Teaching pioneers

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The early days of the North West and the pioneering educators of the region

The following article is reproduced here, as an example of the hardships incurred by the dedicated people who opened many young eyes and minds to the wonderful world of ‘learning’ – Teachers.

North West Queensland’s rugged terrain and unrelenting climate created a harsh environment for pioneers, graziers, prospectors and other workers willing to endure the hardships of the land.

The difficulties created by the environment were compounded by the area’s isolation.

This region is part of what Geoffrey Blainey called, “….. the forgotten third of Australia.”

Something that wasn’t forgotten however, was the children’s need for an education. The government tried to meet this need by providing both schools and teachers.

These teachers, despite deprivation and hardship made a significant contribution to the economic and social development of North West Queensland.

Unlike today when teachers are considered as professional people with necessary tertiary qualifications; in earlier years teachers required little training and held previous occupations such as:  mariner, storekeeper, compositor, clerk, farmer and miller. 

Later a new method of teacher training, the pupil-teacher system, was introduced. Even under this scheme, teachers were not tertiary graduates and came from ordinary families.

North Western teachers such as Mary O’Byrne at Duchess, Jeremiah O’Sullivan – an itinerant teacher in the gulf district and George Sargent at Ballara were no exception. 

Teachers were reluctant to serve in the North West for a number of reasons; a major one being the isolation and remoteness of the area. The journey from Brisbane to North West Queensland was an extremely distressful one.

A teacher had to travel, 1,500 kilometres by steam boat to Townsville followed by a 400 kilometre train journey to Richmond before boarding the Cobb and Co coach for a two day journey to Cloncurry. This journey could take several weeks depending on the very unpredictable climate of North West Queensland. The river systems in this region are susceptible to flooding during the wet season and can bring transport to a standstill.

Even though the railway was extended to Cloncurry in 1908 and then to Mount Isa in 1929, the North West was still one of the most remote parts of Queensland. This isolation discouraged some, whilst others who agreed to serve in the region later found they had difficulties in getting transferred back to a region of their choice. It was not an uncommon occurrence for teachers to resign because they hadn’t been given their long awaited transfer. Accommodation for teachers was in many cases unsatisfactory.

At Boulia the teacher and his pregnant wife were expected to live in a small three metre by two point five metre room formed by enclosing the back verandah of the school. So small was the room that cooking was done in an improvised kitchen outside. Even though their accommodation was very poor the majority of the teachers tried to provide a standard of education equal to the standard provided for students in the cities.

The quality of facilities made this task a difficult one. Many provisional schools such as the one at Urandangie were made of galvanized iron, a material quite inappropriate to this climate. The Mount Isa Town School was a rough structure with walls of saplings and a roof of iron, and an earth floor. Other schools such as Kajabbi and Dolomite consisted of no buildings with classes taking place in unlined and unsealed tents. Both schools were so flimsy they were blown down in storms. These schools were fortunate compared to Trekelano where the school was of the open air type and had no protection from the elements.

Perhaps the teachers who endured most hardships were the travelling teachers who provided an education for the more isolated students decades before the School of the Air and correspondence school were in operation. These teachers would have to travel on specially designed buggies through districts in which families were so isolated they could not travel to a school. The travelling teacher would teach each child at least four times a year, if possible.

Unlike classroom teachers, an itinerant teacher in addition to knowing how and what to teach, had to be a bushman who could find his way through trackless country, be able to fix the buggy and have veterinary skills in order to doctor his horse.

He had to be aware of his surroundings enough to dodge bushfires, cross rivers and dry dust bowls. Cars and motor cycles gradually replaced buggy and horse enabling travelling teachers to cover greater distances. Most pupils looked forward to the visit of the travelling teacher. Some such as Mrs Alice Gillingham who, during World War 1 was a child at the Trekelano copper mine, about 70 miles south east of Cloncurry, had fond memories of their visits.

Mrs Gillingham remembered the teacher Mr Recourt, “He stayed about a week.

“He would spend the morning at our place, showing us our work and setting us work to do.

Then he would go to this other family for the afternoon.

“For Mr Recourt, we would wash and comb our hair, put on clean clothes, and even our boots, all unheard of with us bush kids. The only time we did that was when we went to town at Duchess, about ten miles away.”

The itinerant teacher did a great deal to bring an education to many isolated children and to provide them with a bridge to the outside world. The North West was opened up by the pioneers, and this pioneering spirit was evident in the early teachers.

After much perseverance many considered the situation unbearable and gave in to its oppressive conditions. The majority however were not deterred and these educational pioneers played an important role in the development of the North West.

Researched by Kim-Maree Burton.

Back in the early days: Town school circa 1929. Photographs provided by NQHC. Information sourced from ‘Unidentified writer’, original article given to Kim-Maree Burton.

Back in the early days: Town school circa 1929. Photographs provided by NQHC. Information sourced from ‘Unidentified writer’, original article given to Kim-Maree Burton.

The first school, a structure of old iron and hessian, built by Charlie Leonard in 1924.

The first school, a structure of old iron and hessian, built by Charlie Leonard in 1924.

Drawing: Dot Rowland's sketch of the early Provinicial School of 1924.

Drawing: Dot Rowland’s sketch of the early Provinicial School of 1924.

Culled from here

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