamefully, records show it took until 1888 for the architect of the Department of Public Instruction to write a report directing that the old pits be filled with soil. Robert Lee was paid two pounds sixteen shillings to close each pit and was contracted to empty the new pans for eight shillings month.
Documentation also details the life of the school and gives an introduction to the education system and attitudes of the times as well as glimpses in to the lives of the children and their families. These insights are as relevant today as they were in the 1860s when the file was first opened. Papers regarding the academic curriculum and the general standard of education available in the Colony and comparisons between the different schools remind us of current debates. Information about the teachers, their conditions and their attitudes make fascinating reading.
Mr Benson was a long serving teacher at Botany Heads School and records show he always blamed his students regardless of the evidence. He continually missed his own training sessions and was obviously, by the records, not a very good teacher. He provided an excuse which records from 1886 show they were usually inexcusable.
Responding to justify the low standard of scholarship of his school, which authorities put down to his non attendance at compulsory training, he wrote that he had “white” and Aboriginal students and blamed Aboriginal students, casting aspersions on their mental ability and their ability to learn. Inspectors visited the school and made their reports. The Chief Inspector responded: “The teacher…does not give any satisfactory explanation … The children are not below the usual age, and the intelligence of the pupils is not so low as to preclude the obtaining of tolerably satisfactory results.”
Again in 1886 teacher Benson wrote “I was not aware …I was charged with striking Maggie Clark on the face….I always most carefully avoid striking any child on the head. I cane over the shoulders and back, rather than on the head with any frequency….Maggie Clark in frequently punished…At times I have been in doubt whether the girl is of dull intellect or whether she is wilfully inattentive.” Caning was never allowed to the head OR body and Benson was fined one pound but remained teaching.
There are recorded complaints of teachers not paying their accounts when credit has been extended in good faith because of their status in the community. Even Mr Benson claimed not to be able to pay for groceries because his wife had her money in trust and he could not get it.
Role of Women
Women played a major role in the establishment of our school system and the files of Botany Head School give a taste of what it must have been like for a young, single woman, just out of school herself, coming to this isolated place to take up a paid teaching position. There is some evidence in the papers that women could have been attracted because they were given a living wage. Many women taught with commitment in the face of real hardship.
Records show people living in the area also knew hardship but united with teachers in their commitment to education.
At La Perouse every effort was made from the beginning to establish and retain an integrated public school in the area. Against great odds, evidence held in primary sources illustrate that those efforts were successful and Aboriginal children contributed to the viability of the school. In more recent times relocation to a purpose built facility allowed the school community to build on those early efforts. The school has evolved to be the educationally vibrant and culturally rich institution it is today through the dedicated teachers and the efforts and support of families living in the area over generations from 1868.
State Records NSW 5/15041.3
Randwick & District Historical Society Files
Brief historical account of La Perouse School for its foundation in 1868 to 1940 Mission Publications, Australia 1968