Bourke Street Public School

Quality education in a caring environment

Telephone02 9319 7310

School history

The government school system of New South Wales was established in 1848, when a Board of National Education was set up to establish National Schools throughout the colony. Prior to that date schools had been conducted by the various churches, funded by the government, and the church schools continued to operate with government financial aid after 1848.

Bourke Street Public School 1880-1980

In 1867, when the Council of Education took control of both the stat-aided church schools and the government schools (now known as Public Schools), it had 60 schools in the city and suburbs of Sydney. Only 15 were Public Schools, and eight of them were conducted in rented buildings: one of these was named Bourke Street Public School, opened in 1863 in premises rented from the Congregational Church, situated behind the present Crown Street Public School which replaced it in 1878. One new government school was opened in Surry Hills by the Council of Education: Devonshire Street Public School opened in 1874 in yet another rented Congregational Church building.

The Establishment of Surry Hills South Public School

The first specific reference in the Council of Education records to the need for a new Public School in Surry Hills South occurred in October 1876, although Inspector Johnson who took the initiative in the matter made the comment that he had been seeking a suitable site for some time. At this stage Johnson was thinking in terms of a permanent school to replace Devonshire Street Public School, which operated in a rented Congregational Church building on the corner of Devonshire and Riley Streets. Despite its proximity to the city, housing department in the southern part of Surry Hills and the adjacent area beyond Cleveland Street had been slow, largely because of the low-lying and even swampy nature of much of the land. Rapid development was just beginning at this time, and Johnson was therefore anticipating the need for a large school and looking for suitable vacant land in the area.

Johnson's first choice of the site, on the corner of Devonshire and Marlborough Streets, was not for sale, and his second choice was a block in Bourke Street owned by James Jones, where the school stands today. It was agreed that the best site for a school would be facing Bourke Street between Mort and Parkham Streets, and Jones was very happy to offer just over half an acre to the Council of Education for 4660. Johnson regarded this price far beyond the market value of the land, and in November the Council decided against buying it for this reason. Jones immediately offered two less suitable blocks somewhat more cheaply, but the Council also refused these as not worth the money.

During the middle of 1878 the Council discussed possible school sites for Surry Hills South at several of its meetings, and both the President and Secretary walked over the district. A site on John Baptist's 15 acre plant nursery south of Cleveland Street was considered most appropriate, and on 12 July 1878 McDonnell was finally able to report Baptist's willingness to sell, although the specific block for the school could not be determined until Baptist had laid out the streets in his subdivision. In August the Council decided in principle to buy part of the Baptist's land, and the following month refused yet another expensive offer from Jones. In November McDonnell was able to submit a plan of one and three quarter acre block with frontage to the proposed Boronia, Baptist and Telopea Streets, and after negotiation the Council agreed on 9 December to buy this site for 4000, provided that Baptist filled in a watercourse which bisected the block from north to south. Baptist took some time to fill the land, arrange the streets and move his plants to the portion of his land he was retaining for his nursery, and the purchase was finally completed on 30 June 1879.

The Council was sufficiently convinced of the need for urgency to ask Inspector McCredie for detailed recommendations on the buildings required for Surry Hills South Public School the day after it became the owner of Baptist's site.

The work of drawing up plans and building a large school could be expected to take two years or more, nut in the meantime there were hundreds of children needing a school. The Council therefore asked its architect in April 1880 to call tenders for moving the temporary wooden building and furniture from Crown Street to Surry Hills South.

Surry Hills South opened Monday 4 October 1880, and soon had over 300 pupils. They were accommodated in tow buildings 50 feet long by 21 feet wide and another 36 by 23, which were cold and draughty in winter and very hot in summer. The teacher and pupils could not look forward to moving into a grand new building very soon, for even before the school had opened it had been decided to acquire a different site as soon as possible.

The School moves to its present site

It was not until July 1880 that the Department's architect, William Kemp, visited the school site in order to determine the best layout of the permanent school buildings. He was so concerned about what he had found as to stop work on the plans and to ask the Minister of Education on 5 August to acquire a new site. Kemp found that the surface of the land was lower than the road level of Bourke Street and that in the trenches between the nursery beds water was showing 15 inches down even in that very dry winter. He therefore concluded that the site would be permanently damp unless a great deal of money was spent on raising, draining and paving the ground. The cost of such work, plus the extra foundations that would be necessary for the buildings, he estimated at 4000. Thus he advised the Minister that it would be cheaper overall to acquire a block of just over an acre from Jones, at an estimated market value of 5000, and build there.

Once the site question was finally solved, Kemp was able to go ahead and prepare sketch plans for the school building, which he presented to the Department in February 1881.

Surry Hills South was one of the largest, most elaborate and most expensive schools of the nineteenth century. There was no doubt that a very large school was required, and the Department followed practice of the Council of Education in making sure that large schools, especially those situated on major thoroughfares, were impressive to the passer-by. This explained the elaborate façade and magnificent tower at Surry Hills South – and also explained the usual plain back and sides. When these plans were drawn up the Department had not yet realised the extent of the demand for accommodation an the limitations on its funds which were soon to force it to provide cheaper brick buildings and many temporary and permanent wooden buildings, but even so Surry Hills South was more expensive building than others built by the Department in its first years.

While the exterior was unusual and impressive, the interior followed the basic school plans in use since the 1860s. BY modern standards the accommodation was mean and crowded. The boys and girls department each had one main schoolroom 85 feet by 25, containing five blocks of five long desks and forms arranged on a stepped floor and a steep "Gallery" at one end containing eight long forms; at a pinch, some 270 pupils could be seated in each room. With staffing based on a figure of one teacher for 50 or more pupils, this meant that five teachers would be working together in each room. The infants and babies rooms would be similarly crowded with young children seated on galleries and up to three teachers per room. Such building designs reflected nineteenth century educational philosophy and practice: children were to still while being drilled in the basic subjects. The overwhelming majority of school time was devoted to the 3Rs, and rote teaching methods were the norm. Thus very large numbers of children could be taught simultaneously and, so long as some classes concentrated on silent work in a thoroughly disciplined operate in one room. The teachers at Surry Hills South were soon to seek modifications of the building, like teachers elsewhere, nut it was not until the twentieth century that school architecture was fundamentally altered.

The tender of David Brodie and Company of Annandale for 15,616 was accepted by the Department on 1 June 1882. The work included the two buildings, with their teachers' rooms, hatrooms, verandahs and lavatories (washing facilities), together with all the furniture, plus the toilets and watersheds at the rear of the site. AN extra 670 was paid to the contractor for raising the level of the site and the buildings about a foot, to match the levels of Mort and Parkham Streets which were fixed after the contract was signed, for fitting the toilets for sewerage as well as cesspits after it was discovered that the area would soon be sewered, and for a variety of sundry changes. The work took 18 months altogether, and was finally completed in January 1884; the teachers and pupils moved in Monday 25 January.

From 1884 to 1904

The first two headmasters of Surry Hills South were transferred after short periods, so it was the third headmaster William Broome who took possession of the new buildings on 25 January 1884. Broome had entered the teaching service in 1869 as a 13 year-old pupil teacher, and obtained the highest classification of 1A in 1883; he was to be headmaster of Surry Hills South for 19 years, and was a good teacher and administrator. The latter quality was important, for Surry Hills South quickly became a very large school. 735 pupils were present the day the new buildings were opened, and the enrolment had grown to 1167 by the end of the year.

The buildings gave surprisingly few teaching problems. The continued activity of the local larrikins made it necessary to fix wire guards to the side windows in 1884 and even to the front windows the following year, while the nineteenth century dislike of strong sunlight led to the fixing of blinds on al affected windows. The school was sewered in 1887, a very important improvement on cesspits for a large school. Various repairs and painting works were carried out between 1888 and 1891, some of them including minor structural alterations to improve the poor ventilation and traffic flow which had been a problem from the beginning.

The first suggestion that the teachers found the standard nineteenth century schoolrooms unsatisfactory appeared in 1887, when Broome asked for a partition to divide the boy's schoolroom into two sections, so as to minimise the effects of the echoings of several teachers' voices and also of the "Vehicular traffic" under the windows; a wooden partition was duly installed for 20. As the enrolment increased it also became necessary to make ad hoc arrangements to accommodate extra pupils. There were nearly 1300 pupils by 1889, when an extra row of desks was placed in front of the existing blocks in the boys' schoolroom. In 1891 the girls department was using a hatroom and a weathershed as classrooms, and an extra row of desks was then placed in the girls' schoolroom as well.

In November 1885 Surry Hills South was made a Superior Public School, in order to provide some secondary education for the children of the district; the school was to continue to offer secondary as well as primary education until 1965.

The evening classes were begun by an assistant teacher, Harry Wheeler, in April 1887. Although the official application for the school was dated that month, it was not sent to the Department until July. It contained the names of 20 youths aged between 14 and 18, including several carpenters and shop assistants, whose attendance was guaranteed. By August there were 25 enrolled and an average attendance of 10, and the Department agreed to establish the school officially and pay Wheeler's salary from then. Wheeler was very enthusiastic about the evening school, even providing lighting at his own expense. When his lamps proved inadequate in 1889 he had gas lighting connected to the room at a cost of 5. His request for reimbursement was opposed by some of his superiors, but the Minister finally sanctioned a payment to him of 3.

The school's surviving records give little information about the day-to-day life of the school. The work of the teachers was laid down in the syllabus and in various instructions and regulations, and checked regularly by inspectors, and was therefore not a matter to write to head office about. The school was staffed by experienced and efficient heads of department, who remained at the school for many years – Broome himself for 19 years, the girls' mistress Kate Gooch from 1885 until her retirement in 1910, and the infants' mistress Jemima Halley from 1881 until her retirement in 1915. There were remarkably few disputes or scandals associated with the teachers, pupils or parents. One dispute, which led to the dismissal of a teacher after a long history of unsatisfactory work, insolence and disobedience, produced a very rare response from the pupils, when a large number signed a petition in 1887 begging the Department to let them have their teacher back; they were unsuccessful.


The years 1904-16 saw major changes in almost every aspect of education in New South Wales. The infants and primary curriculum was completely rewritten, the pupil-teacher system was abolished, school building design and furniture were fundamentally altered, systems of different kinds of secondary schools and evening continuation schools were established, school fees were abolished and education made fully compulsory.

The main difficulty at Surry Hills South was that in altering the buildings to fit the new educational ideas and practices. The same problem occurred at all old schools, but it was intensified at Surry Hills South by the large enrolments (by nineteenth century standards) with which Kemp had grouped the schoolrooms, classrooms and traffic areas. As it turned out, it took 20 years to solve the problem at Surry Hills South.

A tender had been accepted in December 1909 for the provision of a cookery school, to serve girls 13 years of age and over not only from Surry Hills South but from other schools in the district. Lessons in cookery and domestic economy, and manual training for boys, were consistent with the emphasis on practical work which the New Education brought to all the subjects; being for older pupils, they also reflected the new vocational approach to secondary education. At Surry Hills South portions of the adjoining girls and infants weathersheds were converted to a cookery school comprising kitchen, scullery, dining room, teacher's room and dressing room; the work cost 223 and was completed in June 1910.

Conditions at Surry Hills South while all this building work was underway were intolerable, and Radford therefore suggested the temporary closure of the boys and girls departments Inspector Dennis was unwilling to endorse this, arguing that while the pupils might not make much progress in their studies it was better than having them wander streets; he also made a comment which would have been unthinkable prior to the New Education movement, that the building works "may to some extent be turned into a means of education:. Nevertheless the situation was impossible, and the two departments were closed for six weeks. The building work was completed in September 1910, and perhaps in celebration a concert and fete were arranged for the following month; Department was quite happy to approve the concert, but refused permission for stalls selling refreshments, sweets, dolls and flowers "as such might lead to undesirable comment".

On 25 September 1911 the school was finally officially named Bourke Street Public School, after Principal Senior Inspector Lawford made the following enigmatic recommendation:

The above school is known locally as Bourke Street, in which
the street it is the only school; and the name Surry Hills is
not attractive. I recommend that it is changed to Bourke Street.

Secondary Education at Bourke Street

The major change in the structure of New South Wales education system took place after 1910. In that year there were only five high schools, and all but a few of the superior public schools were conducted in a rather hit-and-miss fashion. Thus Bourke Street had a junior technical secondary department from 1913 and a domestic science evening school from 1912, Crown Street had commercial and domestic science secondary departments from 1913 and a commercial evening school from 1912, and Cleveland Street had an intermediate high school department from 1912 and junior technical and commercial evening schools from 1911. All strands of secondary education were therefore available in the Surry Hills district.

Plans for a two-storey building with manual training room on the ground floor and a science room on the first floor were prepared during 1912 for a number of schools, and a brick building at Bourke Street was built along the Parkham Street boundary behind watersheds; it was completed in July 1913 at a cost of 870.

The blurring of distinctions between the different kinds of schools and the gradual shift to comprehensive, co-educational high schools was reflected at Bourke Street by the discontinuance of the junior technical course at the end of 1945. However, Bourke Street as a Central School retained a significant number of secondary boys until they were transferred to the new Randwick North High School in 1966.

Waiting for Additions: 1911-1924

In September 1911 the Department agreed that Bourke Street Public School needed additional accommodation: permanent additions were occupied in October 1924. Such a long delay was not uncommon in this period, as the Department grappled with the backlog from the 1890s depression, the growth and movement of population, and the financial stringency caused by the 1914-18 war and the post-war recession. Nevertheless Bourke Street would probably have gained relief sooner if it had had articulate and influential people to speak on its behalf, or a parents' organisation to lobby the Department. Only once, in 1918, is there reference to a Parents and Citizens Association, and its secretary lived in Arncliffe.

In the early part of 1919 Bourke Street was not as overcrowded as usual, but this was only because of the terrible influenza epidemic that year. Schools resumed late that year, and for some time the infants department at Bourke Street was closed; part of the school was used as an emergency hospital. In other respects, school life continued as usual during the years when it often seemed that only the accommodation crises were worth reporting. Although it was hampered by the absence of parents' organisations, the school gradually raised the money through donations, concerts and the like to acquire various pieces of equipment, such as a sewing machine paid off between 1991 and 1913. Two tennis courts were prepared in the playground around 1912, and teachers stayed behind so that pupils could use them after school. Moor Park provided a convenient sports area and regular swimming lessons were held at Coogee Aquarium Baths. Most classes also enjoyed an excursion to Taronga Park Zoo in 1920.

The conclusion of the by now massive additions file was almost an anti-climax. After 18 months silence, in October 1922 Friends informed that Bourke Street had attained sufficient priority on the building programme for the work to be done in the current financial year. He was therefore asked to confirm the suitability of the plans prepared in 1914. Friend immediately replied that six classrooms were now necessary, since the school was using 19 permanent rooms, four temporary ones, an enclosed shed and a converted hatroom, and all rooms were crowded. The 1914 plans were therefore cancelled and new plans for six classrooms on top of the infants building finished in July 1923. The tender William Jemison of Dulwich Hill for 5999 was accepted in December that year.

Difficult Years

Once the additions of 1924 were completed, Bourke Street entered on a quiet period of its history. The enrolment had been slowly dropping since 1920, as the district's population aged, and in 1928 the numbers dropped below 1000 and the school was reduced to a Class 2. The reduced pressure on accommodation enabled formation of a special class for backward pupils in 1926 – although it was conducted in the hatroom which had been converted to a classroom in 1920. In 1927 the teacher of this class gained permission to use the room on Saturdays to teach crippled children. While the amount of accommodation was adequate, the buildings had become drab and dirty since the last renovations in 1920. An extremely thick file on the ravages of white ants and scores of minor faults was built up between 1925 and 1931, when it was agreed that the condition of the buildings was amongst the worst in the state, and some 1500 worth of renovations were carried out. In 1929 Bourke Street was at last totally equipped with dual desks, as planned back in 1908.

The lower numbers at Bourke Street enable the expansion of the junior technical department and the inauguration of the domestic science department in January 1929. Since these moves would clearly raise the enrolment and require staff experienced in secondary work, Gilbert Filshie was transferred from Redfern Public School to Bourke Street as headmaster and Maggie Long from Crown Street as headmistress, and other new staff appointed, and the school was restored to Class 1 from 1929. The whole school also used as a practice school for trainee teachers. The expansion of secondary work led to some additional building work during the 1930s, including the conversion of a storeroom and a weathershed into classrooms for the overcrowded junior technical department in 1931, the erection of a new cookery room in 1937 and the general refurbishing of the domestic science rooms in 1938.

The Surry Hill district suffered severely during the Great depression of the 1930s, although relatively little about its effects is mentioned in the school's records. In any case, poverty had been widespread in the district during the 1920s. In 1932 the teachers had to cancel a film afternoon at a local theatre, since few pupils could afford a ticket. The enrolment became rather unstable, due to the frequent moves of families struggling to pay rent, and with frequent breaks in their education more and more children needed special attention. Amongst the older boys truanting and petty thieving were frequent problems, and the burglaries and vandalism with which the school had always been plagued worsened. It was also accepted that many poor examination results had their roots in disadvantaged homes, where study facilities for example were non-existent. The frequent turnover of staff, exacerbated by dismissal of married women teachers, also caused problems.

Bourke Street Public School was to go on facing these sorts of problems, unknown in schools in better-off districts, for many years to come. It was also to cope with the problems arising from the massive immigration programme of the 1940s and after, unsuspected in the 19330s when the school had only a few pupils whose native language was not English. From 1880 throughout its history, the work of Bourke Street Public School has been both more difficult and more important than that of most schools which have celebrated their centenaries.



No First Surname Date
1 William BOARD 1880
2 Henry SKILLMAN 1882
3 William BROOME 1882
4 William RADFORD 1902
5 Edward BYRNE 1910
6 William LIGGINS 1917
7 Charles BLUMER 1924
8 Alfred BENNETT 1924
9 Alfred HETHERINGTON 1928
10 Gilbert FILSHIE 1928
11 Edward BROOME 1930
12 Herbert MUSGRAVE 1938
13 William PHILLIPS 1940
14 Tom CURRY 1952
15 Barry FINIGAN 1966
16 Ken STEPHENS 1978
17 Winsome JEFFERIES
18 Janet
19 Barbara
20 Annette
21 Peter PORTEOUS 1992
22 William O'CONNOR 2001
23 Loraine GENTLEMAN 2006
24 Peter JOHNSTON 2009
25 Jason  GOODE 2019
26 Jillian WOLFE 2022


excerpt from the "Bourke Street Public School Centenary 1880 - 1980"
produced in 1980 by the then-principal, K F Stephens and Jan Burnswoods, Department of Education