Back to school

School room on the NSS Sobraon c1895, State Records of New South Wales 4481_a026_000005

In the school holidays, working in the city gains a pleasurable dimension from the presence of kids, freed from school attendance for a short time, and able to roam their town, whether with their parents or alone (if they are older).

The Dictionary’s article on Children surveys the history of childhood in Sydney, and the changes that have taken place over the years, in attitudes, as well as in physical surroundings.

The Aboriginal children of the Sydney region learnt through story and song, and by hunting, fishing and making with their elders, while travelling and learning their country. Some, like Nanbarry, survived the horrific epidemic that followed first contact, and went on to learn European ways as well.

For the first European children of the settlement, almost 50 of whom arrived on the First Fleet with their parents, the unfamiliar surroundings must have been both exhilarating and dangerous, and the hunger and disease of the early years were particularly  hard on children. There were many orphans and abandoned children, whose plight inspired the founding of the  Female and Male Orphan Schools, the Native Institution, and other organisations, often with very mixed results. Maria Lock, an Aboriginal girl who topped the examinations in 1819, aged 11, was perhaps the Institition’s most resounding academic success.

By the 1860s an influx of new settlers brought by the gold rushes had increased the proportion of children, and half of Sydney’s population was under 12. Schooling became an urgent political issue, and politicians such as Sir Henry Parkes based their careers on the question of education, and the provision of public schooling. The issues raised in those early days continue to resonate in Sydney’s educational history as outlined in the Dictionary’s article on Education.  Public schools dotted Sydney’s new suburbs from the 1880s, as communities united to petition the colonial government for education for their children, and school education became compulsory under the Public Instruction Act of 1880.

Boys skipping in Kepos Street, Redfern 1952, City of Sydney Archives (SRC19002)

Being a kid is more than just school, and Sydney’s children were much freer in past decades to roam the streets. Sometimes derided as ‘street ruffians’ or urchins, children also had important economic roles to play in helping to support their families through hawking, chores and other part-time work. A less densely developed city also provided space to play, well into the twentieth century. Garry Wotherspoon recalls growing up in Maroubra in the 1940s, and describes a sort of informal adventure playground complete with aircraft wreckage and quicksand. Many of these spaces were later lost to suburban development and council-administered parks, providing safer, but less exciting, recreation.

Today, Sydney’s children make up only 20 per cent of the population and lead a more supervised and safer life than their earlier counterparts, in a society that is arguably more child-focussed than ever before.

Enjoy Term 2!

Art class at Malek F'ahd Islamic school 2004, photo by John Immig, National Library of Australia nla.pic-vn3256004


About Emma Grahame

Emma Grahame has been Editorial Coordinator of the Dictionary of Sydney since May 2007.
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