Category Archives: School & Community

84. Schooling, religion & Imperialism, Part B: Secularism

Post 68. Schooling, religion & Imperialism, Part A: a natural trinity considered the extent to which the War sharpened the perception for Irish Catholics that the state school was both Protestant and Imperialist. This was particularly the case after Easter 1916.

This post looks chiefly at Catholic attempts from 1915 to establish a school in Yarram. It highlights the significant fault lines that existed in the community, and reveals how the religious division between Catholic and Protestant was exacerbated further by the desire to create a  Catholic school. Catholic opposition to the Protestant proposal to teach the Bible in state schools was another major controversy at the time. The post provides a case study of the bitter sectarianism that became a feature of Australian society and politics as the War progressed, and also in the period after the War.

The Catholic school, St. Mary’s, at Yarram  was not opened until the start of 1918. This meant that in the period leading to the War, and for most of the War, all Catholic children in the Shire of Alberton attended the local state schools. This common experience of schooling helped to reduce the level of religious difference in the local community, at least until Easter 1916. In fact, as noted in earlier posts, over the early period of the War there was little apparent conflict between Catholic and Protestant. Catholics enlisted at rates equivalent to their numbers in the local community. Importantly, the promise of Home Rule had neutralised the key political difference between Great Britain and Ireland.

Arguably, the clearest example of the unity between Catholic and Protestant in support for the War came in March 1916 with the St Patrick’s Sports Carnival. In February 1916, Fr Sterling suggested that the proceeds from the annual sports carnival should go to support wounded soldiers. St Patrick’s Sports was the biggest sports carnival held in the Shire of Alberton and it was normally used to raise funds for various Catholic charities and works. Fr Sterling’s offer was written up in both local papers: South Gippsland Chronicle (2/2/16) and Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (9/2/16). It was seen as a very generous and patriotic offer. There was a large working committee set up to manage the event and, significantly, its membership went well beyond the local Catholics and covered all sections of the community. For example, it included at least 2 members – B P Johnson and A E Paige – from the Church of England Board of Guardians. Alfred Paige was in fact the head teacher of the Yarram State School. As well, many of the committee members also served on the local recruiting committee or other groups such as the local Belgian Relief Committee. Overall, the working committee featured some of the most outspoken Imperialists in the local community.

The total profits raised by the 1916 St Patrick’s Sports Carnival was £720 and the detailed breakdown of the day’s takings were outlined in an article in the  Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 3/5/16. The profits were divided between the Red Cross and the Victorian Sick and Wounded Soldiers’ Fund. The whole day was acknowledged as a stunning success and it was easily the single, most successful fund-raising event for the War effort staged in the Shire of Alberton to that point. As the local paper put it (3/5/16) the effort … will stand for many a year as the district’s biggest effort.

However, by the time the profits were counted the Easter Uprising in Dublin had occurred and long-standing differences were building. Moreover, it is possible that the efforts of the local Catholics in supporting the War effort via the St Patrick’s Sports Carnival were at least partly driven by the sense that there was real pressure on them to prove their loyalty and demonstrate that they understood the need to make financial sacrifice for the war effort.

There was a significant local background issue. Just 2 weeks after the local Catholic community offered the St Patrick’s Sports Carnival as a fund raiser for the War effort, the newly built St Mary’s Catholic Church was blessed and opened in Yarram. The cost of the new church was £3,500 and by the time it was opened most of the funds for it had already been raised. It was a dramatic achievement by the local Catholic community to fund and build the church in only one year. So in early 1915 the Catholics had the newest and most impressive church in Yarram. However, there must have been misgivings, if not opposition, to this development, with the argument that the time was not right for such fundraising and building programs. All attention should have been focused on the War. In his history of Catholic education in the area, Synan (2003, p. 144) makes the claim directly:

In reality World War I was not a prime time for the Yarram Parish to proceed with a new church and school. Because of patriotic fervour, the wider community took a dim view of Catholics using scarce resources to build parish facilities when all the nation’s energies were being directed towards winning a war against Germany.

However, the situation was more complex than this claim. In his account (1/3/16) of the opening of the new church in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, the editor, A J Rossiter, wrote in praise of the local Catholic community and the new church. In Rossiter’s view, other religions in the community needed to follow the Catholics’ example:

The Catholics have set an example worthy to be followed by at least two other denominations in the town. As with them, wooden structures had to suffice in the times when the people were struggling, but all that is changed. People are well off comparatively, many have grown rich, and were that zeal displayed in spiritual matters which was characteristic of our fathers, there would be no wooden churches to-day in Yarram. It is a disgrace that the very worst buildings in the town are certain churches. From Sunday dates a new era in the Catholic Church in this district. There stands on an admirably adapted site a church that is an ornament to the town, and in the minds of all devout Catholics there must abide a feeling of pride and thankfulness.

It is also worth noting that a new Anglican church was also built in Yarram in WW1. The foundation  stone was laid on 6/2/18 and the new church was dedicated on 24/7/18. So the establishment of the new Catholic church was not, in itself, a direct cause of division in the local community. However, the creation of a new church school was a different matter; and from early 1915 the Catholic community was committed to such a move.

There had been a Catholic primary school (St Mary’s) in Yarram from 1885 -1890. However without access to a Catholic teaching order it had not been able to compete against the local state school. The situation changed dramatically with the appointment of Bishop Phelan to the diocese of Sale (1913-26).

Patrick Phelan was born in Kilkenny, Ireland. He was ordained in 1888 and arrived in Melbourne the same year. He was consecrated bishop in 1913. He was a keen supporter of Home Rule. As the new Bishop of Sale, he made Catholic schooling a major focus for his work. He wanted more parish primary schools across Gippsland. In the report from his ad limina visit to Rome in 1914, Phelan noted that there were twice as many Catholic children in state schools across the diocese as there were in Catholic schools (Synan, 2003 p. 138).

Specifically in relation to the Shire of Alberton, Bishop Phelan set out his plans for a Catholic school in Yarram in a visit to the parish in May 1915. The grand scheme was described in detail in a report in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 5/5/15. Phelan made the initial focus that of the education of girls. He emphasised the importance of a Catholic education for girls … the future women who have the making or marring of the future. If they have the ladies – the real Catholic ladies – they sanctify the home. He spoke of a Catholic school in Yarram where families who lived out of town could send their daughters ‘as weekly boarders’.  Critical to the success of the plan was  his promise that he would attract an order of teaching nuns who would set up a convent and run the school. However, he also made it very clear that there was no chance of attracting a teaching order of nuns to the town until there was a new church. He was reported as stating:

He had spoken of a community of nuns, but for them they needed a decent church. So long as this disgraceful church stood to their credit – or discredit – there was no chance of a convent.

For Bishop Phelan the contract with the local Catholic community was that a new church had to be built before the convent and the school were established. As indicated, the church was funded and built in less than one year.

In early 1915 when Bishop Phelan set down this contract with the local Catholic community, relations between the various religions in the community were, apparently, unremarkable and, as already noted, there was certainly no difference in terms of support for the War. Yet, even then it did not take much to stir religious controversy. In his preaching that day, Phelan focused on what he saw as the evil of ‘secularism’ and he used France as his example. Secularism for Phelan equated to godlessness and religious persecution. In fact, secular schooling, as far as Bishop Phelan was concerned, was in large part the cause of France’s parlous situation. In the same sermon he was quoted as claiming:

The present state of France is due to the secular education imparted by a masonic and infidel government in the public schools to the last generation of children. … In his opinion the present awful war was in one aspect due to the iniquities in France, which are directly traceable to infidel education imparted in the schools. It was up to Almighty God to chastise that nation and bring her back to a right sense.

The risks involved with such sweeping condemnations of secularism and secular education became very quickly apparent. One week later (12/5/15)  in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative there was a very extensive letter from Francis Blanc – farmer from Alberton West – highly critical of both Bishop Phelan and his arguments. Not only did he attack Phelan for being hostile to the French, he actually made the claim that Phelan was a ‘friend’ of the Germans. He also aired the (conspiracy) theory that the Vatican was supporting the Germans. As well, based on his own experiences as a school boy in France in the 1860s in Catholic schools, he blasted the failings of the very education system that Bishop Phelan advocated.  Essentially, Blanc argued that in his personal experience the ‘learning’ in Catholic schools in France had covered not much more than religious dogma and indoctrination.  Further, he argued that the weakened state of the Catholic Church in France was the direct result of the Church’s involvement in politics and, in particular, its support for the restoration of the Bourbons. Finally, in praising the contemporary secular system of education in France, Blanc also noted that it was the same as the Victorian model of compulsory and secular schooling.

Two days later (14/5/15), Fr Sterling felt the need to defend Bishop Phelan with his own letter to the editor. Stirling did not engage in the argument on the claimed failures of secular education. Nor did he  tackle the issue of church-state relations in contemporary France. Rather, his primary intention was to defend Phelan against the charge of disloyalty;

I am in a position to know that the Bishop is thoroughly anti-German in the present war, and when in Ireland made several speeches to the Nationalist Volunteers urging them to go to the front.

Additionally, Sterling refuted the claims about the Pope supporting the German side, or, more correctly, the claim that the Vatican had not been prepared to support to the cause of Belgian relief. He also made a point of praising both France and the French, and he pointed to his own family’s close association with the country – at the time he had 3 siblings living and working in France. The letter stands as an urgent exercise in damage control.

Bishop Phelan’s views on the contemporary secular state and, more significantly, its State system of education represented one of the fundamental fault lines in early 20 C Australian society; and this particular episode showed just how much tension and division there was to draw on and how quickly the old enmity could flare up.

The Catholic position on education was that children’s religious growth and development were at least as important as their mastery of the conventional – ‘secular’ – curriculum. For Catholics, both components of education had to be delivered, preferably by a religious order, within a school that was distinctly Catholic in its culture and daily practices. Moreover, the local Catholic primary school was seen as a highly visible manifestation of the strength of the local Catholic parish. Bishop Phelan’s deeper message to the Catholics of Yarram in early 1915 was that they needed first to build a church that truly represented their standing in the wider community, and then establish a Catholic primary school that would develop the Catholic identity of the local children, strengthen Catholic families and serve as proof of the strength of the local Catholic community.

The Catholic position was commonly seen by many as divisive and exclusive. It effectively removed Catholic children from the mainstream, secular state school and denied that a common education could characterise Australian society. It also meant scarce resources were compromised. The push for the Catholic school occurred at the same time as the community was lobbying for a higher elementary school in Yarram.

But there was yet another tension in this overall picture from mid 1916. Under the Education legislation of the time, religious denominations had the option to conduct religious instruction classes in the state school. Even though the option was taken up by all denominations, including Catholics, it was certainly not the preferred option. For Catholics, it could only ever be a compromise solution until a Catholic school became available in the local area. But for Protestants it was also an unsatisfactory arrangements. Their preferred model was that the state school teachers themselves – and not the local clergy coming in to the school on an occasional basis – taught ‘bible lessons’ as part of the school curriculum. But Catholics saw this plan as an attempt to turn the state school into a Protestant institution.

The debate was a long-standing one but the War appeared to give it some additional momentum, in the same way that the temperance movement gained considerable traction. Indeed, the backers of bible instruction for (Victorian) state schools advocated a referendum on the issue at the same time as the referendum on early closing. An article in the The Argus on 28/6/16 reported that the (Victorian) Government wanted to make clear that it was not going to follow the advice of the Scripture Instruction Campaign Council on the timing of any such referendum. Indeed, Cabinet also made it clear that it understood how divisive the issue was in both parliament and the community, and that it believed that even those who favoured the idea of the referendum… did not favour it while the war was in progress, and in no circumstances would support at this time a proposal of that kind, which might cause great division among the people.

However, there clearly was lobbying at the time for the referendum for ‘scripture in schools’, and those in favour of the referendum had a very different take on the issue of the timing of the referendum during the War. Ironically, given Bishop Phelans’ earlier attack, the argument ran on the presumed evils of secular France. For example, J Nicholson, Superintendent, Scripture Council, wrote in a letter to the editor in The Argus on 29/6/16:

The plea for postponement of all efforts to honour God’s Word in our national education until after the war is singularly lacking in moral perspective. If ever there was a time for “acknowledging God” in our national “ways” it is surely now! France was the first to lead in “secular” education, and the banishment of God from national thought; but this war has done much to correct that blunder in France. May we do likewise.

Even though the proposed referendum was formally put on hold, it continued to be pushed and  this prompted the Catholic hierarchy to respond. On 2/8/16 the South Gippsland Chronicle reported in detail on a sermon delivered by Bishop Phelan in Sale. In his sermon, Phelan told Catholics that they could not vote – in State elections – for anyone who supported the proposal to conduct the referendum. For Phelan, the backers of the referendum were determined to teach the Protestant religion in state schools and have all taxpayers, including Catholics, pay for the arrangement:

To put such a question to a popular vote would be to ask the people as a whole to say, first of all, whether the State – which has no religion – should in future teach the Protestant religion in the State schools; and whether Catholics should be called on to pay equally with Protestants for the teaching of the Protestant religion.

He added an argument which was to take on far greater meaning at the end of 1916:

No man has a right to record a vote [in a referendum] to coerce the conscience of another.

Not surprisingly, Bishop Phelan’s position attracted criticism. Specifically in relation to the Shire of Alberton, it set off a series of letters-to-the-editor that ran for all of August and into September 1916, with the 2 key letter writers being Rev F Tamagno (Methodist) and Fr. P F Sterling (Catholic). Once again, Sterling was required to step in and defend his Bishop’s comments.

Rev Tamagno’s first letter in the South Gippsland Chronicle was on 4/8/16, just 2 days after Bishop Phelan’s sermon. Tamagno certainly did not back away from the idea of having the Bible … inculcated in the State school curriculum.

The State Government lately decided against a referendum on Scripture lessons in the schools. … We Protestants do not accept the Government’s decision as final. We must organise (like our Roman Catholic friends) to send men into Parliament who will endeavor to have the Bible firmly established in this State’s schools.

Rev Tamagno argued that such scripture or Bible lessons would not equate to the teaching of Protestantism and would not promote sectarianism. He also took exception to the claim made by Bishop Phelan in his letter that the Catholic schools were saving the Victorian taxpayers £300,000 pa. In his view the amount claimed was overblown and yet another of the Catholics’ ‘fanciful grievances’. Further, he held that if the Roman Catholics faced financial hardship it was because of the ‘arrogant claims on education’ made by the ‘Romish Church’. The implication appeared to be the naive and gullible Roman Catholics in Gippsland – and all of Victoria and all of Australia – were being manipulated by the autocratic Roman Pope in the Vatican. On the issue of Church-State relations, Tamagno certainly saw the weakness of the modern, secular state but he argued that Church and State needed to work together – as in the case of the referendum on scripture – and that Protestants were far better placed to do this than Roman Catholics who were ultimately answerable to the (foreign) Pope. However, as indicated, he did admire the political organisation of the Catholics and urged his side to adopt the same tactics.

Fr Sterling replied to Rev Tamagno, in the same paper, on 9/8/16. Sterling argued that Tamagno’s letter was a typical attack on Catholics. He claimed Tamagno wanted to represent Catholics as … a terrible nuisance always growling about their grievances. Sterling’s tone was sarcastic and in his attempt to reveal what he saw as Tamagno’s condescending tone, he put words into Tamagno’s mouth, literally, and had him claim:

We [Protestants] even gave them [Catholics] permission to enlist in the army and fight and die for their country and still they keep on grumbling.

Sterling was making the point, directly, that Catholics were not second-class citizens. Nor could their beliefs be ignored or simply dismissed as the product of unthinking or blind obedience to Rome. In fact, Sterling was pointedly critical of Tamagno’s language:

The church to which I have the honor to belong is known to its members and to most outsiders by the designation of the Catholic church. Officially we are styled Roman Catholics. This term is ridiculous and self-contradictory, but we tolerate it because we must. No gentlemen and no man of education, except a piebald bigot, ever uses such terms as Rome or Romish.

Fr Sterling also covered the main argument that Catholics were right to fight against the teaching of scripture – as part of the curriculum – in state schools because, in his view, this practice would in effect make the schools Protestant. Sterling saw the proposal as an attempt by the Protestants to get their religion into the state schools ‘on the cheap’.

As indicated, this controversy continued in the local press for at least 6 weeks. It would have been impossible to ignore.

The events and positions described in this post show clearly that, leaving to one side both the complexities of the broader conflict between Irish Nationalism and British Imperialism, as played out in Australia, and the divisive issue of the first conscription referendum in late 1916, there was considerable potential for suspicion, mistrust and outright enmity between Catholic and Protestant in the local community, with much of this tied to very particular interpretations of ‘secularism’, particularly in the context of education. As much as people in the local community worked to promote a sense of unity in the face of the War, the fault lines between Catholic and Protestant were very substantial and undeniable. In this particular case, the commitment by local Catholics to reject ‘secular’ education and establish their own school, and at the same time deny Protestant influence in the state school, definitely compromised the ideal of a united local community.


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

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

South Gippsland Chronicle

The Argus



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

38. ‘Flag flapping’ patriotism

This is the first of 3 short posts that look at divisions within the local community that began to form from the very beginning of the War. From 1916, with the push for conscription, the division would reach levels unparalleled to that point, however from the very beginning of the War the signs of tension were there. This first post looks a ‘flag flapping’. The second looks at early ‘shirkers’; and the third at Germans in the local community.

In the early stage of the War, division arose over the proper display of patriotism. In the heightened anxiety and bravado of the times, the standards of patriotism demanded – of both individuals and institutions – encouraged true ‘patriots’ to go looking for and expose those whose loyalty could be called into question. Local newspapers were keen to assist, and had the power to legitimise and also intensify the debate. This was the opportunity for them to present themselves as the voice of the community.

On 2 December 1914, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative published a letter to the editor from an anonymous correspondent going by the name of  “Patriot”. The letter called into question the patriotic loyalty of the head teacher of Port Albert State School. The basic issue was the claimed reluctance of the head teacher to fly the flag, literally, and show an appropriate level of patriotism.  His indifference was compared with the enthusiasm apparent in all other schools across Australia. The possible counter claim that the school’s flag was old and tattered was already being discounted. It was a full-on attack on the head teacher’s sense of patriotism and the local paper chose to print it. “Patriot” wrote:

What has struck me forcibly for a considerable time, is the attitude of the head teacher of the State School, compared with that of other teachers all through the States. In every school in the State the teacher thinks it an honor for the national flag to be flying, and for the scholars to salute it. At Port Albert it is never seen now (when it should be proudly displayed more than ever) the excuse being the flag is tattered. In the days of Nelson and Wellington a torn flag signified honourable service. The teacher may probably be forgetful in such matters, but I would like to see patriotism installed in my children whatever happens.

The head teacher – Gerald Russell – had little choice but to reply in the next issue (4/12/14). He criticised the parent for writing under a pseudonym and then pointed out that the local school committee had …  already arranged for the purchase of a new flag. However, he was not prepared to leave the matter there and, given the very public attack on his sense of patriotism, he fired back at his detractor’s own patriotism, arguing it was more show than substance. It was clear that he knew who “Patriot” was because he went on to accuse him of not contributing to the school’s patriotic fund. He also questioned if “Patriot” had expected him, as head teacher, to purchase a flag with his own money, and then suggested that perhaps “Patriot’, if he was so keen on the idea, could himself have paid for the replacement flag:

Did “patriot” expect me to provide, from my own pocket, funds for that object? Had I known that gentleman was so keen on getting patriotism instilled into the minds of his children I might have deliberately suggested such an opening for himself. The wonder is that the children of such a parent should feel such a need. Let me suggest a practical way of achieving the same laudable result. There is a patriotic fund at the school for the purpose of receiving  children’s small offerings. “Patriot’s” children have not paid in a red cent. Is “patriot’s” patriotism of the blatant variety?

Thanks to the local paper, this was now a very public dispute across the district and the potential for arguments over the display of patriotic fervour to poison relations between a head teacher and his parents – with the students in the middle – was very obvious.

“Patriot” returned fire in the next edition (9/12/1914). This time he revealed his identity – “Patriot.” Otherwise known as Jack Robertson. Robertson was a fisherman from Port Albert. In his reply, Robertson takes on the persona of a parent forced, reluctantly, to call out the head teacher for lack of patriotic loyalty.  The attack on the head teacher, as one of the leading members of the local community, is severe; and the threat in the last couple of sentences is clear:

It has been common talk for weeks about our school teacher never displaying the Union Jack. I stood it as long as possible, but last Monday week was the limit. Three young men left on that day for Broadmeadows. They were born and educated here. There was no demonstration whatever at the school. Surely the time was opportune. A few of the bigger boys, who asked permission, were allowed to go to the station a few minutes before train time. The rest of the school were disappointed at not seeing their chums off. Another illustration: Last Empire Day every school in the shire had a celebration: Port Albert – nil. Mr. G. Russell says “Patriot’s” children never paid a cent into the Patriotic Fund at the school. They never did and never will. I prefer to send mine otherwise. I have contributed in a dozen different ways, besides making shirts, handkerchiefs, etc. If he has given as much (which I doubt) as I have he has not done too badly. He “delicately suggests”  I should install patriotism in my children myself. I have, from the time they were able to understand. I would not like that task left to him. He might only “delicately suggest” patriotism. I maintain a good teacher has a great influence over a child, and very often the making or marring of a child is started at school. We can look back with pride on a lot of our past teachers, men who were first and foremost in everything. Mr. G Russell wants to know if my patriotism is of the “blatant variety”? My patriotism is through every fibre of my body, and will stand the wear and tear. Will his? Mr. G. Russell never mentioned in his letter whether he is loyal or not. Probably he will when the new flag comes, if he doesn’t ——.

The 3 young men, former students of the school, referred to were Harry Lewis (1639), James Lindsay (1566) and Jack Robinson (1602). They enlisted together at Yarram on 24 November and they were given consecutive railway warrants (numbers 61- 63) for travel to Melbourne on 30 November 1914. The whole issue about farewells for young men who had enlisted was certainly topical at the time and no clear protocol had yet emerged. In fact, over the entire course of the War there was significant variation between local communities across the Shire in the way such farewells – and later on, welcome homes – were handled. As will become apparent in future posts, in some instances the local school did become the centre for such farewells, but this arrangement was not universal. Basically, the claim that the school did not give a decent farewell to the 3 young men was, in terms of practice at the time, somewhat opportunistic and even unwarranted; but the claim did reflect genuine concern that not enough was being done to farewell the young men. Certainly, people at the time would have read the letter and agreed that the school should have done something.

One week later on 16 December,  Russell replied. Inadvisedly, he determined to give the readers a lesson on the various forms of patriotism. Almost certainly, the locals were never going to welcome instruction by the local school master on the nature and varieties of patriotism. He drew the distinction between the true patriotism of the “young hero” who faced death on the battlefield, and the contrived patriotism of the likes of his opponent, “Patriot”. Labouring metaphors, the head teacher dismissed the “Patriot” as …  entrenched behind an ink pot and a sheet of paper … who could only … wield a bad pen, venomed by spite, and hurl mud bombs on all and sundry.

Russell also laid on the sarcasm, another ill-advised tactic:

We have it on the highest authority- his [Patriot’s] own: “Patriotism [is] through every fibre of my body.” Is it any wonder there is little left for me when he has such a superfluity of it? How fortunate we are in the possession of such a one. Slumber sweetly, ye babes of Port Albert. No danger of “Louvains” while “Patriot” … is with us.

The letter ends with a palpable sense of outrage that one of his own school committee has turned on him:

The most regrettable thing about the whole affair is that a member of the school committee should treacherously attack one whom, by virtue of his office, he was honourably bound to assist.

In the next edition (18/12/1914) Robertson replied, with what was to be his last missive. It was short but sharply pertinent. He obviously felt that he had won the contest. He claimed that the head teacher, with his talk of varieties of patriotism, was merely trying to dissemble and that for all his clever words he had repeatedly refused to address the basic charge, namely that under his leadership the school was not putting on the sort of patriotic display common in other schools, and which the community expected and wanted. As far as Robertson was concerned, the head teacher could be as smart as he wanted with his arguments and repartee, but he could not conceal this major failing.

Head-Teacher Russell replied in the next edition. He felt the need to emphasise his practical loyalty and pointed out that he had been … contributing five per cent of my salary to the State School Patriotic Fund since its inception. He welcomed the closest scrutiny of this claim and wrote that he doubted that Robertson was making the same sort of financial sacrifice.

Perhaps Russell sensed by this point that he had lost the argument; but he was still keen to point out the hollowness that could so easily characterise displays of patriotism:

Flag flapping is very well in its place, and it is the most blatant patriot that shouts “God save the King” the loudest.

However, the problem the head teacher faced was that flag flapping was precisely the type of patriotic display that the community expected from the local state school. The issue was not whether it was Russell or Robertson who had the finest sense of what true patriotism represented, or even who of the pair was making the greatest financial contribution to patriotic fund-raisers, but, rather, the key issue turned on what sort of visible patriotic display the local community could expect to see at the school. And the short answer was that they definitely wanted to see something; and they did not feel the need to argue this with the head teacher. Russell might have been the finest and most generous patriot in his private life, but the local community wanted the public manifestation of patriotism.

The last letter published on the matter appeared on 23 December 1914. It was another anonymous effort, this time signed Foreman of Jury. There is no way of ever knowing its provenance, but it looks like the sort of final word or verdict that an editor – in this case, A J Rossiter – could impose on a dispute that had seized the attention of the local community, a dispute that the local paper had enabled and promoted. Irrespective of whoever wrote the short letter, it is very clear that the head teacher had been found guilty as charged:

On the main points at issue, neglect to fly the flag, and failure to have any patriotic demonstrations on Empire Day and other suitable occasions throughout the year, the plaintiff, Patriot, gets the verdict. Penalty £5: to be paid into Empire Patriotic Fund, half by defendant, Russell, and and half by members of the school committee.

To some extent this last letter makes light of the whole episode and dismisses it with some gentle mockery. However, it is apparent that the background issue was not seen as trivial. The local head teacher had been publicly attacked over his perceived lack of patriotism and his reputation had been severely damaged. Doubts about his patriotism would have coloured the community’s dealings with him from then on. At another level a clear warning had been issued to all other local schools and head teachers that the local community did expect a highly visible form of patriotism to be on display.

The last point to make is that there was in fact a formal farewell for the 3 men referred to earlier. It came in the following January. It was written up in the local paper on 6 January 1915. This time the school children were involved. It is interesting to speculate whether (a) this formal farewell would have occurred and (b) the Port Albert State School would have been involved, had it not been for the earlier agitation of the “Patriot”.

The Port Albert railway station presented an animated scene on Monday last, when a large crowd assembled to bid farewell to three local soldier boys, James Lindsay, Harry Lewis and Jack Robinson. The school children sang, and the whole crowd joined in “Tipperary” and “God Save the King.” Detonators were placed on the line in honor of the volunteers.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

3. Empire Day 1914

Even though she was long dead, Queen Victoria’s birthday (May 24, 1819) fell on a Sunday in 1914 and that meant that Empire Day was celebrated in Victorian schools on Friday 22 May.

The common arrangement across all public schools in Victoria saw the morning devoted to lessons or talks on the Empire, and the afternoon to extra-curriculum activities.

The following account of Empire Day 1914 is based on a series of articles that appeared in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative at the time. The schools involved in the articles were: North Devon State School, Yarram SS, Hedley SS, Carrajung South SS, Bulga SS and Binginwarri SS. This is certainly not the complete list of public schools in the shire at the time, and Hedley SS was not even in the Shire of Alberton, but the reports taken collectively certainly give a lively account of what Empire Day looked like in state schools at the time.

Commonly, there were several days of preparation and on the day the school was decorated with flags, bunting and floral displays. In the morning, special guests – local councillors, the Shire President, clergymen, school committee representatives, visiting dignitaries etc – would attend and present stirring speeches on the theme of the British Empire. For example, at North Devon, Cr. Barlow spoke about the Union Jack … the emblem of unity, peace and honesty. He reminded the boys that the red of their flag stood for bravery. At Yarram SS that same morning, the  Rev. Geo Cox (Church of England) spoke on the “Symbol of Empire” and his religious confrere, Mr Rymer, covered the topic of “Freedom within the Empire.” While at Bulga SS, the President of the School Committee (Mr S Wills) addressed the children on … their duties, as children of the Empire.

In some cases the children read their own reflections on the Empire and there were also special topical lessons. For example, at Yarram the staff had prepared lessons for the day covering: “Why we keep Empire Day,” “The Royal Family,” “The Union Jack,” “The Australian Flag,” “The Possessions of Britain” and other topics of a suitable nature.

There was also plenty of singing and recitation. At Bulga SS the children sang “Rule Britannia” and “The Sea is England’s Glory” ( J W Lake, 1885) and keeping up the nautical theme they also recited, “Jack the Sailor”.  Here is the first verse of  The Sea is England’s Glory which you would have heard had you been there that day:

The sea is England’s glory!
The bounding waves her throne;
For ages bright in story,
The ocean is her own.
In war the first, the fearless
Her standard leads the brave,
In peace she reigns so peerless,
The Empress of the wave!

To modern ears the lyrics might sound jingoistic or at least embarrassingly simple, but at the time the British Navy was the most significant asset in Australia’s external defence policy.

The other key piece of formality in the morning was the ritual of saluting the flag and singing the national anthem:  At noon the Union Jack was saluted and the usual oath recited, after which cheers were given for the King, the Empire, the Flag and for “Australia, our Own Land”   (Yarram SS)

If the morning was given over entirely to outpourings of imperial loyalty and scripted lessons on Australia’s place and destiny within the Empire, then the afternoon was a far less formal affair. The most common pursuit was a sports carnival with a picnic or special lunch to precede it.

One variation on the children’s afternoon entertainment saw their parents also participating in in the sports with their own events. For example, at Carrajung South SS, the afternoon crowd swelled to some 300 people as parents joined. The same applied at Binginwarri SS, and at Hedley SS the parents appeared to take over because while the children’s sports ran from noon to one o’clock, the parents’ events started immediately after and ran through to dark.

There were variations. Yarram SS did not go down the path of the sports carnival. Instead they opted for a skating afternoon at the Mechanics Institute. Some of the children brought their own skates, while others were provided with those so generously lent by the Yarram Town Band Committee.

With all these events involving parents and others, Empire Day reached well beyond the local school to the wider community. Moreover, in many locations the activities went well past the normal school day. Admittedly Yarram SS finished its celebrations at the child-sensible time of 5 o’clock but other communities continued well past dusk. For example, at Carrajung South SS A dance was held in the school that night to terminate the days enjoyment, when about 40 couples tripped the light fantastic... At Binginwarri SS the dancing went to midnight. At Hedley SS the community organised a major bonfire with fireworks, before the dance; and the dancing did not end until 2.00am the next morning.

Empire Day in 1914 across the Shire seems to have been a rather relaxed celebration. There was a balance between the formality of the local primary school’s focus on both the central place of the Empire in every aspect of Australia’s national life, and every child’s corresponding duty to the Empire, and a more relaxed opportunity for people, not just the children, to come together, have some fun and celebrate the sense of belonging to the greatest empire on earth. Most importantly, there was no sense at all that the Empire itself was under dire threat from external forces or a major war was about to engulf Europe.

However there were challenges to the Empire and while it would have gone unsaid at the celebrations in all the schools on Friday May 22, the most significant threat came not from without but from within. It was, of course, the ever-present question of Ireland. Consider the timing. The Home Rule Bill was passed by a substantial majority in the House of Commons on May 25 1914, the day after Empire Day.

Ireland then was an Imperial flash point even before the War began. It was the one part of the Empire that did not share the  narrative on the greatness of the Empire and its manifest destiny. Further, the fundamental issue of Home Rule was not settled before the War began. It was merely put ‘on hold’ but it was clear to all that it was then by then a compromised package.

While there was a significant separation between what was happening in the United Kingdom and what was happening in Australia, the conflict from  ‘Home’  – whether England or Ireland – did play out in various forms in the new Commonwealth of Australia.

Specifically in relation to the celebration of Empire Day, it is worth looking at how parallel tensions ran in Australia at the time. Empire Day was seen by the Catholic Church hierarchy in Australia as a distinctly British celebration. Its implementation from 1905 had been driven by the British Empire League and it was viewed with deep suspicion by the Catholic Church. In direct response, from 1911 the church hierarchy directed that May 24 was to celebrated as Australia Day. The day would be one where ‘patriotism’ was equated with commitment to Australian nationalism. The flag would be unfurled and a special Australian National Hymn was to be sung. There was also the option of a holiday with entertainment for the children. May 24 happened to be not only Queen Victoria’s birthday but also the feast day of Our Lady Help of Christians, the patron of Australia.

It is not clear how keenly the Australia Day celebration was taken up by the Catholic schools across the Nation but, not surprisingly, merely the suggestion of opposition to celebration of the Empire prompted incandescent outrage. The Argus on 29 May 1911, p.6  reported a speech by O R Snowball MLA, who was also Grand President of the Loyal Orange Council of Australasia. His comments are informative because they tend to confirm Catholic fears that the version of the Empire promoted by the likes of the British Empire League was decidedly Protestant. Snowball stated categorically, The Empire rested on Protestantism.  … He trusted that the Protestant people would more and more realise that it was not material wealth, but sturdy Protestantism, and its observances and spirit, which had made and would maintain the empire. It was because the Lord God of Hosts was with us.

But not only was the Empire a Protestant creation, the Catholic Church was its mortal enemy. Even then, in 1911 – three years before the War! – the claim that WW1 was a Vatican plot was being floated:

It was common knowledge that the aims of the Roman Catholic Church were a danger to our national life. He hoped that Protestants would deal with that church in the way it deserved. The head of that church in Australia had declared himself in unmistakable terms that he would have none of this empire celebration recognised by his church. This church was a great standing menace to the British people. German hostility to Britain was being engineered by the Vatican which hoped to set the two great Protestant powers at each other’s throats next year. That would never be. (Applause.) Protestants need not charge the Roman Church with disloyalty it charged itself, and declared itself. It was a treacherous influence which would tear down our flag and trample it underfoot.

So in the lead-up to WW1 there were major tensions over such as the celebration of Empire Day and Home Rule for Ireland, and sitting behind these flash points there was the more fundamental issue of whether Protestantism, the natural religion of the Empire, was also therefore the proper religion of the Nation; and even behind this there were other concerns: for example, was it possible for the new Commonwealth to have any distinctive identity outside the Empire. But none of this was evident in the reporting of celebrations for Empire Day in the Shire of Alberton in 1914. There is no reference to tension of any kind.  The day was simply an unqualified celebration of the British Empire and a chance to have some fun.

It is also worth pointing out that the lack of Catholic primary schools in the Shire at the time meant that great majority of Catholic children were exposed to the same strong messages on the Empire. For children across the Shire it had been a near universal experience for many years, even before the formal introduction of Empire Day in 1905. Catholic children had been schooled, in the state sector, to honour and identify with the Empire. Most of the young men from the Shire, both Protestant and Catholic,  who enlisted in the AIF over 1914-1918 had been well and truly taught all the prescribed lessons on both the the glory of the Empire and the loyalty they owed it.

As a final observation, it is hardly surprising  that the Catholic  Australia’s National Hymn did not take hold as any sort of national anthem. It just swapped the jingoistic British Empire for a higher order, but far too ethereal, Heavenly Empire.  The following version was published in the Freeman’s Journal (Sydney) – later the Catholic Weekly – Thursday 11 May 1911, p25. It ran to seven stanzas with the three below recommended.

God bless our lovely morning-land!
God keep her with enfolding hand
Close to His side,
While booms the distant battle’s roar,
From out some rude, barbaric shore,
In blessed peace for evermore,
There to abide!

Love lives in promise otherwhere,
But we are brothers – in the care
Of one birthright;
One God above, one home below,
One foot against our country’s foe,
And – if needs be – one ringing blow
The wrong to smite.

God bless thee, lovely morning-land,
God keep thee with enfolding hand
Close to His side!
Make thee the home of liberty,
While sweeps the Murray to the sea,
And lifts a proud front dauntlessly,
The Great Divide!



 Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

‘Empire Day. Yarram’, 27 May 1914, p.2
‘Empire Day. Bulga’, 29 May 1914, p.2
‘Binginwarri. Empire Day’, 3 June 1914, p.4
‘Empire Day. Hedley’, 3 June 1914, p.2
‘Empire Day.Carrajung South’, 5 June 1914, p.4

The Argus

‘Australia Day. Ne Temere Decree. Mr. Snowball’s Criticism’, 29 May 1911, p.6

Freeman’s Journal (Sydney)

‘Australia Day’, 11 May 1911, p.25