Education Research and Perspectives, Vol. 18, No. 1, June 1991 PERTH'S 'THE CLOISTERS' AS AN ICON OF EDUCATIONAL ELITISM: ROMANCING THE STONE

The University of Western Australia

Like many expanding cities, Perth has lost most of the gracious and interesting reminders of its past to the inroads of commercial megadevelopment. However, perhaps uniquely in Australia, it still does boast within a short distance three important survivors which were all, at one time or another, used as schoolhouses. Although the history of the schools that these buildings sheltered has been extensively noted in the literature, the implications of the fortunate coincidence of the escape from the wreckers and of the highly distinctive architecture of each, has not. In a series of three articles the suggestion is made that the choice by colonial builders of highly distinctive styles and the contrast between those styles provide a valuable comment on different views of education in the nineteenth century, compelling further attention and explanation of the aspirations enshrined.

Three icons of early Western Australian 'Education'

Three of Perth's oldest buildings are school houses. 'The Cloisters' (1860) and its ecclesiastical-looking companion across St. George's Terrace, the Perth Boys' School (1854), have survived—along with the Doric-pillared Old Court House (1837), which also saw duty as a school. They quietly testify to the early history of education in Western Australia. Comparisons of their architectural merits with those structures that have followed will not leave them at a disadvantage. They are decidedly echt in a jungle of architectural kitsch. This essay is one of a trilogy 'meditations' prompted by these three edifices. As Malcolm Seaborne remarks in his important The English School: Its Architecture and Organization 1370-1870 (1971), '. . . at certain turning-points in the history of English education, new educational ideas were expressed, not only in theoretical treatises, but also in bricks and mortar''—par~ pa.ssu Perth's ancient educational edif~ces.

'The Cleisters' now is dwarfed by high rise monoliths of varying success, but these surrounding skyscrapers seem less confident of their own permanence than do its arches of mellowed plum-coloured bricks from the East Perth kilns of James Brittain. The building has not only housed a boys' school but a girts' school (1879-1888), a training college for clergy (1901-1918), and (forsome years in the 1920s) a hostel for University of Western Australia students.2

The Egalitarian Myth

The Australians' penchant for enthusiastically describing their lucky country as the great classless citadel of egalitarianism is belied by 'The Cloisters' and by the reality of Australian educational history. That certainly is the case in Western Australia, where pretentiousness, oligarchy and private schooling have long kept close company. The edifices of political and educational institutions have helped to maintain a social hegemony which has flourished in the Antipodes as much as in the Old Country, protestations about Australian 'matemanship' notwithstanding.

The success of private education from almost the moment the first ships bearing European immigrants arrived challenges expansive claims about Australian social integration and democratic consensus, casting doubt on the efforts of some historians to write an Australian history that ignores ambition and ruthlessness in order to exalt Mr. Everyman. In fact, Western Australia was from its inception distinguished by a large number of settlers who claimed origins in the upper echelons of British society and whose aspirations would have vastly amused Jane Austen. Some of these would-be upper class colonists sent their children home to England for education, but others looked for a local solfltion.3 They probably did not do so for entirely pedagogic reasons, any more than parents today choose a school completely on academic grounds.4 "The Cloisters"

Order and Regularity

Education received attention from the beginning of the colony. At a meeting held at Woodbridge House in Guildford in 1836, a speaker referred to the 'awful responsibility' of providing schools.5 However, whatever might have been the beau ideal of the founding fathers, there were those who felt that concessions were unfortunately necessary to the bush environment. While readers of the Perth Gazette were informed by a Mrs. Waldeck (27 August 1836) that she intended opening a school in Guildford for girls to learn fancy needle work, a Mrs. Highf~eld (8 December 1838) announced that although she had opened a school which amongst other subjects would cover the intricacies of plain and ornamental needle-work, it would as well 'prepare girls to keep store'.

There were those though who asserted that they were 'possessed of the education and the feelings of a gentleman' as a writer to the Perth Inquirer (3 September 1845) remarked, adding proudly that 'our son Richard (familiarly called Dick) devotes his evenings to the study of Roman history.'The presence of this group of early Victorian 'yuppies'in search of social reward, aspiring to what the Woodbridge speaker had called 'a degree of order and regularity' in the face of the obstacles of an a,iien environment, concerned G.F. Stone, the Registrar Genera'~ of the colony. He complained in the Census of Western Australia (Perth 1848): 'Here then we perceive ... a striking proportion of nearly one-fourth of landed proprietors, professional and other educated men, etc. This latter fact is an extremely flnfavourable feature in our population, it being near to impossible for any community to thrive with such an undue proportion of those whose habits and education are supposed to render them averse to manual labour.'

A leading farmer of the 1840s, Samuel Moore, oft quoted, found himself in a similar quandary about what sort of education would do. 'A difficulty now arises; my children want education and I want pig feeders and shepherds . . . shall I educate them at an expense which will run me into debt so as to force me to sell the property I have endenvoured to save for them?'Others had no such qualms about what direction education should take, and optimistically saw no implicit class distinctions to pursuing a less-th¿in-;practical curriculum. The Inquirer ts Editor (10 January 1855) declared:

We could never understand what people mean by children having 'too good an education', as we maintain no person can be too well educated; and we trust the Government will take our advice, and introduce drawing, music, and so on, also the popular Arts and Sciences, into their schools . . . We despise class education, and maintain that to hold A should learn Latin, because he is a gentleman's son, which B should not, because he is a mechanic, is a principle begot of ignorant pride, and founded on bigoted and narrow-minded prejudice. The time must arrive when it will not be the station that will command respect, but the Intellect . . . and although it may not, and probably will not, be in our day, yet the time will arrive when the world will be governed by the intellects of, and not, as now, by the titles of its inhabitants.

Several early attempts in the colony to start schools testify to the desire to provide an education that was not egalitarian in its content. According to the Inquirer (19 JUIY 1843), a Mr. William Coupland sought to establish a school which would offer English, writing, and arithmetic, but would instruct in French, Spanish, and Portuguese at an extra charge, along with dancing and fencing. In the Perth Gazette (20 September 1850), The Rev. D. T. Boyd, sometime acting head master of St. Andrew's Parochical School, Madras, begged to announce the opening of a 'Classical, Commercial, Boarding and Day School on the I st October, proximo, for the Education of Young Gentlemen.'The Middle Swan Academy, directed by a graduate of Trinity, Dublin, and the Collegiate Institution in Perth, under the supervision of a graduate of London University, was in operation by the early 1850S.

Education in Western Australia was organized on class lines from early on. This was not without controversy. In an essay on the commitment of the Western Australian government to education, Dr. Laadan Fletcher wrote,'The question of which groups of the community should be served by government educational institutions has always been a vital determinant of educational costs and nineteenth-century argument about whether or not the relative wealth of parents should determine school provision have their twentieth-century counterparts in discussion of the extent to which the general taxpayer should carry the burden of the education of that section of young people who choose to prolong their education beyond the statutory leaving age.'7 As Dr. Fletcher suggests, debate about government aid to education has seldom been missing from the state's political agenda.

Just as 'The Cloisters' is a tangible reminder of the debate over private and state schooling, Perth has an institutional reminder. The Sisters of Mercy took an initiative whose consequences have proved lasting, placing a notice in the Inquirer (1 August 1849) that they intended opening a day school 'for a limited number of young ladies'on 3 September 1849. The Sisters had an appreciation of the market that already existed in Perth for upper class education. In Robin Hood fashion, the Mother Superior, Sister Ursula Frayne, wrote to the Archbishop of Dublin (25 September 1852): 'We have endeavoured to lighten the burden on the mission by opening a school for the children of the gentry distinct from the poor schoel. It is doing very well. The children who attend it are all Protestants, but very well disposed.'8 This school was and is Mercedes College, the oldest surviving school in Western Australia and one of the oldest in Australia. Not to be outdone, the Sisters of St Joseph opened a Young Ladies School in Fremantle in 1855, informing the newspaper (by now the Inquirer and Commercial News, 31 October 1855) that this had been founded despite the lack of three sisters who were in England opening school at Oxford, and promising that the education would be on the lines of their'flourishing establishment' at Marseilles.

Planning in at least some Perth social circles centred on the need for educational establishments that would provide a governing élite rather than mass education. The Government Gazette (20 March 1855) thought there was a good argument for public support of education for leadership: 'In this colony the children of the middle and some of the working classes will probably be among the governing body of the colony at no distant period, [and] we cannot but think, that it is far better that such should be educated to the greatest extent that their circumstances would admit of . . . The richer classes obtain a good solid Education at a rate far less than they could in any other method, and the poorer, the benefit of direct and constant supervision by the first [rate] teacher.'

In the later nineteenth century the founding of private schools with a curriculum .aimed at the upper classes continued apace throughout the country. Indeed, it accentuated. Geoffrey Sherington has emphasised just how important developments in England at this time were for Australia:

While corporate models of schooling had been present in the early period of white settlement, the mid-nineteenth-centflry 'revolution' in the theory and practice of the English public schools would have most effect upon their Australian counterparts during the last quarter of the century. The emphasis on character training, the playing of games, and the creation of the class ideal of the English gentleman had a marked impact in the Antipodes. In many respects it constituted the major English cultural influence on Australian social life. The ideal swept away other competing forms providing common norms of behaviour throughout the Australian colonies and cutting across ethnic lines. Schools with Scottish associations scan succumbed to the appeal of athleticism and character training over scholarship. Most of the male Catholic schools adopted at least the forms if not the total ideology... By the First World War, the Australian ideal, if not the full substance, of the mid-to-late nineteenth-century English public school was complete.'9

Many private institutions were established in Perth in the period 1860-1890 and their advertising indicates that there was a social as well as academic curriculum. For example, a Mrs. Knight and the Misses Cowan for forty guineas per annum plus another four guineas respectively for French and music were taking boarders for their ladies' school in January 1866. (Inquirer and Commercial News, 20 December 1865.) In 1868 the newspaper indicated that there were vacancies for 'three or four boarders, to whose comfort and moral culture as well as their education every attention will be paid.' (Perth Gazette 10 July 1868.) By 1869 Mrs. Knight had disappeared but the Gazette (11 June 1869) announced that the Misses Cowan's Ladies' Boarding School had The Lord Bishop of Perth as Visitor and was adding drawing for ladies under the superintendence of Mr. Dean of the Survey Department (extra charge). The Herald (22 May 1875) noted that the school had moved to Fremantle, and advertised (16 December 1876) the availability of place 'for young ladies wishing to receive finishing lessons in music from a lady throughly competent.'

More Church of England involvement was noted in 1879 (Inquirer 19 February) when the Lord Bishop announced a May opening of the Bishop's College for Girls, which for a time used 'The Cloisters'. This institution was most decidedly not for the poor—boarders over twelve years of age would enter at sixty pounds per annum. Music, drawing, or painting were eight pounds and eight shillings each extra, and German, l.atin, or dancing were four pounds and four shillings each extra. (Inquirer, 9 .luly 1879.) The accomplishments encouraged from the young ladies were not those that would be useful in the outback. The West Australian (10 July 1884) enthused that the College was about to acquire the services of a Miss Burleigh, who brings the highest testimonials from the Royal Academy of Music in London, and is a good vocalist. She hás been most successful in training the voice, both in private and class singing, and is throughly mistress of the theory of music and harmony.'

'The Cloisters' as a Reminder

The early private schools mentioned above have vanished, with the exception of Mercedes. 'The Cloisters' building on St. George's Terrace remains to remind late' generations of the social aspirations of nineteenth-century Perth, hopes which belie th~ myth of an egalitarian society in the making. 'The Cloisters' were built to accommodat~ students of the so-called Bishop's School, the school founded by the first Anglican bishop of Perth, Mathew Blagden Hale. 'Undoubtedly the Bishop's School' writes Donald Leinster-Mackay, ". . . was the most sign~ficant of the earlier contributions to the education of the colonial gentleman before it was closed in 1872 through lack of support."10

Hale, a product of private tutoring and Trinity College, Cambridge, became bishop in 1856 when Western Australia was hived off from Adelaide to make a separate diocese. Anglican bishops in Australia were in the forefront in establishing schools: Bishop Broughton in New South Wales had founded King's School Parramatta, Bishop Perry in Victoria was instrumental in starting Melbourne Grammar School, and Bishop Short had started St Peter's College, Adelaide. Hale's school opened in 1858 with twenty-three pupils largely drawn from prominent families for'a small and select circle of families'. "

Not everyone would agree that Hale was élitist in his educational intentions. The late historian of education, A.G. Austin, claimed that Hale was 'too well aware of his Church's poverty and diminishing Influence' to want to create a denominational and class-orientated educational system.12 On the other hand, Barbara Wilson is dismissive of his efforts and reluctant to cede him the title of 'father of secondary education in Western Australia'. She repeats the 'smell and select~ accusation that others have made: 'The bishop certainly tried very hard and spent much of his own money in the scheme, but the small and select circle of the colonial community which was influenced by the school seems scarcely sufficient to warrant this title."3 Arthur Robin, Hale's biographer, considered the school's closing to be ironic: '. . . some parents probably reckoned that their boys would be better off being educated either in England or in one of the more established schools in the eastern Australian colonies, where they might make their professional career . . . Faced with the challenge of beginning secondary education in the colony, Hale had chosen the paternalistic approach and eventually he had to admit defeat because he could not obtain sufficient support from those who could best afford to help him"4 David Mossenson considered that the closing was for more specious reasons: 'Of the factors which contributed to Hale's failures, the principal one had been the inability of all but a handful of families to afford boarding and tuition fees of £60 a year."5

The school did not succeed, but 'The Cloisters' remains a responsible and refined building. Its brick walls display an orderly and regular Flemish bond pattern promising an education within which would have pleased those concerned parents at the Guildford meeting of 1836. Described variously as Tudor revival, Scottish Tudor, and Jacobean,16 its pleasant Gothic features indicate that there were those settlers who aspired to learning and possibly to being in a developing upper class. Whether such social ambitions were legitimate can be debated, but to pretend that they were not a major force in Australian history is simply unwise.

Editorial note:

Dr. Paul Rich is an Honorary Research Fellow of The University of Western Australia. He is a member of the Cambridge Camden Society (The Ecclesiological Society) to which the designer of Perth Boys' School in 1854, William Ayshford Sanford, also belonged. In two future articles he will discuss the history of education in Western Australia in relation to Sanford and his building, and to the Old Court House designed by Henry Willey Reveley.


For an introduction to the bibliography of the history of education in Australia, see Alan Barcan, 'The Historiography of Australian Education, Education Research and Perspectives', Vol. 15, No. 1 1988, 3-18.

1. Malcolm Seaborne, The English School: Its Architecture and Organization, 113701870, University of Toronto Press, 1971, 280.1 am indebted to the late Mr. Trevor Wigney, former Convocation Officer of The University of Western Australia for calling this book to my attention.

2. A.E. Williams, Western Australia: An Architectural Heritage, Williams Pioneer Publications, Perth, 1979, 62-63.

3. F. David Adams compiler, Non-Government Schooling in Western Australia 1829-1903 (hereafter Documents IV), Western Australian Institute of Technology, Faculty of Education, 1984, l. The fate of those children whose parents could not afford school fees was often pure Nicholas Nickleby. See Phyllis Garrick,'Children of the Poor and Industrious Classes in Western Australia, 1829-1880', Penelope Hetherington ed., University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1988, 13-25. For a current perspective, P.E. Watkins,'Inequality, Correspondence and Culture: Some implications for Education in the 1880s', Education Research and Perspectives, Vol. 9, No. 2, December 1982, 31-44.

4. See Wilma Hannah, 'Some Reflections on the Concept of Educational Disadvantage', Imelda Palmer, Melbourne Studies in Education 1985, Melbourne University Press, 1985, 74-116.

5. Perth Cazette and Western Australian Journal, 2 April 1836. Documents I V, 6. See C. W. Collins, "Matters of Social Conscience: Western Australia 1829-1890', University Studies in History, University of Western Australia Press, Vol. V, No.2, 1968, 1-22.

6. Battye Library: Manuscript, Samuel Moore,'Farm Journal', entry 16 May 1867, gtd. Documents, IV, 5.

7. l.aadan Fletcher, 'The Cost of Educating Young Colonists: Government Commitment to Education in a Nineteenth Century British Colony', Education Research and Perspectives, Vol. 8, No. 1, June 1981, 31.

8. P.F. Moran, History of the Catholic Church in Australasia, ctd. DocumentsIV, 12.

9. Geoffrey Sherington, 'Cultural Fragments? Two Hundred Years of Australian Migration and Schooling', Education Research and Perspectives, Vol. 15, No. 1, June 1988, 37.

10 Donald Leinster-Mackay and David Adams, 'The Education of the 'Colonial Gentleman — & Lady", W. D. Neal ed., Education in Western Australia, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1979, 37.

11. A. G. Austin, Australian Education, 1788-1900: Church, State and Public Education in Colonial Australia, 3rd ed., Pitman Pacific Books, Carlton  (Victoria) 1972[1961] ,156.

12. Barbara Wilson, 'The First Bishop: Mathew Hale: Fred Alexander ed., Four Bishops and Their See: Perth, Western A flstralia, 1857- 1957, U niversity of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1957, 24.

13. Williams, Western Australia,  62.

14. A. de Q. Robin,'Mathew Blagden Hale: Father of Secondary Education', Laadan Fletcher ed., Pioneers of Education in Western Australia, University of Western Australia Press, 1982, 50. The present Hale School's claims to be the Bishop's School must be viewed skeptically, The legislation for it was passed in 1876 and under the name of the High School it opened in 1878. 'The High School, which may be considered the lineal descendant of Bishop's School, was established by Act of the Legislature in 1876 as an undenominational Institution.' J.S. Battye ed., The Cyclopedia of Western Australia, Vol.ll, Cyclopedia Company, Perth, 1913, 75.

15. David Mossenson, State Education in Western Australia, 1829-1960, The University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1972, 33-34.

16. It was not the common building style of the period. Most buildings were 'very modest'. George Seddon and David Ravine, A City and Its Setting: Images of Perth, Western Australia, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1986, 131.

Published in: Education Research And Perspectives, The University of Western Australia, Vol. 18, No. 1, June 1991, Autralia, 1991

Contact: The University of Western Australia, Nedlands, Western Australia, 6009