68. Schooling, religion & Imperialism, Part A: a natural trinity

The last post looked at how political events in Ireland from the very start of the War affected the Irish-Australian community.  However, the tension between Irish Catholic and British Protestant went well beyond the immediate political situation in Ireland. There were several hundred years of division and conflict to draw on. There were fundamental differences in religious faith, identity and practice that directly affected people’s everyday lives, for example, in areas such as marriage or, as it was more commonly described, the particular case of ‘mixed marriage’. Moreover, the differences in faith were overlain with differences between class and culture, with the Irish-Catholic Australians generally characterised as working class and even represented as lower-order citizens. However, notwithstanding long established enmity between Irish Catholic and British Protestant, the start of the War and the promise of Home Rule did see an attempt on both sides to play down the differences and unite against the common enemy.

This particular post is the first of two to show how sensitive relations were between these 2 dominant religious and cultural groupings in the local community. The specific focus is on education. Differences over the provision of schooling in the local community demonstrated how deep the divisions went and how apparently insurmountable they were. The War focused even more attention on these differences.

The provision of schooling in rural areas in late 19C and early 20 C Australia was always a problem. Settlements and townships were small and isolated. Schools could be created overnight and disappear as quickly. Most were one-teachers schools and many were part-time. There was competition between communities for the provision of schooling. Schools were often not set up in purpose-built buildings but in local halls with very rudimentary facilities. It was hard to attract and hold teachers. It could be difficult for students to access the school and many parents were reluctant to forego their children’s labour.

If anything, the problems faced by the Shire of Alberton in setting up schools across its district were more challenging than in other rural settings in Victoria. This was particularly true in relation to the spread of settlement into the very difficult and isolated ’hill country’ of the eastern Strzelecki Ranges from the 1880s.

Analysis of the WW1 honor rolls of the local schools reveals that students often attended more than one local state school. In part, this represented the movement of rural working-class families across the district as they followed work opportunities. But it also highlights how the schools themselves opened but then closed, shifted from full-time to part-time, relocated to another site and so on. The following extract from the standard text on the local history of the Shire of Alberton (Adams, 1990) gives some indication of the situation. It is looking at the provision of state schooling in the specific location of Darriman round the turn of the century.

At Darriman two schools were opened in the 1890s, one at Darriman, no. 3013, in the kitchen of the public hall erected on an acre of E. Kuch’s selection, and opened in 1892, and the other at Darriman West, no. 3070, off the main Sale road in a building leased from Mr. Geddie, with Charles Barchan, the first teacher. Numbers were poor and in 1893 Darriman closed to be reopened in 1896 half-time with Darriman West. The Darriman school closed again in 1907 while Darriman West school no. 3070 was worked part-time with Woodside until 1911. (p. 169)

Clearly, the difficulties facing the individual local communities in establishing, maintaining and improving schooling – and it was essentially primary-level schooling – were major and constant. And this level of difficulty related solely to the provision of state schooling. If the provision of Catholic schooling were to be added to the equation, all the difficulties would be magnified considerably. Two systems of schooling in such a rural environment had to increase inefficiency and compromise viability.

The reality was that, with one exception, following the legislation covering the provision of state schooling in Victoria in 1872, there was no Catholic school in the Shire of Alberton, at least up to the period of WW1. The exception was the short-lived (1885-1890) initial iteration of St Mary’s primary school in Yarram. And even before 1872 and the ‘free, compulsory and secular’ legislation, there had only ever been very limited Catholic schooling in the Shire. Setting up another, stand-alone school system, particularly in small townships and settlements, was not a realistic option. Moreover, local politics would certainly have discouraged such moves as being wasteful of limited resources and unnecessarily divisive for the community.

Importantly, the lack of Catholic primary schooling in the Shire of Alberton meant that all the young men who grew up in and enlisted from the Shire had shared a common experience of schooling, in the state system. That system was explicitly and unreservedly Imperialist in outlook and practice. Whatever the boys were told at home – and most of the Irish-Catholic families in the district still had very close relations with wider family back in Ireland – at school they were given the full and glorious version of the history and greatness of the British Empire. In her comprehensive account of the critically important role played by the Victorian state school system in WW1, Rosalie Triolo leaves no doubt of the Imperial outlook that shaped the Department and its schools:

Tate [ Director of Education], Long [Editor of the Education Gazette and School Paper] and most members of the Department’s community, especially at leadership levels, were imperialist. They were products of their culture, educational background and era. They were ‘militarist’ before and during the war in allowing a surfeit of war-related material in the Education Gazette and School Paper, especially on the Empire’s strengths and successes. They encouraged school boys to join the navy, and… conveyed views to their community during the war that able-bodied men should enlist. They gave three main reasons for believing that Australia should be involved in the war: the greatest Empire the world had known was protecting Australia from Asia and possibly other invaders; it ensured the continuation and development of trade between Australia and many countries; and, it ensured that Australians could continue to enjoy what they considered to be a morally, politically, economically and culturally superior standard of life grounded in British ways, systems and institutions.  (p14)

Triolo also argues that the Department effectively backed conscription. She quotes Tate, after the 1916 referendum:

I think the ‘Yes” vote on the referendum in Victoria [it was successful in Victoria] was a good deal influenced by the war work of the State Schools. (p59)

While the legislation of 1872 had ostensibly provided for free, compulsory and secular education, all 3 ideals were compromised in serious ways. In terms of the idea of ‘secular’, while state funding had been withdrawn from all denominational schooling, the prevailing tone of schooling was certainly religious. There was no suggestion whatsoever that state schooling was non or anti-religious. Every Monday morning, round the flag pole, the children would recite: I love God and my country; I honour the flag [Union Jack]; I will serve the KIng and cheerfully obey my parents, teachers and the laws. In addition to the constant presumption of a Christian God shaping all moral instruction in the school, there was provision for ministers and priests to come into the school and take religious instruction.

Within this common or ‘non-denominational’ Christian ethos in the state school system, Protestantism enjoyed one highly significant advantage. Protestantism was the established religion of England and the assumed religion of the British Empire. Apart from the fact that Protestant missionary zeal was a key force driving the Empire, and the common conviction that the very success of the Empire was proof of the inherent worth and destiny of Protestantism, the Protestant faith had naturally assumed moral and religious ownership and control of the Empire. In Australian at the time, to the extent that the state school system presented the Empire as the bedrock of political and moral belief, it accepted Protestantism as the ‘natural’ religion of the school system. This reality was not lost on Irish-Australians and, in part, it explains the ‘sectarianism’ that became so evident during and after WW1.

The extent to which the interests of Empire, Protestantism and state schooling could effectively overlap and create a trinity of purpose and direction was certainly evident in the case of Yarram SS. At the start of WW1, Yarram SS was by far the largest school in the Shire of Alberton (180+ students) and it was lobbying for the creation of a higher, post-primary level. The three-way overlap was most obvious at Empire celebrations and other patriotic activities that either focused exclusively on the state school – concerts, fund raisers, unveiling school honor rolls etc – or relied on the participation of students from the state school.

Both the composition and dynamics of the management committee of the Yarram SS highlight the three-way interchange between the state school, the local Protestant faiths – primarily the Church of England, but also the Presbyterian and Methodist churches – and Imperial loyalty.

The committee itself was relatively small and, in addition to the head teacher – A E Paige – there were only another 5 or 6 members.

One member, until he enlisted in the AIF in August 1915, was Rev George Cox (Church of England). Cox was one of the most public Imperialists in the community. He was, for example, the driving force for having the 1915 Empire Day celebrations focused on the state school when, as he alleged, the Shire Council, to its shame, was unwilling to organise an appropriate celebration. Cox himself was a member of the local Recruiting Committee and the Belgian Relief Committee. He was also very active in the temperance movement as ‘Chief Ruler’ of the local Rechabite Tent. Temperance was strongly promoted by the Empire and the Royal Family at the time. Cox was also a regular speaker on Imperialism at the school. In short, the local Church of England minister was very closely identified with the local state school.

In something of a reciprocal arrangement, Alfred Edmund Paige, the head teacher, was on the Board of Guardians for the Church of England in Yarram. He was also a member of the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee, and he regularly took groups of students from Yarram SS to soldiers’ farewells at the Shire Hall. The students would form a guard of honour. More importantly, they effectively made up the numbers at such occasions when too few townspeople made the effort to attend. Poor attendance at the farewells was a constant irritation for the committee.

Another member of the school management committee was Augustus John Rossiter, the editor of the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative. Coincidentally, Rossiter was also a member of the Church of England Board of Guardians. He was another outspoken Imperialist and a member of both the local Recruiting Committee and the local 1916 National Referendum Committee – local committees set up all over Australia, at the urging of PM Hughes, to promote the Yes vote in the 1916 conscription referendum. Rossiter used his paper to promote all the patriotic causes, including conscription, with which he was associated. He was a keen backer of Rev Cox.

Thomas Whitney, the chair of the school committee, was the manager of the South Gippsland Creamery and Butter Factory. He was also on the 1916 National Referendum Committee.

Another member, George E Ruby, a local land and finance agent, was on both the local Recruiting Committee and the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee. He was also a steward of the local Methodist Church. Whilst neither the local Methodist minister (Rev Walter Johns) nor the Presbyterian minister (Rev Francis Tamagno) was on the school committee, both clergymen appeared regularly at school functions and both were strong Imperialists. Rev Tamagno in particular was a leading and highly provocative Imperialist who served on the Soldiers’ Farewell and Welcome Committee, the Recruiting Committee and the 1916 National Referendum Committee.

The interconnections between all the relevant committees in the local community overlapped even more than this short description suggests, and they will continue to be explored in future posts. However, it is apparent that people at the time would have seen and assumed that there were common interests and associations between the local state school, Protestantism and the ideal of Imperial loyalty. While the school was ‘secular’, its Imperial identity inevitably cast it as a Protestant-like institution and the War itself intensified this perception. Given, as argued earlier, that Protestantism was the religion of the Empire, this state of affairs would have seemed perfectly natural to all true patriots and Imperialists. However, for Irish-Australians who, post Easter 1916, were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with calls for complete and unquestioning loyalty to the Empire, the state school was viewed with increasing suspicion.

Part B will look at the moves to establish a Catholic school in Yarram during the War and the tension that this challenge to the existing arrangements created.


Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria

Triolo, R 2012, Our Schools and the War, Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne

Synan, T 2003, A Journey in Faith: A History of Catholic Education in Gippsland 1850-1981, David Lovell Publishing, Melbourne

membership of local committees, boards etc taken from:

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

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