More tales from my mother 1 — Spencer, NSW

My mother died in 1996. Internal evidence dates what follows to 1979, so my mother wrote it at the age of 68 at Oyster Bay while I was living in Wollongong. It is thus ten years more recent than the other memoir published here earlier. In the late 60s we had visited relatives at Wellington, Yeovil, and out towards Mudgee, some of whom had children affected by the rationalisation of the small schools. She may have also been thinking of them as she wrote.

The pages she left me have no title and consist of thirteen handwritten quarto writing pad pages. They overlap somewhat with the other memoir published here earlier. The subheadings are mine. I did not see these pages until after my mother’s death, so far as I know. The earlier memoir I had seen.



Introduction: small schools and their value

There has been lately a lot of criticism of the role of the small school in this community of ours, also of the education system generally.

I really wonder if anyone has given much thought to the value of the so-called one teacher school and its very active and useful place in the years even of this (20th) century between 1901 up to and including the days immediately before the 2nd World War. In this rapidly changing world one wonders if it may not be a good idea to think seriously of re-opening some of these schools instead of following the present custom where small children are expected to join a bus to take them to the nearest large town. Sometimes this involves walking, riding a bike or, if very lucky, having an already overworked Mum driving them to the nearest pick-up centre, generally on a main road. Some of these wee souls are carried over sixty miles a day to keep up with this new way of early education.

In writing this I would like to concentrate on the life of one small school teacher — he did later become a Headmaster — my father. He was one of the many young men who trained under the old “pupil teacher” system. This (to the uninitiated) meant teaching all day from the age of sixteen and then having lessons themselves from the Head of the school to which they were attached, and then studying in their free time to become a member of what was then a very proud profession. At the end of four years, if one’s qualifications were of the necessary standard, these young men — very few women but some, I know — were sent to a small school in the country to take sole charge of anything form 20 to 40 pupils in classes ranging from 1st to 6th, when the student was then able to sit for the old Qualifying Certificate and, if bright enough, to try and win a State Bursary to enable him or her to go on to a higher education and take a place — very often quite an important place — in the community at large.

My father at Spencer (1) on the Hawkesbury 1906-1913

Spencer in the early 20th century. Just around the first bend is (probably) the trading boat my mother refers to below.

Dad [Roy Christison Snr] completed his training at the age of 20 and his first school was then a very small place called Spencer on the Hawkesbury River. It was eleven miles down or up river from Brooklyn Railway Station. In those days it was only accessible by water so Dad was met at the station and rowed by the mother of a fisherman to his place of work.

sjl He was perhaps one of the luckier ones because he had his mother (right) who at a very young age had been left to shoulder the responsibility of bringing up her family alone. To do this she took in boarders and she herself, a very refined lady, went out to work starting at 3 am to scrub and clean office buildings in the city. With two of her children married and the youngest daughter able to stay with her married sister, Gran was left free to go with Dad to become his Housekeeper. He felt he owed her his help and care now he was in a position to give it to her. I think his wage was about nine pounds a month.

He was able to rent a sort of cottage — slab built — which had belonged to a fisherman or an orange orchardist who had found life just too hard. In front of the house was a bush track which led to the school building — also slab built; and here a very dedicated and ambitious young man started his career as a teacher.


Slab-built bush school. Spencer was somewhat more substantial than this example!

The school had an enrolment of about 22; the knack with small school teaching was to divide it into sections: 1st & 2nd Class; 3rd & 4th Class; 5th & 6th Class. Preparation work was very much the order of the day. One composite class had only oral work while the others were given History, Geography, Reading, Maths or English which “Sir” had already given details of on the blackboard, times and classes being clearly indicated. Tables charts, charts for grammar, charts for important dates in history with emphasis on Australian History, maps of the various states of Australia and of the World, with occupations carried out in different countries both here and overseas, were all in places where the pupils could learn of the world at large besides being taught the Three R’s.

Most of the pupils at Spencer came from the families of orange orchardists or fishermen. I think 10 of the 22 pupils were from one family. Some of them were rowed across the river and some walked along rough bush tracks.

At the age of 22 Dad married a lass from Sydney [Ada Hunter] who had been to “Ladies College” and had no notion of life in the bush. Gran, after helping the bride to settle, returned to Sydney and made a home with her younger daughter.  Mother was a dainty little soul, brown-eyed and dark haired, with an hourglass figure. She was a delight to the older girls, to whom she taught sewing — that was part of the contract, that the teacher’s wife taught sewing. Looking back, I do not know how Mother adjusted to the rather primitive conditions. Her only shopping was done from the Trading Boat — a paddle-wheel steamer that came down from Wiseman’s Ferry once a month. Dad had bought a rowing boat and became quite an accomplished oarsman.

spencerchurchLeft: Holy Trinity Church near Spencer. Austin Woodbury was reburied here in 1997.

About this time my father sent his first he thought ready for a State Bursary and the honour of the first state bursary ever won by a small schools pupil went to this lad [Austin Woodbury 1899-1979] who later became one of the heads of the Marists in this country. When he died this year — 1979 — at Toongabbie NSW there was quite a bit about Dr Woodbury in the papers. Following Austin, State Bursaries came the way of several other pupils, two of these brothers and sons of fishermen who after an education at St Joseph’s College Hunters Hill and Sydney University became doctors. One had a distinguished career in Queensland and the other became a Macquarie Street specialist. Some of the girls became nuns and rose to Mother Superior in the different orders of the Roman Catholic Church. My father was the son of a Scotsman and a Presbyterian, so religion had no bias in those days. [For my grandfather at any rate, who was really an agnostic, if a conservative one.]

barddance Life meantime had brought to my father and mother a son [Eric]. Mum was sent to Sydney in the company of Gran — Dad’s mother — and what a tower of strength she was then and in the years following. My brother was born at my other Gran’s home in Dulwich Hill and when Mum was well enough she returned to her duties as wife and now mother. Later she was to repeat the journey and I arrived in the world [1911] — again born at my Grandmother’s home, only I arrived the night Mum arrived in Sydney and caused complications which nearly cost my mother her life.

Dad meantime had become part of the community — playing Cricket with a local team which consisted of quite a few school boys; conducting a funeral service on a very wet day when the priest could not make the trip to say the last rites by the graveside. He had also become known as an expert with the mouth organ and the old squeeze box accordion and was much in demand to supply music for the local dances.

He always remembered his seven years and seven months at Spencer where he had toiled long and hard, but he felt he had done some of his best work for those pupils.

Next episode: Felled Timber Creek near Gunning NSW


1 Spencer had its centenary in 2000 and the Local Member had this to say:

Spencer Public School is the smallest school on the Central Coast, located in an idyllic setting near the majestic Hawkesbury River. Moves were afoot as far back as January 1894 to have a school established in the area. That application by the residents of Lower Mangrove Creek was unsuccessful, as Inspector of Schools, Charles Pitt, reported on 17 February of the same year that in his opinion the educational requirements of the district were sufficient for the present. In 1900, Fernleigh, as Spencer was then named, had 21 children of school age and eight under school age.

School Inspector Dettmann then recommended that a full-time school be established at Fernleigh, at the mouth of Mangrove Creek, on about two acres of Crown land near Mr James Crosland’s property. The school was to accommodate from 30 to 40 children. The first selected site for the school was not considered to be central and District Inspector Lobban was asked to investigate the matter. Lobban noted that the land had belonged to the current owner’s father—presumably this was the father of George Byrnes—and that there was some debt on it. Although Byrnes’ offer to give the site to the department and its resumption without compensation to the owner was approved by the department on 12 July 1900, the land apparently was not resumed but remained Byrnes’ property.

The department then realised that there was already a school named Fernleigh near Ballina. Inspector Lobban was asked to suggest another name for Fernleigh on the Hawkesbury River. The local residents suggested Orange Valley while the inspector submitted Tyrnant, which is Welsh for “by the water”, as an alternative. The Inspector of Schools, Frederick Bridges, had the final say in the matter and recommended that the name of the school be altered to Spencer, being the parish in which it is situated. It is interesting to note that the post office was not changed from Fernleigh to Spencer until 1914. That alteration was made necessary because mail for Fernleigh school on the North Coast was repeatedly being mistaken for the Hawkesbury River school.

Construction on the school building began on 2 August and was completed by 6 September 1900. The classroom measured 16 feet 8 inches by 20 feet 9 inches with a hat room measuring 10 feet 8 inches by 7 feet 9 inches. The building by George Byrnes was completed by 6 September 1900. The school opened on 15 November 1900 with an attendance of 13 and the only furniture consisted of two combination forms and desks in very bad repair, one easel and several pieces of blackboard. The first teacher was a young single man aged 21 years, Mr George Hutchison, BA, who earned an annual salary of £72.

In July 1902, Spencer school became a public school with an average attendance of at least 20. The enrolment over the years has fluctuated from a peak of 46 in 1930 to seven in 1995. Today, there are 10 students attending the school and these students have benefited significantly from the Government’s computer roll-out program. There are four computers at the school and one of those is connected to the Internet.

It seems possible my grandfather was the second teacher.

6 thoughts on “More tales from my mother 1 — Spencer, NSW

  1. I am absolutely thrilled to have found your blog. I am publicity officer for the Spencer Progress Association and we are about to publish the 3rd edition of “River Ramblings” a new newsletter/”paper”. For the next edition we have interviewed Spencer’s oldest living resident, a wonderful 98 year old woman, who has lived in the community since she was 14. I would like to your permission to post a link to your blog, plus ask if we may use your photograph for the paper.
    Unfortunately the deadline is Wednesday, Dec 1st 2010.

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  4. Interesting thought, Neil, and at several levels. What indeed might she have written? But would it have survived?

    I was listening to an interview on the National Library’s Pandora project, the attempt to create an Australian web archive. So much of the earlier web material simply vanished. Perhaps you are better off with the quarto sheets!

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