Remembering our heritage – Foundation Day, 15 March

From the Deputy Principal Emerita

When Queensland was formally separated from New South Wales on 6 June, 1859, three major pieces of legislation concerning education were passed almost immediately by the new Colonial government in 1860. What was remarkable was the intention of establishing not only a system of primary education but also a number of state-subsidised post-elementary schools – the Grammar schools. The Acts – An Act to Discontinue Grants from the Revenue in Aid of Religion (August), the Act to Provide for Primary Education in Queensland (September) together with The Grammar Schools Act (September) reflected the high priority placed on education by such leading lights in the new legislature as Robert Herbert (later Sir), Sir Charles Nicholson, and Charles Lilley (later Sir).

The 1860 The Grammar Schools Act asserted:

… it is expedient for the encouragement of learning that public Grammar Schools should be established in the Colony of Queensland for conferring on all classes of denominations of Her Majesty’s subjects resident in the said colony without any distinction whatsoever the advantages of a regular and liberal course of education.

The concept of a ‘Grammar’ School was modelled on those in England where the curriculum was the subject of extensive public debate. The Industrial Revolution had created a demand for practical education from the rapidly expanding lower middle class and as the century unfolded, the claims of Classics for curricular ascendancy was challenged not only by Mathematics and ‘modern’ Languages but also by Modern History and Science. In Queensland, a pragmatic compromise was reached on the matter of post-elementary curriculum, illustrated by the 1872 Regulations for the Management of Brisbane Grammar School. These set down the following list of subjects in the upper school:

The English, Latin, Greek, French and German languages, political and physical geography, history, arithmetic, mental arithmetic, and mathematics, the elements of natural and physical science, the elements of logic and political economy, drawing, vocal music.

Even judged by today’s standards, this type of broad and practical curriculum offered a balanced programme for those pupils fortunate enough to attend one of the ten Grammar schools set up by communities which could raise the required donations or subscriptions of ₤1000 which then attracted a government subsidy of ₤2000 towards establishment costs. Ipswich (1863) and Brisbane (1869) led the way, to be followed by Brisbane Girls Grammar School and Toowoomba (1875), Maryborough and Rockhampton (1881), Maryborough Girls (1883), Townsville (1888), and Rockhampton Girls and Ipswich Girls Grammar Schools (1892).

This list reveals another significant and enlightened policy in the newly self-governing colony – the extension of secondary education not only to males but to females as well and not just a curriculum of polite and genteel accomplishments often provided for the ‘weaker sex’ in the nineteenth century, but a programme demanding genuine academic performance. When regulations were developed for the girls’ branch of Brisbane Grammar School in December, 1874 by the Board of Trustees, the subjects to be offered were similar to those for the boys’ section but there were differences. The girls had to learn only one language from Latin, French or German; compulsory ‘gymnastics’ replaced the ‘drill’ which boys had to perform; the study of ‘elements of logic and political economy’ was replaced for the girls by ‘elements of political and social economy’. In real terms, however, the range and complexity of studies for the two sections of the school were identical, as were a number of the early specialist teachers. This basic pattern of ‘liberal education’ – a mixture of Classics, Modern Languages and the Sciences – demanding academic rigor, remains a fundamental part of our Grammar school culture today.

Brisbane Girls Grammar School opened on 15 March 1875 following some months of decision-making and planning by the Trustees of Brisbane Grammar School who decided on the establishment of:

… a school for girls not under 12 years of age, as a branch of BGS, under the direction of the Headmaster of Grammar School, for the time being and under the charge of Lady Principal …

Despite intentions of opening for the beginning of the 1875 academic year, there was significant difficulty in securing a Lady Principal who would satisfy the Trustees. An advertisement was placed in the Sydney Morning Herald in late December –

The Trustees of the Brisbane Grammar School intend to open a Branch School for girls on the 1st of February 1875; and invite applications for the office of Lady Principal. Salary ₤250 per annum. Applications to be sent, on or before 20th January 1875, to Thomas Harlin, Esq., M.A., Headmaster of the Brisbane Grammar School, and Honorary Secretary to the Trustees …

But it was not until early February that Mrs Janet O’Connor from Ballarat was appointed – to arrive by steamer from Melbourne in Brisbane in early March.

Thomas Harlin explained the delays in beginning the girls’ branch at the Annual Distribution of Prizes held Saturday 27 February, 1875.

… Trustees exercised a wise discretion in postponing the originally intended date of opening and in making full enquiries about such of the applicants whose testimonials showed to be well qualified for the post of Lady Principal, before finally committing themselves to an appointment. I will only add that since the appointment of Mrs O’Connor was announced I have had the pleasure of receiving unexpectedly and from several quarters very gratifying testimonies as to her fitness for the position she has been chosen to fill in Brisbane.

Other issues had also contributed to the delay. Where was the girls’ branch to be located? What share of teaching might be taken by the masters of the boys’ school’? The first matter was resolved by renting a house near the Roma Street end of George Street near the location of the town reservoir and very damp conditions and mosquitoes prevailed. The house had been deemed as unfit for the Headmaster’s residence but appropriate for the girls’ school. These conditions proved to be a major problem within a few months of opening.

By June 1875, Harlin wrote to H Holmes Esq that;

I have the honour to inform you that at an emergency meeting of the Trustees, held yesterday afternoon, it was reported that two medical men of Brisbane intended to withdraw their daughters from the Girls’ School on the grounds of unsuitability of the present school premises.

The Trustees consequently resolved to invite, by advertisement, applications from persons willing to provide suitable premises for the girls’ school. But I have thought it only courteous to acquaint you with the decision before acting on it.

 By August, the School was moved to a house in Wickham Terrace owned by Mr John Douglas.

However other problems also emerged – staffing issues brought Mrs O’Connor and Mr Harlin into conflict and other matters including disciplinary measures drew criticism. The upshot was that by November, 1875 Mrs O’Connor tendered her resignation to the Trustees.

In mid-November, 1875 Harlin wrote to a Melbourne colleague that:

… Mrs O’Connor has shown no great aptitude for working in harmony with the governing body, and that in regard to matters of organisation and discipline she has often erred in judgement.

For her part, Mrs O’Connor wrote to the Trustees explaining certain matters:

My reason for making the children in these classes stand, and insisting on their hands being kept visible, is to prevent a repetition of the annoyance which some of them have given their teachers by pretending to be passing notes under the desks. I have had no trouble with the school hitherto. I never should have had. When children know that a firm hand holds the reins they are easily governed.

Both the Trustees and Mrs O’Connor used the local newspaper, Brisbane Courier to state their side of the argument. A letter from Janet O’Connor was published on 20 November, 1875 outlined some of the problems – staffing, discipline, marks and general relations with the boys’ school.

Complaints were now made of the behaviour of the girls in class. I enquired of the ladies in charge, but they considered that the children were well behaved. That no stone should be left unturned to make things right, I have strict orders that if a girl only smiled, or spoke one word to her neighbour, she should be instantly sent to me.

Despite all this the school was growing and Mrs O’Connor wished to employ another full-time teacher.

I told them I could not go on working feeling that I was not doing my duty, that I would have nothing to do with a sham school. They still pressed a temporary teacher upon me at the same time saying she would not be permanently appointed. As temporary teachers seldom turn out well, I declined to have a temporary teacher and said I would sooner work shorthanded. I could not sleep that night for thinking. I felt ashamed of myself for having left without saying a great deal more and I rose the next morning determined to call on each of the four trustees who had been present and beg them to try to give me a permanent teacher at once.

Despite the public and protracted washing of linen in public, by early December 1875, Janet O’Connor agreed to withdraw her resignation after a deputation of ‘seven ladies’ met with Mr Justice Lilley – one of the Trustees – to request her reinstatement which duly came to pass.

Thomas Harlin with whom Mrs O’Connor had struggled resigned in March 1876 and was replaced by Reginald Roe, one of the ‘great’ BGS Headmasters. Mrs O’Connor stayed with the Girls’ Branch until December, 1876 and later set up a series of schools in Brisbane Town.

Despite such tumultuous beginnings, the principle of the worth of female education through the Grammar school structure was firmly established and the numbers of pupils grew steadily.

By 1881 it was announced that the sum of ₤1046 had been received from public subscription to allow for the separate foundation of the Girls’ Grammar School and on Wednesday February 28, 1883 the Foundation Stone was laid on the site of the present school on Gregory Terrace by Sir Charles Lilley, Chief Justice of Queensland, an enthusiastic advocate of the importance of secondary education for young women.

On Tuesday 15 March, our students celebrated the School’s foundation 136 years ago with cake – especially decorated with Grammar blue icing – and remembered all the fine women who had sustained and supported the School through its early years.

Happy Birthday, Brisbane Girls Grammar School!

Miss F Williams

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