Photo: Carol Duncan

Newcastle East Public School is the oldest continually operating school in Austalia having started in 1816. The school’s first master was a convict on a conditional pardon, Henry Wrensford, and was originally located in a slab hut at the bottom of the hill where Bolton Street is now.

Nearly 200 years later, John Beach is the current principal of the school, “The location is superb, the community is very supportive and the composition of our school population is very diverse.”

John has a couple of very big responsibilities with the school, first and foremost is the education and wellbeing of the students at the school, but also in the heritage and history of the school and its beautiful 1878 building.

“The heritage is a very big part of what we do at our school, it is certainly something we teach our students so they know the history of the school, they know the details of the first head master at the school, they could tell you what a classroom was like 200 years ago and it’s a really big part of the social legacy that we pass on to our children to know about the development of public education in Australia.”

What would the early days of the school have been like?

“The classes were much bigger in those days and resources were limited. Typical lessons consisted of pages from the King James bible being written out onto the blackboard and the students copying those slavishly onto slates, which would take most of the day, then at the end of the day the head master would have a look at them and give them a tick or a cross or whatever and then they’d rub it all out and do another page the next day. So they were very literate in the bible but a bit light on in mathematics and history. But yes, our kids have a very accurate idea of what school was like in those days and the disciplinary techniques that were used.”

School and community awareness of the importance of the school and its building plays a big part in preserving the building for the future. As John Beach says, a lot of the school maintenance is the school’s direct responsibility.

Photograph of Newcastle from the Obelisk site including Newcastle East Public School and the Leading Light (or Beacon) Tower. Photo: University of Newcastle Cultural Collections: Bert Lovett Collection

“For a heritage building with this sort of local significance, it’s important that we maintain the building to the highest standard we can but it can be a struggle at times. It’s often difficult to get different tradespeople to do jobs around the school and it can be quite expensive. The funding for schools is done on a purely per-capita basis so a new school with 300 students gets the same funding as a very old school with the same number of students. It’s quite a challenging and time-consuming part of my job to maintain the school and keep it in as close-to-pristine state as we can.”

Lithograph of Newcastle in 1889 by A. Scott Broad. Image: Newcastle City Library: A. Scott Broad

John Carr is a heritage architect, formerly with the NSW Government Architect, and was instrumental in adaptively reusing the school complex in the 1980s.

“The interesting part of the job was taking something that had been neglected and butchered over the years and bringing back into its original livery. When we came here it was just an empty building used for artists and rehearsing plays and things like that. So we drew up plans to turn it back into a school and then the documentation began.”

“We had to do a lot of research on things like paintwork. The paintwork was in such poor condition that the building really had to be stripped properly. At that time sandblasting was the common way of removing paint but it would destroy the masonry underneath so then we looked at using new, experimental alkaline paint stripping methods,” said John.

“It was an adventure in discovery. One of those was the reconstruction of verandahs because we only had one small porch left on the building that had any detail at all and it didn’t have any of the detail of the column capitals. We did manage to find, through the Newcastle High School Old Boys and Old Girls Club, some very early photographs of classes that happened to be taken right beside the verandahs of the building.”

John Carr says there are a few changes that have been made from that original building to the building we see today.

“The windows were originally very narrow and some of them did survive, but when the school was changed to the junior boys’ high school a lot of them were smashed out and replaced with rather large and rather ugly glass windows placed back in which in some cases let a bit too much light in. Good for a school lab but not for a classroom. So we reconstructed the windows with bricks we obtained from the St Clair homestead up the Hunter Valley which was being demolished at the time for the construction of a new dam. Those bricks matched our building perfectly.”

“The roof was originally slate but that was replaced with an old asbestos cement roof. We took that off and replaced it with pre-coloured fibrous cement shingles which give the representation of slate but don’t come with the high cost of slate.”

“The whole site was covered in tar so we stripped that off and landscaped the site.”

“We did find one of the original roof ventilators was left up in the roof space during one of the alterations to the roof so we were able to use that as a template to redo all the ventilators to match it.”

John says they were fortunate to have the original blueprints of the 1878 building, “It gave us confirmation that what we were doing was the right thing. In some instances, we couldn’t reconstruct what was there because it was totally gone so what we did was replace the missing areas, for example, the castellated entry, with a verandah that matched the one that originally went around the building.”

“We found a couple of windowsills that had been demolished and just thrown under the building so sometimes finding builder’s debris that they’ve just left behind was a bit of an advantage.”


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