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2007-12, 355, 356, Bibliography, Geoffrey Burkhardt

School Histories: A Bibliophilic Challenge

School Histories: A Bibliophilic Challenge

Geoffrey Burkhardt


IT IS NEITHER RELATIVE nor absolute scarcity which makes collecting Australian school centenary and jubilee histories a challenge for the bibliophile, local historian and educational historian, since stacks of copies of published school histories lie unsold and neglected in school storerooms across Australia. The challenge to the comparatively few collectors of this genre of Australian local history writing arises from the relative bibliographic obscurity of school histories, usually compiled by local school jubilee celebration committees and printed locally in limited print runs, catering for small populations in the school district. Many of these semi-ephemeral publications of 20 to 60 pages were produced in limited print runs of only 200 to 600 copies but more than enough to satisfy the demand from currently enrolled students of the school and their parents and friends. The authors and publishers of many histories of small rural district Australian primary schools never sought nor were given an ISBN number, and consequently, their books are not recorded in state or National Library catalogues. It has been only in more recent decades that copies of small school histories have been forwarded by their publishers, (usually the local school) to state and national libraries under legal deposit provisions.

On the other hand, the histories of large non-government secondary schools (the private school sector) are usually published in much larger print runs and are often produced by commercial publishers. These 200 to 300 page tomes are most commonly available today in the second hand book shops. Not only were they produced for significantly larger school populations, but also they were quite often written by professional historians or individuals acquainted with historical records and research.

When I first started to collect published histories of Australian primary and secondary schools over forty years ago there were far fewer of this category of local history genre to be had. The motivation for the writing and publication of school histories was given an impetus through the accelerating incidence of school centenary celebrations occurring during the last thirty years. The Australian colonial Public Instruction Acts of the 1870s through 1880s established “free compulsory and secular” government funded and operated schools. In the colony of NSW alone, approximately 1700 government schools, mainly small rural village primary schools, provisional schools and half-time schools were established during the period 1880–1900. Although a number of these were subsequently closed after flourishing for a few decades, a large number of them survived to celebrate their centenaries during the 1980s and 1990s, consequently prompting an historical publication in each instance.



Until 1995 there was no comprehensive bibliography of Australian school histories available to collectors and researchers seeking these items generally or searching for the histories of specific schools. Collectors of Antarcticana, Australian children’s books, Australian military history, Northern Territory items and many other specialised domains of collecting have for many decades been able to consult comprehensive bibliographies dealing with these specialities. This was not the case with school histories until 1995 when I compiled the first bibliography of Australian school centenary and jubilee histories,  Australian School Centenary and Jubilee Histories: A Select Bibliography, which was published by Magpie Press.1 Although this bibliography contained 1155 items, it is a bibliography only of monographs and complete books dealing specifically and exclusively with each particular school as the main subject of publication. Historical notes and articles published in journals, periodicals and newspapers referring to school centenaries and jubilees were not included in this bibliography. Consequently, a challenge still exists before the collector of this genre of history has a comprehensive specialist bibliography available for reference. With the passage of time all published bibliographies become outdated, and this one is no exception. I estimate that since compiling this bibliography during 1994 there have been at least 400 more Australian school histories published. During the passage of the last 13 years a great many more schools have celebrated their centenaries or fiftieth anniversaries, some having now celebrated their 150th anniversaries, such as Kempsey Public School, Grafton Public School and Bowning Public School, to name just a few NSW instances.





In addition to the challenge of establishing the existence of a published history of a specific school the collector is faced with the task of finding extant copies. Unlike books published by commercial publishers, sold through retail bookshops and commercial outlets, many histories of schools were sold only through the school itself. When making approaches directly to the school requesting purchase of the school’s history the enquirer often experiences a reply to the effect that stocks of the school’s history have been sold out, disposed of, or simply cannot be found in the school’s store room.

There is great variety in the formats and sizes in which school histories may be found. The large private schools and church owned secondary colleges with large enrolments, most usually can afford to publish their histories in case bound cloth bindings with dust wrappers, extending to 300 pages or more. Some good examples include John R Coles, The Making of Men: A History of Churchie 1912–1986 2 and Clifford Turney Grammar: A History of Sydney Grammar School 1819–1988.3 They typically contain an abundance of photographic plates on high quality paper. Many of these quality productions have been written by professional historians who were commissioned for this task, or by ‘old boys’ or ‘old girls’ who have a talent for historical research.



This contrasts greatly with the school centenary publications of many small Australian rural village government primary schools. These publications rarely exceed 100 pages, often being small quarto or foolscap stapled booklets in light card covers. Some were even produced ‘in house’ on the school’s Gestetner duplicator from wax stencils, a good example being, Oaklands School Centenary 1885-1985 (43pp., foolscap, wraps., spiral binding). Many are written by unacknowledged authors, anonymous members of ‘Centenary Book Committees’ of their local Parents and Citizens organisation, such as Stanmore Public School: A Century of Public Education 1884–1984 published by the Stanmore Public School Centenary Committee, with a preface from the chairman of the Committee who states that “This book is a tribute to teamwork…” and a number of individuals are acknowledged for their contributions. However despite their humbler and less ‘professional’ nature these school histories make a very significant contribution to Australian local and cultural history studies, as they very often represent the only consolidated published historical record of their small local community. Many of them are in effect their district’s only published history, as they often contain a section on the pioneering families of the district, such as Bendick Murrell School Centenary, 1883–1983, in which there is a section on “Land Settlement in Our District” where local pioneer families and their properties are described. A complete list of the names of all the local children ever enrolled in the school, may be found in some school histories, a good example being the centenary school history of the small village of Deepwater, Deepwater Public School 1884–1984, in which are listed the names of all enrolments, by year, 1909–1984. Others include a useful chronology of the district over the century.



Thus small government school histories differ from many private school publications because they are written in the social and historical context of the community in which they exist. A good example is Centenary of Public Education in Canowindra 1875–1975, which includes a section on the history of the district and school transport in the region. Many primary school histories closely share the experiences, good times and disasters of their local flock, such as Blacktown Public School Centenary 1871–1971, which starts with a local history section “Blacktown in Retrospect”, followed by “Land Grants and Early Land Usage”. Private school histories, on the other hand, often follow narrowly the chronology of the various headmasters and headmistresses and their specific individual achievements within the confined domain of the four walls of the school, as in To Grow in Wisdom: The Story of the First Seventy Five Years of the Methodist Ladies College 1902–1977,4 a 284 page cloth bound book which is strictly chronoloical by principalship for the period.

Of the 780 school histories in my collection the majority are of NSW and Victorian primary schools, although I have a good representation from the private school sector, across all states, mainly church affiliated secondary colleges. One of the oldest is The Church of England Grammar School Launceston 1846–1923: A Short History,5 which was published on the occasion of the ceremony of the laying the foundation stone of the school’s new building on 18th April, 1923. Its appendix contains a list of Old Boys who enlisted and fought in the Australian contingent at the Boer War, together with a list of Old Boys who enlisted for the “Great War”. Another highly sought after book, published over 70 years ago is The History of the Kings School Parramatta.6 The largest school history (in terms of format size) in the collection measures an unwieldy 42cm by 30cm, a spiral bound production of 20 pages titled, Now and Then: Willoughby Girls High School 1934–1984. One of the briefest is the semi-ephemeral Sutton School Centenary 1871–1971, a 12-page pamphlet consisting of a brief history and souvenir programme, for the Sutton School’s centenary.



The variety of physical sizes of these publications is also somewhat of a minor challenge to the collector of these items. Shelving height needs to cater for: small A5 publications; octavo size, which encompasses approximately half of those items published; quarto size, which was quite popular during the 1970–80s; A4 size, which in recent decades appears to be one of the most popular formats; and foolscap sized books, which was a convenient format for those small school histories printed by some schools on their school Gestetner machines in the 1950s and 1960s. A related challenge is the choice of a system for the shelving or classification of a collection of school histories. Should one shelve these items alphabetically by author? The coloured illustrated dust wrapper of  Grammar:A History of SydneyGrammar School 1819–1988 by Clifford Turney. Or, by physical size? Or alphabetically by geographical region/district? Or alphabetically by title? Or alphabetically by name of the school?


For my collection I have opted for a variant of the latter system, partly geographical, that is, shelving alphabetically by name of school, state by state, where the title of the book indicates the town or suburb in which the school is located. For example, Blacktown Public School history is shelved in the ‘B’ group of the NSW alphabetical section. Grammar: A History of Sydney Grammar School, is shelved in the NSW section under ‘S’ because it is a Sydney school. Centenary in Bowen: St Mary’s School Bowen 1885– 1985, is shelved under ‘B’ in the Queensland alphabetical section. Problems still arise with this system as in the case of a title such as Marist College North Shore 1888–1988. Should I shelve it under ‘N’ for North Sydney or North Shore? Or might it be more conveniently located under ‘S’ denoting ‘Sydney North’? Or would it be more appropriate to shelve it under ‘M’ for ‘Marist College’? But there are numerous Marist Colleges around Sydney and NSW which have published their school histories. Ought one shelve all NSW Marist College histories together in one sub-section? In this case my compromise was to shelve it under ‘N’.

One of the frustrating problems associated with both the existence and classification of some school histories arises from those whose titles bear no relationship to the name of the school or its geographical location. A couple of examples illustrate this challenge for the collector and researcher. Looking Back: Spectemur Agendo 1929–1979 is a title without a qualifying sub-title and offers no indication at all that this book is actually the history of Gosford High School. Furthermore, the title offers no indication that the book is actually a history of a school. To discover the name and location of the school to which the title refers one needed to actually consult the preface and text of the book itself. While the simple title Our School History indicates the context of the book, there is no indication in the title that it relates to Cowra High School in NSW. While it may appear learned or ‘modern’ to have a Latin or a localised title for a school history or any local history for that matter, my advice to potential authors of local histories is to add a subtitle which clearly identifies the institution and/or locality of the subject of their history. Thus when the finished product is catalogued and eventually appears in the online national bibliographic data base “Libraries Australia”, its entry under a more descriptive title will greatly aid educational researchers, librarians and collectors to identify the book as a school history.

The demand for school histories has increased gradually over the last few decades, mainly arising from their local history and genealogical utility, as they usually contain numerous class photographs, some from the school’s early years. State and local historical and genealogy society libraries are active in pursuit of these publications. The library of the Society of Australian Genealogists in Sydney and the library of the Royal Australian Historical Society are both quite strong in their collections of NSW school histories. Deakin University Library also has a research collection of school histories and old school textbooks. The history office of both the NSW Department of Education and the Victorian Department of Education held collections of histories of their respective government schools, although I understand that the (in the meantime renamed) NSW Department of School Education has now dispersed its collection. Also, the Australian National Museum of Education7 is keen to add to its research collection of these items.


1 Burkhardt, Geoffrey, Australian School Centenary and Jubilee Histories: A Select Bibliography. Magpie Press, Angaston, SA, 1995.

2 Coles, John R, The Making of Men: A History of Churchie 1912–1986. Boolarong Pub. East Brisbane, 1986. 462pp, 4to, h/c, d/w.

3 Turney, Clifford, Grammar: A History of Sydney Grammar School 1819–1988. Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1989. 490pp, h/c, d/w.

4 Twynam, P M, To Grow in Wisdom: The Story of the First Seventy Five Years of the Methodist Ladies College 1902–1977. Published by the School Council, Adelaide 1997.

5 The Church of England Grammar School Launceston 1846–1923: A Short History. 30 pages, oblong 4to, card covers.

6 Johnstone, S M, The History of the Kings School Parramatta. Sydney 1932.

7 The Australian National Museum of Education (ANME), is a ‘virtual museum’ whose office and repository is located in the School of Education at the University of Canberra, email ANME@canberra.edu.au



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