This is Week 6 in my Beyond the Internet series of topics in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. I’d love it if you wanted to join in with your own posts on this week’s topic which is school committee papers and administrative records. I’d particularly like to hear how people in other states and countries use these records so we can all learn from each other.
I can just about hear you yawning at the topic of school administrative papers….but would you yawn if your ancestors featured in these records? I think not.
Each state and country is bound to have somewhat different records in relation to their school administration and Susan over on Family History Fun made mention of some Scottish Borders sources in last week’s post. Thanks Susan for showing us all the wonderful records you have at Hawick.
What I’ve particularly liked about the records I’ve found are the applications for new schools, the correspondence relating to the opening of the schools, and the general standard of the children’s work when visited by the school inspector. I don’t know about you but I certainly remember how the nuns put the fear of God in us to make sure we were on our mettle when the inspector was due to come round. When I think of that these days I also have a wry smile because my father-in-law was a district inspector in Papua New Guinea and as amiable as he was in private life, his professional assessment would certainly have been rigorous.
My favourite example of these school administration documents are letters from my 2x great-uncle Joseph Francis Kunkel, who you might remember from last week’s post, was one of the earliest students at Highfields School. But now a parent himself he was concerned for his own children’s education. Joseph was one of six parents who submitted an application on 25 February 1895 for a new school to be constructed at Lower Pickenjennie (near Wallumbilla, Queensland). It would benefit 12 children who included Joseph’s and wife Martha’s school-aged children, Bernard (9), Thomas (7) and Mary (5½). The form indicates none of the Kunkel children were at school at that time, emphasising the point I’ve made previously about the impact that living and working on the railway line had on children’s education. The family lived 2.5 miles (about 5kms) from the proposed site. The next person on the application list was Archibald Paterson with three children listed, at least one of whom was attending Gowrie Junction school 2 miles away. The Patersons and Kunkels were neighbours and fellow railway workers but the men were also brothers-in-law whose farms were adjacent to each other.
By 1896 the provisional school had been approved and Joseph was the Acting Secretary and Chairman of the Poybah Provisional School committee and was writing to the “Minister for Public Instruction” to harass him about the prompt opening of the school. Joseph was forthright in his requests that “the building be ceiled as soon as ever practable (sic)”, “appoint a teacher as soon as ever possible” and to “remit the subsidy so as to enable us to clear up our liabilities connected with the building as our pro note is maturing on the 11th proxomo (sic)”. There is a little sense that he is deferring to higher authority but rather insisting that the hard working men and women of Pickenjennie get the school for their children that they’d been putting so much work into. Joseph didn’t get to see much of the benefit from his own hard work as he died a year later in August 1897.
In those early days new school didn’t just happen, the parents had to be proactive and work towards convincing the Department that it was required and they would support it, hence the application forms listing the children who’d attend. The involvement in school committees is one family heritage that has continued in my branch of the family down to the current generation.
There are other snippets to be gleaned from what can be the mundane communication between the school’s representatives (teacher or committee) and the Department. I was much amused by a reference found by Roslyn Stemmler, the local historian, in which the Education Department took exception to the use of the school for a Christmas race ball and the installation of a publican’s booth in the playshed –one assumes during the ball or another event!
Although these examples relate to new schools it seems likely that even very long established schools would have significant paperwork revealing more of their daily and yearly operation.
Inspectors’ reports can provide amusing insights into the life of the school, the vagaries of the teaching standards and the attendance at school. For example, the inspector of the Murphys Creek School commented in 1875 that “beside a want of exactness and style there was notably deficient the final ‘g’ of the present participle.” He was also unimpressed with the teacher’s use of the cane and also unsympathetic to the teacher’s complaint about the inadequacy of the school in extremes of weather. The papers also tell us that there were 102 registered pupils and many of these would have travelled significant distances by pony or on foot to get to school. As the Murphys Creek school admission records are missing for this period, these snippets help to give a flavour to the school life of the younger Kunkel children. In August 1872, the teacher reported that no vacation is given during cotton picking season and proposing a holiday from 19 August to allow for the planting of spring crops.
The day before my great-grandfather and siblings enrolled at Highfields School, the teacher reported that the supply of books was insufficient but that the school would be “a great boon here for the children are in a sad state of ignorance”. I doubt that the enrolment of the Kunkel children would have changed his mind.
If you haven’t ever used these documents in an archive near you (or near your ancestral places), then do give them a try. If you’re unlucky the files may be filled with boring administrative bumf but the potential is there for some illuminating facts and background about your ancestors or their relatives.
 Queensland State Archives Series ID 12607 Item ID 15830 (old ref PRV8007/1/2209).
 Stemmler R. Onward with Honour: Wallumbilla Primary School Centenary 1893-1993. Wallumbilla 1993, page 26.
 Queensland State Archives Series ID 10782 Item ID 2547 (old ref PRV5868/1/5).
 Queensland State Archives Series ID 12607 Item ID 15618.
 Queensland State Archives Series ID 12607 Item ID 14873.