Educating Women

Mavis Jean (b.2011) Named for her mother's grandmothers
Mavis Jean (b.2011) Named for her mother’s grandmothers

My youngest daughter, a single mother with 3 kids, is in the first year of a PhD in Geology at UWA. She will be the first PhD in the direct line of her parents and grandparents and so on and only the second in our wider family, her mother, Shelley’s, brother being a professor in Education. Further, the women of her generation are the first anywhere in our direct family to get university qualifications at all.

As I said last week, I was prompted by my post on Miles Franklin’s poor education compared with some of her contemporaries to look into the education of women in my own extended family. My late father left me a fair bit of (privately) published material on his and mum’s families but I have very little so far on Shelly’s mum’s and none on her father’s who died when she was still at school (although there is a family reunion coming up).

Shelley’s own education was disrupted in the final years of high school and she has not (yet!) gone on to complete a mature age degree, although her older siblings have Dip.Eds and at least a couple have degrees. Her mother, Mavis (b.1925) matriculated from Eastern Goldfields High (Kalgoorlie) and won a scholarship to go to UWA for a BA in 1943. We are not sure why, but after one year she took a (paid) position as a pupil-teacher for six months then went on to teachers college. She was a primary school teacher for many years, “bloody strict” according to her youngest sister who had her for a while in Kalgoorlie, but a “fair disciplinarian” according to Shelley who had her for a year, later in Perth.

Mavis’ mother Elsie (b.1904) and her mother, who I only know as Grandma Uren, were said to be well read but only had limited schooling. Grandma Uren was adopted by a mining engineer, presumably in the 1880s and probably in Bathurst, NSW before her father moved to the newly discovered goldfields in WA, and may have been an early “stolen generation” child. She apparently married badly and in any case Elsie had to leave school when she was 13 and went to work in the wheatbelt, Dorothy Hewitt country northwest of Perth, as a servant or farm hand. She married a farmer who died early and then remarried and moved back to Kalgoorlie.

I’m a Victorian and free, compulsory and secular schooling was established in Victoria in 1872, although the quality of schooling, especially in the bush, was badly affected by the depression of the 1890s.

Mum’s mother and father (Anne and Fred) were the children of early settlers in the Mallee region of north west Victoria, with wheat/sheep farms near Sea Lake, 350 km from Melbourne on the Calder Highway. In the 1890s blocks of 640 acres were leased to settlers, who had to clear the land of mallee scrub (and of rabbits!) and who, after 40 years of lease payments, would be granted freehold. Anne and Fred (both b. 1905) had one of the 3 blocks taken up by Fred’s father, who had died when Fred was 7. They had 5 children: Lucy, Jean (mum), Mavis, Allan and Les, born between 1928 and 1947. All the kids commenced their schooling (as had their father) at Tungie, one of many one-teacher schools dotted through the farm lands. For his history, dad must have interviewed his sisters in law. Lucy says:

I remember riding to school – Tungie was officially 4 ¾ miles from home. At first I only rode the horse as far as Wheatlands [Fred’s mother’s farm, about 2 miles away], then Auntie Annie took me and [cousin] Marjorie the rest of the way. One of the big boys used to lift me onto the horse for the ride home, and also help me tie and untie the horse. When Jean commenced school in 1937, she rode up behind me on the horse, and when Mavis started three years later we drove a horse and cart. … Our teacher, Mr Moylan, rode his pushbike eight miles from Berriwillock [the nearest town].

State school ended at eighth year and they all went on to Sea Lake Higher Elementary School. Like most farm children, all mum’s siblings left school at the earliest opportunity, at the end of their tenth year with an Intermediate Certificate, but Mum went on an extra year, to complete her Leaving and then became a pupil-teacher, a sort of teaching apprenticeship. The following year she should have gone away to Bendigo Teachers College but instead she married a teacher up from the city and spent the following years traipsing from one country town to another, and raising us four boys.

Mum would have been the second teacher in the family as her Auntie Alice, Fred’s sister, had followed a similar path in the 1920s. Fred remembers his sister being a pupil-teacher at Berriwillock before heading off to Teachers College. The earliest mention I can find for Bendigo TC is 1929 (although the School of Mines dates back to 1873) so she may have gone to Melbourne. Auntie Alice stayed unmarried and was a teacher, rising “to the top class”, until her retirement in 1967.

Anne, Mum’s mum, went to another local school, Willangie, which her father and other local farmers had raised the funds, and donated the galvanized iron, to build in 1908. She also left at the earliest opportunity, when she was 13 or 14, but unlike Fred who left school early to help support his mother, she was not awarded a Merit Certificate, something she used to grumble about.

My great grandmothers, Fred’s mother, Lucy b.1869, and Anne’s mother, Agnes b.1881, are of the same generation as Miles Franklin and had similar educations, Lucy at Eddington and Maldon and Agnes at Minyip. Lucy’s mother Ann (b.1847) was the daughter of a prosperous farmer in Devon, and went to school until she was 13 before training as a dressmaker. Like nearly all my ancestors she came out from England to the Australian goldfields, in her case with her husband to Maryborough, Vic., in the 1850s or 60s. Agnes’ mother Sarah was born in 1850 shortly after her parents arrived in Australia and like the others ended up in the Mallee as a farmer.

Dad had a more white collar background. His father Eric was a federal public servant who was relocated from Canberra to Melbourne during the Second World War and he was educated at Melbourne High and Melbourne Teachers College. His mother Nancy (b.1902) was the daughter of a Queensland Mining Warden and Police Magistrate. She was educated in state schools and Maryborough Girls Grammar and trained as a nurse in Brisbane. I can’t find where her mother Mary (b.1878) and grandmother Maria (b.1858) went to school, though they were both daughters of prosperous trading families, but Maria’s mother Eliza born in 1838 in County Clare was illiterate and came out to Australia to escape the potato famine.

Eric’s mother Helen (nee Clacher) was born in Brisbane in 1856 after her parents emigrated from Scotland, from “villages on the road eastwards from Loch Lomond” where they were recorded in censuses as farm servants. Dad writes, “In 1696 the Church [in Scotland] ordered the establishment of a ‘school in every parish’, and the result was widespread literacy, which the Clacher children evidently shared.” His family history is quite detailed back to the C17th but unfortunately there is very little else on schooling.

I guess all I can say in conclusion is firstly, that at least since the middle of the C19th, literacy has been almost universal, secondly, that it is obvious in our family how recently university education has become available to the middle (and working) classes in Australia, and thirdly, that there does not seem to have been much difference in schooling between the sexes. Employment of course is a different matter and I’m pretty sure that Shelley is the first woman anywhere in these family histories to have both a husband and a job other than housewife.


8 thoughts on “Educating Women

  1. Fascinating study of your family’s – particularly the women’s – educational history. I don’t know as much about mine, though I do know that my paternal grandmother, born 1893, left her family home in Tumult as a young woman to board in Sydney and train to be a kindergarten teacher. Her father was a Presbyterian minister. My mother, born 1929, was told by her father that she couldn’t continue with schooling past Junior (in Queensland as it was then – the level you reach about aged 15) and had to go to Business College. As it turned out you school added business studies – shorthand, typing, bookkeeping the next year – so she stayed on one more year and then left to work as a secretary in a bank, where she met my father and of course had to give up work. She did mature age matriculation in the early 1970s, and then went to university, got her degree, and worked for nearly two decades on the Macquarie Dictionary as an editor and lexicographer. Her name is in some of the early editions (though not the first one or two.)

    So, anyhow, good on your daughter. Ours started a PhD in sociology, but decided that’s not what she wanted to do, which was a good decision for her at that moment. Who knows whether she will ever go back to it. She would have been the first in our direct family too.


  2. I think I may have left the family home in ‘tumult’ as well, though I was forgiven eventually. Glad your mother got back into schooling and then into such interesting employment. The widespread policy of terminating women’s permanent employment on marriage (which applied to Shelley’s school teacher mum as it did to yours) was brutal and such a waste economically. Interestingly among the many farmers I knew growing up it was more likely the men who felt trapped by their poor educations.


    • Oh dear … that’s the iPad autocorrect for you!

      That’s interesting about farmers, but makes sense now you say it. If only people realised that education is important no matter what job you end up doing.


  3. My Bendigo cousin sent me: “That is really interesting, and I wasn’t aware that your Mum had intended to go to Teachers College. Thought you might be interested in [photo of] the Bendigo Teachers’ College plaque, that lists the different dates and locations it was before moving to Osborne Street Flora Hill in 1959.”

    The plaque includes the following info on previous locations (I assume SS = state school):-
    1926-28 Long Gully SS
    1928-30 Old Court House
    1931-44 Closed
    1945-59 Camp Hill SS


  4. Shelley’s brother points out that Mavis, his mother continued to teach while married with children (which should have been obvious to me seeing as I mentioned she taught Shelley for a year).

    Sorry WG, I suppose these last two are adding to your considerable inbox, but I thought I had better set the record straight.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s