[John Watts]

John Watts Shares the Results of His Research

John Watts has been a teacher of visual arts for 26 years at Sacred Heart College in Geelong. His expertise as a photographer and his love of history caused him to initiate the idea of co-writing a story of the school for its 150th anniversary.*

The school's history started in Dublin, Ireland when the House of the Sisters of Mercy was established by Catherine McAuley in 1827. Catherine, who had been born in Dublin in 1778, was orphaned when young and in her 20's lived with a Quaker couple from whom she inherited a fortune. The Order of the Sisters of Mercy began when she and two others were professed as nuns in 1831 and set up a school and shelter for poor girls and women in Dublin.

The Order flourished after her death in 1841 and in 1859 the first Bishop of Melbourne, Bishop James Goold, encouraged Mother Xavier Maguire and five other nuns to establish a school and orphanage in Geelong.

Finding no accomodation prepared for them upon their arrival in December 1859, they stayed at St. Augustine's Orphanage in Geelong for 3 months. From there they moved into "Sunville", an 8 roomed house owned by lawyer, Joseph Belcher which was built on 11 acres of land on Mercer's Hill. When Belcher returned to Ireland, the Catholic Church bought the property for £3,000 but charged the sisters £4,000 plus interest.

In 1860, a Boarding School, Day School and Orphanage were established, and in the first year 25 students were enrolled. Records show that on 26 March 1860, 13 year old Mary-Jane Markham, ancestor of Port Phillip Pioneers Group member Michael Grogan was enrolled as a day student.

Although the aim of the Order was to educate poor Catholic girls, not all girls were Catholic and not all were poor. Xavier Maguire was a pragmatic and tough woman and in the early years the Sisters' main source of income was from boarders who came from wealthy families.

Education provided by the nuns was very rudimentary. There were no text books until the 1880's. Day students studied religion, reading, spelling, grammar, cipher (arithmetic), geography, history, nature study, singing, and plain needlework. The boarders had additional subjects including mathematics, languages, music, botany, drawing and painting, science, fancy needlework, tapestry and dance (at extra fees). The dress code for dancing included gloves.

The standard of education was not uniform throughout the school but was a reflection of society at the time. For the wealthier students the education was designed to produce accomplished young ladies who would become fine wives and good housekeepers. The industrial girls, who were from dysfunctional and abusive families, were a pool of untrained labour for the sisters. Like the orphans they were trained for domestic service and menial labour and only had two hours of schooling a day.

The first Day School started in one of the outbuildings of "Sunville." Extra space was found in the old Sub Treasury building in Gheringhap Street. In 1861, the first stage of what would become a quadrangular bluestone complex started with the construction of a temporary brick building, followed in 1864 by a 2 storey bluestone structure. Over the next 60 years came the addition of a 2 storey brick building which housed the orphanage, a 3 storey multi-purpose building, and balconies which were added to both these buildings. The north wing with its grand entrance was built in a Victorian Decorated Gothic style. The whole complex is included in the Victorian Heritage Register.

By 1910, the year of the school's Jubilee, changes were occurring in education for girls. Typing had been introduced in 1902 and changes were made regarding sport and student activities. School uniforms appeared which were far more practical than the early dresses which would have had crinoline skirts.

The Orphanage closed in 1928 and the Boarding School in 1975. Today the school caters for 1360 secondary level students and although 95% of teachers were nuns in the 1960's, today the only nun on the staff is a counsellor. The first permanent male teacher was appointed in 1965. Prior to that date, male teachers were only employed on a sessional basis. The attire worn by a male teacher shown with students in a 1912 photo indicates he may have been the sports teacher.

When the Sisters arrived in 1859, Geelong was a prosperous, albeit a frontier town. The school site which then had a rural aspect is now in an established academic and residential area.

Mary-Jane Markham's education was quite different to that received by her grand niece who attended the school in the 1930's. Early photos of girls dressed in the style of "Picnic at Hanging Rock" give a rather romantic view of the school, but they would have been unaware of the politics the nuns were involved in to maintain funding. Photos of the nuns depict a group of women who were intent on their mission.

(The above is a report on John Watts' address at the General Meeting on 10 July 2010)

Contributed by Jan Hanslow (PPPG Member No. 1057)

* This history has now been published as "Mercy Girls - The Story of Sacred Heart College Geelong 1860 - 2010." Further details can be found in their brochure; by visiting the Sacred Heart College website or by telephoning: 03 5221 4211.

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