An Education in History
The early days of the Swan River Colony were very hard for the 850 settlers, who spent most of their time coming to terms with the very hostile climate of Western Australia. As a result the problem of educating the colony’s children took second place to survival. This lack of educational facilities led to warnings in UK newspapers that Western Australia was in danger of becoming a “degraded society”.
To address this problem a Colonial School was set up in 1830 with Mr. J. Cleland who was a carpenter by trade, as the schoolmaster. For the first seventeen years lessons took place in a number of places including the Court House and the Rush Church, so called because it was built of rushes.
Due to the poor levels of education in this early generation of Western Australians, it was decided that thirty-seven ex-convicts would be appointed the position of school teachers. The appointment of such a large number of ex-convicts to what was considered a respectable government position was highly unusual for a penal colony. The social stigma of conviction usually excluded ex-convicts from such positions however in WA, the settlers with good education were not interested in the low wages offered for teachers – it seems little has changed. The government of the day had no choice but to consider educated convicts as teachers. Convicts did not have many prospects of obtaining better wages or conditions than those available to teachers, and the position offered a chance to overcome the social stigma of conviction and obtain a respectable position in society. Even though some settlers considered ex-convicts unfit to become teachers, most parents preferred that their children be educated by ex-convicts, than not at all. Consequently, a total of 37 convicts were appointed school teachers in Western Australia between 1853 and 1900.
Understandably the quality of teaching varied considerably during the time of early settlement. To improve the situation, the Governor of the Colony set up an Education Committee to ensure the quality of teaching. In 1847 the General Board of Education was established. The role of the first board was to oversee the development of the Colony’s schools. This resulted in the building of ‘Perth Boys’ School’, now known as ‘Old Perth Boys School’ and a secular Girls school. They also opened government assisted schools in rural districts and provided subsidies to Roman Catholic schools in the Colony.
The Education Committee selected a location for the Perth’s Boy’s School in the centre of the city. The location was originally the site of a water-powered flour mill that was operated rather unsuccessfully by Henry Willey Reveley the civil engineer for the Swan River Colony. Construction of the school began in February 1853 and was completed in 1854.
The Old Perth Boys School along with Fremantle Boys School was designed by William Sanford. Stanford was the Colonial Secretary from 1852 to 1855 and during that time he was also the chairman of the board of education.
An amateur architect was a member of the Cambridge Camden Society. The learned architectural society was founded was in 1839 by undergraduates at Cambridge University to promote “the study of Gothic Architecture and of Ecclesiastical Antiques.” As a result of Sanford’s association with this society, Old Perth Boys School was built in the style of a gothic-revival-style church so that it imposed a sense of duty, attentiveness and obedience on its pupils.
The cost of constructing the building proved greater than expected, with the additional expense being attributed to the boggy ground and need for extra foundations. The building was a long, narrow structure with an east-west axis, with small windows that made the interior too dark and reportedly seriously lacked ventilation. By 1865 the building was proving to be too small, so a southern wing was added and two years later, a northern wing constructed.
For a number of years the school had an average of 200 students. That number changed significantly in 1894. As the gold rush increased the city’s population, in turn it increased the school’s student numbers to an incredible 346. Larger facilities were required and an additional structure was constructed in a temporary timber at the eastern end of the school. At the same time plans were underway for a new Perth Boys’ and a Girls’ School in James Street. This was completed at the end of 1896 and the students relocated.
After this, the old school was used as the library for the new Technical College which had been built next door in 1901. When the college eventually moved, Old Perth Boys Schools was vested with the National Trust and used as a café until 2010, when it was vacated in order to undertake major conservation work.
After nearly two years and more than a million dollars the conservation of the exterior of this building is complete. It has been a major commitment of the National Trust who was vested with the care of this building since 1979. This project had a set of unique conditions and required stringent consultation from different organisations including; National Trust Conservation, Landscape Architects and Archaeologists.
The renovation revealed continual surprises with the archaeological consultants uncovering a collection of pencils, buttons, inkwells and even some long lost marbles from days gone by.
The Old Perth Boys School is one of a group of heritage buildings in the city which has undergone conservation and adaptive reuse after remaining dormant for many years. It was a classroom to many of Western Australian’s most prominent citizens and a significant legacy listed on Western Australia’s Heritage Register. It is a heritage survivor on Perth’s St Georges Terrace.