A year after transforming the historic Coolangatta School at Shoalhaven Heads into the enchanting wedding venue and boutique holiday accommodation Eleven Eighty, owners Clare and Richard Mills are set to embark on a new venture – crafting their own gin.
The property, with its rich tapestry of stories dating back to its establishment in the 1860s as a school for the children of workers at Alexander Berry’s Coolangatta Estate, was in need of much work when the UK pair bought it in 2018.
Clare said the property first came to be when parents banded together to pay for a schoolmaster and rent a building to get the school started to prove to the government there was a need.
She said the schoolmaster was deemed qualified if male and able to read to help deliver the three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic.
Once approved, school numbers would fluctuate with wars and later Sydneysiders moving down for a cheaper way of life.
“It went in peaks and troughs – you can see where the men had gone away to war and the kids had to stay home and work,” she said of attendance records.
“As the crow flies, to walk from the Heads to the school was a good 5 km walk there and a good 5 km walk back across fields, rivers, and swamps.”
She said if their only pair of shoes was dirty they were caned, so shoes were hung around necks as they made the trek barefoot.
“Until the new school in Shoalhaven Heads was built in the 1950s, this was still the school for the area,” she said.
Former students regularly shared such stories with them, some of whom had three generations of their family having rung the school bell, and the last owners had passed on boxes of treasures handed down by previous owners.
“One of the things we found was these old felt flags from the 1940s where they’d won the Illawarra Tunnel Ball Championship,” she said.
“This tiny little one-room school, bless them, their biggest accolade was that they won the Illawarra Tunnel Ball.”
The property, which has had various owners over the years, gained prominence during potter Peter Harves’ ownership from the 70s when he had the idea to bring the building back into the public domain as Coolangatta Pottery and introduced the iconic train, a cherished landmark.
“Peter ran it as a pottery for many years and that’s what really put it on the map,” she said.
“It was a real outing to go there for cream tea in the train and have a look around the pottery and a play in the garden.”
Clare said Peter had been a great advocate for what they were doing.
It was Richard, inspired by the property’s potential and its many stories, who spearheaded its revival despite the challenges associated with its heritage status and the volume of work it needed. Clare needed a little more persuading.
They would later find that its heritage status meant renovating and maintaining it came at great expense.
“We fell in love with the history, the charm, and the buildings – all with a story to tell,” Clare said.
“However, it has been a long road to where it is now. It required a huge amount of love, work, tears and money to bring these incredible buildings and property back to life.
“Throw in bushfires, floods and a pandemic and it’s been quite the journey.”
Richard agreed, admitting, “I think had we known what we know now, we probably wouldn’t have done it.
“But I always felt as though I was getting a bit of a gift.
“I wanted a challenge, so I did most of it, if not all of it, on my own for three years through COVID.”
He said the project was split into three stages, with stage one as holiday accommodation, and stage two weddings and corporate retreats, which officially opened in March 2023.
Although, they admit they had never set out to get into the wedding business.
With the property surrounded by established wineries, Richard said stage three this year would be a small gin distillery, gin blending classes and brides being able to purchase bottles for family.
And there was a story associated with that too.
“The story goes that Alexander Berry … was from St Andrews in Scotland, where my dad’s from,” he said.
“He was a qualified doctor, but he wanted to be a merchant sailor, so he sailed his ship all the way from the UK, travelled out here, and he came into some difficulties and had to get his ship repaired.
“He had to sell all his medical supplies to fix the boat, but when he arrived the only thing he had left to sell was spirits, of which it was gin and whiskey.”
Holding up a bottle of the inspired gin adorned in artwork of the property by a local artist, Richard said it’s aptly named Auld School reflecting its traditional “old school” recipe, ties to the historic school and his Scottish roots.
Until then, they will continue to create new stories through weddings and events amid the historic treasures, old school hall with chandelier, schoolmaster’s house, and train carriage.
Eleven Eighty will host its annual wedding open day on 18 February. Book here.