In a big room filled with Year 2 children, Tamworth historian Rod Hobbs is talking about what school was like “in the olden days”.
“It was a big thing that took up most of the front of the room … you wrote on it with chalk, then you had the duster to clean it.”
Yes – with apologies to people only in their 20s and 30s who used them – blackboards are now, indeed, history ... and one of the many aspects of their school’s past that Tamworth Public kids have been learning about.
The students use photos, maps, documents, objects and even the buildings themselves and past students to learn about the school’s history.
Year 2 teacher Jo Wilson says the unit is a localised way to help the children gain a bigger-picture understanding of how to identify and describe significant people, events, places and sites.
“History is a process of inquiry into the past that helps to explain how people, events and forces from the past have shaped our world,” Mrs Wilson says.
“Students become aware that history is all around us and that historical information may be drawn from the physical remains as well as written, visual and oral sources of evidence.”
The Leader sits in on an oral history session led by guest speakers Mr Hobbs and Joan Newley, who are well-placed to inform the children: he literally wrote the book on the school’s history, and is also an ex-student and ex-teacher there; she is a former teacher of almost 30 years.
The kids have plenty of interest and questions. Afterwards, they are keen to tell us what they’ve been discovering and what they think of their unit: “I love history because you learn about the past and things that happened that you didn’t know” and “I like history because we can learn stuff that we don’t know”.
Among the facets of their school’s history the children have been learning about is that Tamworth Public School began operating as Tamworth National School in 1855.
It was on the block at the corner of Peel and Darling streets, where the community centre is now.
I was quite affronted when I sat in on a #Tamworth Public #School#history lesson & learnt blackboards were an ‘olden day’ item being shown - I can’t be that old! 😄 See local historian Rod Hobbs tell kids about pen & ink, & milk at recess. Feature story @The_NDL website Saturday pic.twitter.com/JJFzpRFB97— Carolyn Millet (@CarolynMillet) April 6, 2018
A census four years earlier had put Tamworth’s population at 254, but the gold rush at Nundle soon left the settlement “almost deserted as people left to seek their fortunes”, according to Tamworth Public School 1855-2005: 150 years of education, a history compiled by Mr Hobbs.
The first and only teacher was John Crawford, an Englishman who arrived with his wife and two children, made four pounds per month and had “40 or 50 scholars on the roll”.
The Tamworth Observer of August 9, 1883, reported that “Upon entering the skillion at the back, which was to be his future home, he gave one look, sat down and had a hearty cry … in the school, he found neither pen, book, desk nor form”.
The school was “depressing” and “comfortless”, and about 60 yards from the public pound yards where butchers would kill livestock, John Crawford junior wrote in his account 80 years later.
“The blood ran down a gutter towards us creating what some would call an ‘odious effluvium’. At night, it was hard to get any sleep for the howling of dingoes and their quarreling over the offal.”
The Tamworth Public kids have also learnt about the metamorphosis of the school on its new site, where a foundation stone was laid in 1876 – it’s still there, near the Upper St frontage. The school was opened in 1877 with just three classrooms, which later became known as the Crawford building.
Mr Hobbs tells the students that there – as with the old site – there was a “great deal of trouble with goats”, which would eat through the children’s leather satchels hung outside the classrooms, then their lunch.
They seem incredulous to learn that there was no canteen or library until later years; and that students were made to drink milk delivered to the school.
Mr Hobbs tells how that made him feel ill; and how an obliging schoolfriend would swap his quickly-emptied bottle for Mr Hobbs’ full one.
The Year 2 students have learnt about the new buildings, new classrooms and and new facilities that have been added to their school over the decades.
This has included viewing old photos, and the buildings and features of the school itself.
They’ve learnt how the school buildings used to be called Block A, Block B and so on, then were renamed after significant people with strong ties to the school.
Mrs Newley is one such person – as Mrs Sternbeck she was a teacher at the school for almost 30 years up to 1990.
She was deputy mistress then mistress of the infants’ department, with a short stint as the acting principal of the school towards the end of her teaching career.
She said she loved returning to share her experiences because it put her in contact with children, whom she loved – as well as some of her former students who were now parents.
“I think it gives them a greater understanding of what they’re doing now and how things were in the past. I talk to them about changes in the conditions to the school. When we started off, we had bare boards ... in the wintertime we had fuel fires where we had to take our own kindling to light the fire before school – and if you were on playground duty at 9 o’clock, you had to get there pretty early so’s you’d have a fire to warm up.”
Mrs Newley laughs that, with the creature comforts of schools these days, the children “don’t know they’re alive”.
“I loved my time at Tamworth primary: the children were lovely and the parents were so supportive and interested in their children’s education, and I missed the children when I left,” she says.
One special item on the school grounds that has really captured the students’ imagination is an oak tree in front of the Sternbeck building that faces Upper St.
“This tree is special because John Treloar planted it and he died in action at war,” one explains.
“It was in World War II, because he planted it in 1930, and World War I was already finished,” another elaborates.
“It’s a beautiful old tree,” Mrs Wilson said.
“John Treloar was student in about 1930 when students were asked to bring in a plant for Arbour Day ...
“He was in World War II and was killed in action in 1941, so his family in the 1990s built a memorial plaque to go near that tree to honour his memory.
“It’s another significant thing the kids have loved learning about.”