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Red Hill National School

Two boards of education, the National School Board and the Denominational Board, operated in Victoria in the 1850s. The national system provided a broad general education, but owed no allegiance to any church.

The Red Hill National School represents the secular education provided under the auspices of the National Education Board.

The original Red Hill National School began in a tent under the title of Warrenheip Gully School. Unfortunately, canvas was expensive on the diggings, and in September 1854 the schoolmaster reported that ‘some ruffians’ had attempted to steal the school tent - probably to use on their own claims. The tent was unsatisfactory as it was stifling in summer and the noise of the wind blowing at the canvas made it difficult to hear.

The canvas tent was soon replaced by a simple wooden building with a shingle roof. It was situated on Main Road - right in the heart of the mining activity. Many problems were faced by schoolmasters on the goldfields including cold, leaking buildings, measles epidemics, shortages of slate boards for writing, and irregular attendances as families moved, literally overnight, from one goldfield to another.

However, education in the 1850s was seen as the key to personal improvement and advancement. Many local gentlemen acted as patrons for the Red Hill National School as they realised that while a digger might find gold and become instantly wealthy, the real key to achieving a better life was a sound education. In the 19th century, this meant a solid grounding in spelling, grammar and mental arithmetic as well as a basic understanding of history and geography.

In September 1856, the Red Hill National School suffered at the hands of Ballarat’s unpredictable climate when a gale blew down the building. This time, the local citizens decided to build a more solid schoolhouse. James Oddie, a leading citizen who had become very wealthy through mining, was chairman of the Local Patrons for the Red Hill National School, and he described the school they planned to build:

… the building is to be 18 feet by 30, all of colonial timber, with 2 windows in front and 2 at the back and roofed with shingles to cost £80 and to be up in 5 days from the date the contract was signed …

Despite difficulties raising the £80 and complaints by newspaper editors that schools and the hospital were short of funds when ‘thousands of pounds were spent every week in casinos, grog shanties and hotel bars’, the new school was opened in late 1856.

In this school, children sat at long wooden desks on equally long wooden benches that had no backs. They worked out their mathematical problems on slate boards and learnt copperplate writing using dip pens and ink.