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A History of Christian Education in Gawler

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Compiled by Chris Haskard, April 2012

Early schools in Gawler were private ones, run by people of varied educational backgrounds. Education was not compulsory in the early days, so it was not regulated and therefore received no financial support from the government. A large number of children never went to school or took a few lessons here and there between farm work. It wasn’t until 1851 that the Legislative Council established a Board of Education. Prior to this anything seemed possible with the Register of May 30th 1846 reporting several schools that were, as far as they knew, “under the charge of persons of respectability and intelligence” with fees no more than a very moderate “five shillings a quarter”. Although unregulated, the staff of these schools if they were following the 1827 rules for teachers were encouraged to be God fearing citizens with male teachers only permitted to take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings each week if they went to church regularly. Both genders, after ten hours in school were allowed to spend the remaining time in their day reading the Bible or other good books. How many of Gawler’s early teachers followed these rules is of course unknown, but what we do know of is the existence of many church based schools of varying sizes that contributed to the education of Gawler’s citizens.

E. H. Coombs ‘History of Gawler’ (pg. 17) makes mention of one of the earliest school buildings which existed around 1846. The reference is made in a letter written in 1896 by Mrs Mahony, who was the daughter of John Reid, the first settler in Gawler who moved in with his family in 1839 and is addressed to the Rev Canon Coombs. In her letter Mrs Mahony debunks supposed commonly held views which claimed church services were held in a school building on their property Clonlea and believes them to be inaccurate, for as a member of the family of Gawler’s first residents, and no other houses yet existing in the town, she says that church services were held in her family’s sitting room of their 4 room wattle and daub hut by the chaplains of the era. So while church services may not have been held in this school building as originally thought, its existence at Clonlea around 1846 is at least acknowledged.

Coombs goes on to write (pg. 23) that with the growing population of the town, the question of education became quite important. He states that in January 1848, the Church of England Board for the administration of a government grant voted that £40 be allocated for the erection of a public school room in Gawler, the first formally recognised church school in Gawler. Eventually, with the amount raised totalling £160, St George’s School was founded by the Rev. W H Coombs in Orleana Square on Church Hill. The school was completed and opened in 1850 by the Lord Bishop of Adelaide and presided over by a number of trustees and faithful church wardens until the arrival in 1853 of Leonard Burton who later became involved with Gawler Model School, now known as Gawler Primary. In 1857 a separate room was added for a girls’ school and in 1866 the St George’s School room was erected – now known as St George’s Hall. The success of Mr Burton as a dedicated educator, and devout Anglican ensured that St George’s lead the charge for education in the town until 1875 when the state took over the reins of primary education with the passing of the Education Bill which introduced compulsory schooling for the first time, insisting children aged 7-13 attended a minimum 78 days a year (but please don’t mention this to today’s students). The new Act, which paved the way for non-religious education, permitted voluntary reading of the bible, before school, if desired, so although public, the significance of the bible and Christianity in society was at least acknowledged by the state.

St George’s ran successfully for 27 years, most of that time under the leadership of Mr Leonard Burton who also later became Mayor of Gawler in 1884 and served as Secretary of the Bible Society for 40 years amongst over endeavours. This devout man not only then bore Christian witness to the children of Gawler but also to the community at large through his civic duties as Mayor. Closing in 1877, by 1870 St George’s and a private school on Fother Ingham Tce were Gawler’s two licenced schools with a combined attendance of 236 students and run by 6 staff.

During this time a number of other, smaller private schools existed in the area such as Mrs Helmore’s School – Sunny Bank, dating back to 1856 which advertised that it had room for a few boarders. John Wilkinson established a school for younger children in Willaston which ran from 1865-1910 and is now the site of the local CFS on Redbanks Rd. Other schools that existed include Miss Finch’s Public School, dated 1876 in Todd St, advertising itself as available for girls of all ages and boys under the age of 8. There was also Miss Nott’s Young Children’s School at Gawler West, Miss Myers’ Young Childrens’ School at Willaston and private schools run by the Rev J Leonard, Mrs Murphy, Miss Lewis, Miss Philipson, John Lloyd, Mr Latter, Miss Filsell, Miss Myers and a Mr J Smilie (I think I’d like to have been in his class). Many of these schools closed with the introduction of the Education Act in 1875 and the formation of the public schooling system.

Significantly, the first public school was what is now the Gawler Primary School. The foundation stone was laid by the Mayor in 1877, the Honourable James Martin (who was a devout Anglican) and was opened in 1878 as the Gawler Model School. With bluestone walls quarried from the hills around Gawler South, the building was an early addition to the State Heritage Register and the Register of the National Estate. The first Headmaster was Leonard Burton, who, mentioned earlier, arrived in 1853 to take up the position of St George’s School but then moved to the Gawler Model School, resigning after 2 ½ years to return to St George’s School. Therefore even Gawler’s first public school was led with Christian influence.

With over 700 students in its hay-day, Gawler School was co-educational, yet with separate learning and play areas for each gender. Initially with a curriculum focussed on reading, writing, arithmetic and diction, girls had to learn sewing. In 1881 a 2 story Principal’s residence was established on Porter Street. In 1907, Gawler Public school started one of the local area’s first continuation classes for older students and by 1907 became a District High School, but this changed in 1915 when Gawler High School first opened on Lyndoch Rd in Gawler East.

Over the course of history many changes to this building have occurred. In the 1950’s many of the original narrow gothic windows were replaced due to concerns over student and staff health and in the 1970’s a part of St Joseph’s school was added.

The school’s current website lists some notable events in its history including, a class of 121 students being taught by a Miss Edwards in 1913 because a number of other staff were ill. At the start of WWI in 1914, teachers gave 5% of their salary to the mayor’s patriotic fund. In 1923 the temperature inside a classroom was recorded as 39.5C, the school was closed for 6 weeks in 1938 due to a polio outbreak and 3 air-raid safety trenches were built in 1942 during WW2.

Although public education forced the closure of many private schools, some which seem to have been run from people’s homes, a number continued to exist despite the rapid growth of the Gawler Model School. Schools such as the Todd St Junior School, dated 1895 which was run by the Annells sisters, a school for boys dated 1897 in Gawler South, the Para Para School in Gawler West, which was formed in 1899 by the Sisters of the Church of North Adelaide and Miss Natt’s School which opened in September of 1900 in her home at 16 Fourteenth St in Gawler South. Also in existence was the Gawler South Church Grammar School, dated 1918 which was originally held in the Gawler South Mission Hall, later moving to the corner of Murray St and Walkers Place in 1930, now the site of OPSM but closed in the early 1930’s due to the Depression. This site had earlier been used by the Gawler School of Mines and Industries in 1893 and when closed was handed over to Zion Lutheran Church as the Lutheran Day School on Church Hill had outgrown its location. The Gawler Preparatory School also opened in the same year and was held in the Primitive Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church Vestry. These were all among those early schools who continued to exist alongside the introduction of state based public education, some of which were influenced and supported by the local churches.

For older students, the Gawler Institute in these days was a hive of activity for further education with classes being offered in design, music, shorthand, typing and bookkeeping as well as technical training. In 1888 some men met to form an Amateur Assaying Club, and this led to a number of lectures being run by fine folks from the Adelaide School of Mines, leading to the eventual formation of the Gawler School of Mines and Industries in the Institute itself in 1893, utilizing space in the town hall basement and taking over the Telegraph Office in 1898 before moving into a building on Lyndoch Rd near the new High School in 1915.

Gawler High School originally began with the Gawler School of Mines in 1907 with a class of 60 students. It developed from the continuation classes being run at the Primary School and become recognised as the Gawler District High School in 1910, moving to Lyndoch Rd in 1915. This then allowed The Gawler School of Mines to evolve into the Gawler Technical School in 1917. Gawler High moved to its current location on Barnet Rd, Evanston in 1962 and has undergone a number of changes over the last 50 years with the latest being the 12 million dollar development to turn into a Gawler birth to Yr 12 super school, due to be completed by 2013. A number of highly accomplished old scholars have made it through the gates of this school over the years, people such as Max Fatchen, Glen Shorrock, Alan Hickenbotham and Brenton Langbein to name a few. No doubt its success will continue.

Over the past 170 years many schools in Gawler have come and gone and again with the new Gawler Super School, Evanston Primary will be amalgamated with Gawler High. Evanston Primary itself has an extensive history beginning with the allotment of Gawler Blocks of various sizes back in 1892. The blocks were designed to provide labourers with a bit of extra income in a time when wages were low with none of the protective benefits workers have today. It wasn’t long before the residents decided a church and Sunday school was needed for the rapidly growing population of young families so a request was made to the Presbyterian Church of Gawler and services were started around 1905 in a barn on Mr Sam Hillier’s property. Mt Hillier donated a ¼ acre of land for a church building and in 1907 the foundations were laid. By 1908 the Education Department rented the church for use as a day school, an excellent example of the state and church working together for the benefit of the education of Gawler children and this continued until 1923 when the Education Department built a new school.

Gawler East also formed a Primary School which originally began in the old Gawler High building on Lyndoch Rd with 237 students but then moved to its current site on Cheek Avenue in 1985. In the same year Immanuel Lutheran School formed, which was temporarily in the former Joseph’s Catholic School in Porter St, which was leased to the Lutherans by the Catholic parish before moving into the former Gawler East Primary School site on Lyndoch Rd. The land this time was offered by the Education Department to the church, the reverse of what happened at Evanston. So quite amazingly Immanuel came about with cooperation and the generosity of not only the Lutheran church but also the Catholic and state sectors. Following this the Education Department also started the Hewitt Primary School in 1997 with the continued population growth in this area. Starting with 102 students this school now has 18 classes and a disability unit. Another important aspect which hasn’t been mentioned yet and certainly applies to Hewitt, amongst others schools in the area is the introduction of Christian Pastoral Support Workers. CPS workers follow on from the history of School Chaplains who were often volunteers from churches going back to the 1980’s who would go and work within schools to encourage kids in the development of their faith. Pilot Chaplain programs were supported by the Minister for Education and Children’s Services in 1992 and since then the CPS role with the formal title of Christian Pastoral Support Workers has grown considerably with now over 340 workers in over 320 schools. The program now is much broader than encouraging the spiritual growth of a child, linking children and families to community resources and services, but is still financially and prayerfully supported by local churches. In Gawler, Hewitt, Gawler Primary and Gawler High all benefit from this service.

Although public education has had a significant influence over the closure of many church run schools over the past 170 years, many have blossomed and exceeded expectations. One such school takes its origin almost back to where we started with Christian schooling on Church Hill. Utilizing St George’s Hall which was built in 1866, this hall which faithfully served the early beginnings of Christian education in Gawler, 118 years later in 1984 gathered together a small number of families in the Gawler Anglican Parish with a new vision, for a school open to all who want their children educated in a liberal and Christian tradition, regardless of their economic status or religious affiliation. With 27 students meeting in this hall, Trinity College was born and only a year later, Trinity moved to a dusty paddock with a log cabin at its present site in Evanston Park with its first Headmaster Mr Michael Hewitson. Growth was rapid to say the least. As a college of excellence open to all in a caring Christian environment, Trinity has grown in only 28 years to around 3,600 students, across 5 campuses and is now one of the biggest schools in the Southern Hemisphere and is proud to be recognised as the biggest low fee independent school in Australia.

So with a final count of around 32 public or independent schools in Gawler which have existed in one shape or another over the past 170 years, it is fair to say that Christian influence has been strong, working both independently, alongside the state and in an inter-denominational context to support the spiritual growth of not only the children of Gawler but also in the broader civic life of this wonderful community.


Useful references: History of Gawler 1837-1908 by E.H Coombe, M.P. – originally published 1908 & Gawler by Derek Whitelock – published 1989

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