WHEN Canberra High School moved into its new building in 1939, former pupil Mervyn Knowles recalls headmaster Andrew Watson announcing that it was “the most modern high school in the southern hemisphere”.
The school itself had actually opened the previous year, with 378 students picked on academic merit using the NSW “selective school” model (the NSW Government ran ACT schools until 1974). Classes began on the campus of Telopea Park School in 1938 until the gleaming, white Art Deco building that is now the ANU School of Art was ready.It is for this reason that Canberra High – now located in Belconnen – celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, with open days at the old and new buildings followed by a cocktail party at night.
“There was a general upheaval for both staff and pupils, but we marvelled at the space and equipment the new premises offered,” says 91-year-old Mervyn, of the move from Telopea to Acton.
Two weeks after staff and students moved in to the Acton school house, Germany invaded Poland and Australia followed Britain in declaring war on the aggressor, but in 1939, the lingering effects of the Great Depression had more effect on the daily lives of the young capital’s residents than war in Europe.
Some parents of the first Canberra High students worried their children were being singled out unfairly because they could not afford the fancy uniforms, which were made up of an extensive list of hats, shoes, gloves, stockings, ties, blouses and blazers, nothing like what public school students are asked to wear these days.
The Government’s response, however, was as it would be today. Parents were not compelled to buy the uniform, but “urged” to do so as soon as they had the funds.
By 1941 the threat of war was much more serious and a Canberra High cadet corps was formed. The next year, slit trenches and camouflaged air raid shelters were built near the school building, which at the time was still mostly surrounded by grass and had a clear line of sight to Civic.
In recent years, a small team of retired former teachers, convened by former principal Helen Burfitt, have been working to bring the physical artifacts of the trailblazing school’s history together into a well-ordered collection.Collecting uniforms, equipment and photographs of the past, going through old yearbooks and rummaging around in storerooms is a painstaking labour of love for Helen and her fellow archivists, Betty Growder and the husband-and-wife team of Sue and Geoff Young, who met while teaching at Canberra High.
“We’ve been putting things in boxes for each year, sorting through them and recording the contents on the computer, so that if anybody wants to do a search, they can,” says Geoff, as he and the others continue their work.
The collection includes old trophies, a few of which were luckily retained from inter-school contests: the Koala Cup, from yearly exchanges with Parramatta High School that ended in 1964, the Chandler Cup for overall girls’ sport between ACT high schools and a very old inter-schools cricket trophy.
“The last school holding it hangs on to it; possession is nine tenths of the law,” jokes Geoff.
Carefully piecing together the available clues is Sue’s specialty. “It’s like being a detective,” she says.
It wasn’t just the students who were selected on merit in the early days. Top academics were recruited from around the country such as headmaster Watson, who had braved the Antarctic with Sir Douglas Mawson as a geologist and so became a popular after-dinner speaker around Canberra.
Watson and several of the first crop of teachers also lectured at university level, such as Russell Rix, who taught Japanese decades before it was offered to any other students in the NSW system, and physics teacher Stuart Bilbe, whose textbook on practical physics was used across the State.
One of the biggest items in the collection is an old principal’s desk, handmade with a matching chair by John Walton, who is considered by many to be the “founding father” of modern industrial arts teaching.
“It was mine when I was principal,” says Helen, who retired in 2003. “He wrote the bible on woodwork; his textbook was used by every NSW and ACT school.”
The move to the current building in 1969, says Geoff, brought about “a great shift in the culture of the place” as it was “such an open, new building at the time”.According to Helen, the original plan was to name the new school after nearby suburb Aranda, but the school community “fought tooth and nail” to keep the Canberra High name alive by having it transferred once again.
“When you look at the alumni, there would have been some pretty powerful and influential people who were pushing for it,” Geoff points out.
The archives group is also helping organise the anniversary activities, which are aimed at showcasing the history as well as reuniting the people who have attended or worked at the school over the years.
“We’re going to set up rooms by decades for people to come and walk through the past on the day,” explains Helen. “We’re also calling out for people who might be able to fill in some of the gaps, and identify who the people are in some of the photos.”
Canberra High School’s 75th Anniversary celebrations are on November 2. Open days are being held at the ANU School of Art, Ellery Crescent, Acton, and Canberra High School, Bindubi Street, Macquarie and a cocktail party is at the UC refectory. For more information or to register as a former student, go to canberrahigh75.blogspot.com.au