High School (1) – Off to St Mary’s College

October 5, 2015 at 12:30 am | Posted in Australia, Catholic Education, Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Memoir | 18 Comments
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When the summer holidays of (December-January) 1960-61 ended, I began my first year of high school. I was all on my own. Peter had completed his Intermediate Certificate at Dapto High at the end of the previous year and was working in the office at Garnock Engineering in Port Kembla. Pauline was repeating second year at Dapto High, although, when she turned fourteen that March, Mum and Dad got special permission from the Education Department for her to leave school early. She was needed to help the family finances as Dad was having trouble getting work, due to the building industry recession at the time. As soon as she left school, Pauline started work at Crystal’s Clothing Factory in Marshall St Dapto.

Peter had started at the Christian Brothers’ College in Wollongong but had hated it and ran away in first year. He then went to Dapto High. Pauline had stayed an extra year at St Paul’s before going into second year at Dapto High. I was thirteen years old and heading off to St Mary’s College in Wollongong, a Catholic girls’ day and boarding school; I was a day student. Having done so well at St Paul’s, and my parents wanting all of us to go to Catholic schools if possible, I was sent there instead of to Dapto High, even though it was farther away.

Crown St, Wollongong, about 1962

Crown St, Wollongong, 1964. Photographer Noel Murray.

I travelled by train to Wollongong, then walked all the way down Crown Street to the school down near the beach. My parents scrounged to get my uniforms. In summer it was a beige uniform dress, belted, with collar and short sleeves. In winter the uniform was a royal blue box-pleated serge tunic with a beige shirt, royal blue jumper/ blazer, beret, gloves. The younger girls wore white socks, but the older girls wore beige stockings. We had to wear our white gloves and royal blue school beret at all times when we were outside the school grounds. We were also not allowed to speak to any boy whilst we were in school uniform. One girl in my class, Lynette, was expelled for doing that. I never did – I didn’t know any boys anyway.

 Part of St Mary’s College in 1960s

Part of St Mary’s College in 1960s

It was difficult to keep clothes clean on the train. They were steam engines then, and the carriages were generally sooty. On a hot day windows were open, resulting in cinders in the eyes and soot on clothing and body. However I loved the sway of the train as it travelled with its rhymic clicketty-clack along the rails. I loved the varnished wood finish of the carriage interiors, especially of those that had compartments. They had sliding doors with half-windows, and four people could sit on each of the two seats that faced each other. Best of all were the black and white photos mounted behind glass with wooden frames above the seats. They depicted well-known landmarks and tourist places, most of which I had never seen. There was Katoomba and the Three Sisters; the Jenolan Caves; Sydney Harbour Bridge; Sydney beaches and other places around the state.

I don’t remember any particular nuns; of course there were no lay teachers at that time. The nuns were of the Good Samaritan order and wore black habits with a white cover on the top of the bodice, unlike the all-brown habits the Sister of St Joseph wore at St Paul’s school. They were strict, I do remember that, but there must have been some fun there too I think. We went to Mass, Benediction and Exposition at the Cathedral, which was just across the street. I often saw Bishop McCabe there, who had confirmed me when I was at St Paul’s.

A Good Samaritan sister in the classroom

A Good Samaritan sister in the classroom

We didn’t have a playground in the school; there was no space for that. There was just a courtyard within the school buildings. For Physical Education and Sport, we were taken out to the lawns that stretched between the back wall of the school and the street to the east, all the way along the block. Across the street was Wollongong beach, with the Surf Club building that also housed a small kiosk.

I mostly enjoyed my school work. There were new subjects (I even had elocution lessons!) and new ways of behaving; new expectations; new teachers, and a whole new set of classmates. I was in the “A” class, but as a new kid, and to me the older girls seemed very mature. There were no boys, but I soon got used to that. My new subjects included Science, Latin and French, as well as new areas of history that I had never studied before. I loved pre-history – the cave men and their weapons and way of life, and learning about the Australian Aborigines. I had never seen an Aborigine and what I was taught at the school reinforced my ideas that they were a primitive people who still lived in that way – if there were any of them left.

Wollongong Childrens’ Library was on Crown Street, and I used to pass it every day on my way to and from the train. One day, I went in and applied to join. From then on, it was a regular stop on my way home. If I called in, I would catch the later train home, getting into Albion Park Rail at five o’clock instead of half past four. I loved the series of books I found there about the adventures of a boy named Teddy Lester. He went to a boys’ boarding school in England and was a good cricketer, often saving the match at great odds. I was in the library one afternoon when a reporter from the Illawarra Daily Mercury newspaper came in to do a story on the library. I ended up with my photo in the paper as a result.

Clipping of me at the library, from The Illawarra daily Mercury 1961

Clipping of me at the library, from The Illawarra daily Mercury 1961

There were three 15 or 16-week terms then; it was some years later that the four-term year was brought in. We had Term Tests, and our results had to show we were learning and behaving, or our parents would be informed. I have my first term’s report card that shows I was above – in some cases well above – the grade average in seven of the nine subjects I studied. However, Sister Coleman’s comments were only: “Linda is making satisfactory progress. She has attained 19th place in class.” Makes you wonder what you have to do to believe you’re getting somewhere!

That October, when David, then Dad, then Pauline came down with polio, the rest of us were all put in quarantine at home. We couldn’t go to work or to school for at least two weeks after each diagnosis. As they were two weeks apart, we were isolated for six weeks. That took us to the end of the school year, so Sheelagh and I didn’t return at all that year. The following year, with Dad unable to work and money in short supply, I left St Marys and went off to be enrolled at Dapto High School. I can’t say I was happy about the situation.

(c) Linda Visman



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  1. Interesting history, Linda. The rules seem so dated now – imagine trying to get the girls to wear their white gloves :-). My mother-in-law contracted polio as a teen. It changed a lot of lives.

    • Yes, times certainly have changed! Schools here still enforce uniforms for students, but often, you can hardly tell it is a uniform. Many girls wear theirs so short! We weren’t allowed to show our knees. 🙂
      Polio did change a lot of lives, and it is so good to know that it is on the verge of being eradicated in most countries.

  2. Great photo of you and the town could be one from here as well when you look at ’60s pictures!! Great post!!

    • Towns were – and still are – pretty standard, aren’t they. You can usually work out which decade in the 20th century a photo was taken.
      Thanks for your lovely comment too. 🙂

  3. What a traumatic time for you with family illness and having to change schools. I arrived in Wollongong in 1969. The city is now totally unrecognizable.

    • Life has its ups & downs, doesn’t it Linda! I just wish I had learned more from them when I was young.
      Funny that you should have arrived there in 1969. I was married on the 4th January that year and left home then. My then husband & I had just been appointed to positions at schools in Leeton, out west.

      • I arrived in Wollongong to go to Teachers College, met my husband to be in the second year while on prac and was married in 1972. I didn’t do country service but was appointed to a school near Dapto. Funny how the Education Department shaped our lives.

      • Wow! I met my husband at Wollongong Teachers College, and we had just finished our course when we got married. Which school did you first teach at?

  4. I was posted to Hayes Park on Kanahooka Road. It was new school then so my composite class was put in the staff room as the school was bursting at the seams. It was a steep learning curve.

    • Gosh yes, it would have been!! I know where that school is too. My brother-in-law used to live opposite. 🙂

  5. Strange how a random stroke of fortune can make such a difference to our lives. When my family lost their money I was suddenly taken out of private education and parachuted into the depths of Somerset, where my schooling was financed by the state. In the end, though, I was richer for the experience, I think.

    Wonderful picture of Crown Street with those old cars; Holdens, maybe? You looked cool in that hat!

    • I think I too was richer for the experience of getting out into the real world instead of being locked into a religious education system. We don’t see it that way when events happen, but sometimes it is even better the way it changes our lives.

  6. About ten years ago, my husband Ron and I travelled in a train carriage of the style you mentioned. Its wooden interiors were quite attractive.

  7. I left St Mary’s in 1969; Sister Juliana was form teacher and tuck shop ‘manager’. I did that train trip for 3 years from North side. Love the pic of Crown Street. It was a pleasure reading your blog – thanks

  8. Hi Linda, We have used a copy of the image of Crown Street in the early 1960s on our page for the Illawarra Museum. We posted it in June three years after you but the image is markedly lesser quality so likely from a different source than where you obtained yours. I assumed it was, at one time several years ago in the WCC Illawarra Images collection but now is not to be found. Today we’ve had Noel Murray step in about not being credited, claiming that he is the author of the original image and it was taken in 1964. Can you advise what your source was? Thanks.

    • Hi, I have looked up my files for the photo, but cannot find an attribution. There was none on the pic when I found it. I also cannot remember just where it came from, as I gather pics of interest from many sources online.
      I have taken a closer look at it however, and see that there is a possibility it could have been taken in 1964 as the ute on the left may be a 1963 model.
      I am happy to credit Mr Murray with the photo, as it is very possible it is his original. Other than that, I don’t know what should be done.
      Perhaps the David Botton, administrator of the “Lost Wollongong” page on Facebook will have more information.

      • Hi this is Noel Murray and I can confirm that yes I am the photographer of the photo , I have the negative. I originally posted it in Lee Stuarts Save Mt Keira face book.

      • Thanks for letting me know, Noel. There are many photos floating about the internet that have no attribution. I am sorry I couldn’t put your name to it at the time. I will do so now. 🙂

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