Old Perth Boys School
If the Old Perth Boys School looks a lot like a church, that’s exactly what its designer, Colonial Secretary William Sanford, intended. In those days it was believed children needed both an academic and a spiritual education, and what better way to do this than teach them in a building that looked like a place of worship?
In 1852, a ‘Boys Colonial School’ was going to be built on Hay Street, but this site was abandoned in favour of one on St Georges Terrace. Plans were drawn up in June 1853 by Richard Roach Jewell to Sanford’s design, but progress on the building was very slow. It took until March the following year before the walls were finished.
Finally, boys were able to attend classes there on Wednesday 27 September 1854. But the new building quickly proved to have inadequate space, its tiny windows made the interior too dark to read, and it lacked proper ventilation. As the number of pupils grew after the gold rush, more and more temporary extensions were added, before the government built a new school on James Street in 1896.
The building became part of Perth Technical College in 1900, until 1977 when it was offices for the National Trust of Australia (WA). In the 1990s, Old Perth Boys School was the Trust’s retail shop, along with a bookshop and restaurant. Today it is leased to Curtin University for meetings and events.
The Old Perth Boys School was the first permanent building erected in Perth by the Western Australian General Board of Education, the forerunner of the Education Department. Government Schools were established in Perth and Fremantle by 1833 but no real progress had been made by 1847 when the Governor decided to erect a building for £300 and to form an Education Committee. Rev. John Burdett Wittenoom was appointed to head the committee, although two were finally formed, one of ladies and the other of gentlemen to look into forming both girls’ and boys’ schools.
The headmaster’s salary was £50 a year, while the headmistress received only £30. These salaries were supplemented by fees paid by the families. When the schools started on 19 September 1847, there were 44 boys and 36 girls enrolled. At first the Old Court House was used to house the pupils, but lessons would be interrupted when legal work had to be done. So by the middle of 1848 it was believed that a proper schoolhouse should be erected and prisoners were kept busy quarrying material intended to build a very similar to that of the Court House. Construction was delayed several years and by 1849 the repeated legal interruptions in the Court House were becoming intolerable.
As a short-term measure, the school relocated to the Wesleyan Hall on 1 April 1850, before moving again in 1853 to the Mechanics Institute while Old Perth Boys School was being built. The location selected for the first permanent school building was originally going to be on Hay Street, but this site was abandoned in favour of one on St Georges Terrace. The new site had been home to a water-powered flour mill, operated by Henry Willey Reveley, civil engineer for the Swan River Colony.
Construction of the school began in February 1853 and was completed by September 1854. The school was designed by William Ayshford Sanford, amateur architect and Colonial Secretary from 1852 to 1855. He was in favour of church architectural styles, which is why Old Perth Boys School is often mistaken for a religious building. The cost of construction proved greater than expected, mainly because of the boggy ground and the need for extra foundations. The building was a long, narrow structure with an east-west axis. However, it turned out to be too small, the small windows made the interior too dark and it lacked ventilation.
One ex-student bitterly remembered having to attend lessons there, recalling the “overcrowded classrooms and the lack of proper ventilation”, the “excellent heating system in summer and the even better refrigeration in winter, especially in the basement”, and the “absolute inadequacy of the rooms in size and shape, colour, design, and so forth”.
To try and cope with increased demand, in 1865 a small southern wing was added and, two years later, a northern wing followed. For a number of years, the school had an average of 200 students but, due to an increase in population from the gold rush, the number increased to 346. Additional facilities were constructed in a temporary timber extension at the eastern end of the school but plans were also underway for a new Perth Boys’ and Girls’ School in James Street which opened in 1896, now the home of Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.
After the pupils left. what now became known as the Old Perth Boys School was used as a library by the adjacent Perth Technical School. But by the late 1930s the building was in danger of being demolished. The Historical Society led the campaign to save it, pointing out that if the unsightly wooden additions were remove and the iron roof restored back to its original shingle, the Old Perth Boys School would once again be a great addition to the St Georges Terrace streetscape.
After the later additions were removed, and the threat to the building had passed, the school housed the geologists mapping Western Australia’s mineral deposits before being taken over by the National Trust of Australia (WA) in 1977, who turned it into their headquarters. In the 1990s, it operated as a retail shop for the Trust, including a bookshop and café. In 1995, the Trust left the building and leased it as a café to a private business. The Trust re-roofed the building in 2000 to 2001.
In the course of restoration in 2015, thousands of artefacts were found under the floor, including buttons, marbles, slates and pencils, even cricket balls and slingshots. Today the Old Perth Boys School is leased to Curtin University and is used for meetings and events.
Ewers, John K., Perth Boys School, 1847–1947: The Story of the First Hundred Years of a Great School with a Background of the History of Education in Western Australia (1947)
‘Old Building Threatened,’ West Australian, 27 February 1937
‘Early Education,’ West Australian, 5 March 1937
‘Old Perth Boys’ School,’ West Australian, 6 March 1937
‘Old Perth Boys’ School,’ West Australian, 10 March 1937