7 May 2024

Historical society publication pays tribute to Helensburgh's trailblazing teachers

| Graeme Burrill
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A house surrounded by bush.

The Old Mine Surgery at Helensburgh, now home to the historical society. Photo: Graeme Burrill.

Helensburgh Historical Society is throwing open its doors to mark the release of its latest publication, a book dedicated to the pioneer school teachers of the area.

Teaching the 3R’s – Pioneer School Teachers of the Helensburgh District, written by avid historian and society secretary Janet Lee, will be launched on Saturday 11 May.

The society was established in the late 1970s to help prepare for the centenary of Helensburgh in 1984. It continues to work to preserve and share the area’s local history.

It holds monthly meetings in the historic former surgery of Dr Frederick Cox.

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Dr Cox (with his wife Ethel) moved to Helensburgh in 1910 as the Metropolitan Colliery Mine Doctor and he continued in the role until his death.

He and Ethel raised six children in Helensburgh and served the community from the surgery situated next door to their family home.

Janet’s involvement in the group has grown over many years and has included responsibilities such as membership, minute taking, general inquiries and also editing and/or authoring several of the society’s books, including the newest addition.

Janet, herself a retired school teacher with more than 35 years’ experience, spent many years at Helensburgh Public School.

Photo of schoolchildren in the early 1900s.

Helensburgh Public School about 1911. From the collections of Wollongong City Libraries and the Illawarra Historical Society – P13/P13538.

The book looks at three pioneering teachers of the district, from each of the public schools at Helensburgh, Otford and Stanwell Park.

Edwin Byrnes was the first school teacher at Helensburgh, serving from 1887 to 1906.

With the area growing due to workers at the railway and coal mine, there was a need for a school.

In 1887 Helensburgh Public was opened with Edwin Byrnes, who recently transferred from neighbouring Cawley’s Creek Public and was assisted by pupil-teacher George Shipp.

In the following few years as the school grew, there was a need for improved facilities. A new school building, which still stands today, was opened in 1891.

Over his 19 years at Helensburgh Public, Edwin assisted in the training and supervision of many pupil teachers and assistant teachers, and like many of his time, he was heavily involved in the local community.

He was a warden at the nearby Church of England and along with his family, helped to raise funds for the new church rectory.

During his time in Helensburgh, he was also part of the cricket club, choral society, the school of arts and the Free Gardener’s Lodge.

John Surtees was the first school teacher at Stanwell Park Public.

Black and white photo of group of schoolchildren.

John Surtees is pictured far left. This photo from about 1917 was taken when the school operated out of the Church of England Hall. From the collections of Wollongong City Libraries and the Illawarra Historical Society – P10/P10079.

In 1916 due to an increase of school-aged children in the area from families working at the nearby railway works, the community began asking the education minister for a school at Stanwell Park.

The Department agreed, but was reluctant to build facilities, thinking the population could be only temporary. An agreement was reached with the recently opened Church of England on Stanwell Avenue to rent a room. John became the school’s first teacher in 1917.

The school was held in the church building for the first 10 years before moving next door to its current location.

John continued in his role until 1921 when he was transferred to a school near Cessnock in the Hunter Valley.

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However his connection to the Illawarra wasn’t lost – upon his retirement from teaching in 1927 he and his wife returned to Stanwell Park.

But it was only to be short-lived, when in May of that year while travelling on the train, John collapsed and died at Scarborough Station.

Arthur George Gilchrist was an interesting man, involved with many facets of life in the local area, not just teaching, from his arrival in Otford during March of 1896.

Arthur’s past was discovered after the historical society was asked to look into the history of the Otford School headmaster’s residence, which he built and then sold to the Department after he left.

Along with being the longest serving headmaster of the school, Arthur and his family were immersed in many local community groups.

Groud children working in a large garden.

Headmaster Arthur Gilchrist with children working in the Otford Primary School garden. From the collections of Wollongong City Libraries and the Illawarra Historical Society – P02/P02847.

They were members of the Helensburgh Presbyterian Church with Arthur the choirmaster and committee member; he also joined the Helensburgh School of Arts and became involved with starting the Helensburgh Tennis Club.

With the formation of the Helensburgh and Stanwell Park Life Saving and Surf Bathing Club in 1908, Arthur was elected one of the seven vice-presidents, but it didn’t take long for him to become president, assuming the role in November of that year.

In February 1914 Arthur was moved to Avondale Public School, further south near Dapto, but it didn’t stop the local families putting up a fight to keep him, with 95 per cent of the school parents petitioning the Department for him to stay, unfortunately without success.

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Years after leaving Otford, Arthur remained committed to helping the local community, including being an official organiser for the Boomerang Recruitment March Bathurst and Parkes in 1916 for World War I, which gathered 200 new recruits along the way.

In 1916 he was elected president of the NSW Public Schools Assistant Teachers Association and was on the committee of the Influenza Administration in 1919 during the epidemic.

He retired in 1940 after recording 54 continuous years of service for the NSW Government.

Helensburgh Historical Society’s open day and book launch will start at 11 am on Saturday 11 May. The Old Mine Surgery is on the corner of Parkes and Junction streets. For more information on the society, click here.

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