Information about work, life and play in Regional Australia

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Winifred West - Frensham, Gib Gate and Sturt

Photo: Frensham School, Kate Holcombe

This morning I had to drive my youngest daughter to a hockey game at Frensham. Frensham and its associated schools Gib Gate and Sturt (the Frensham link covers all three schools) are located in Mittagong in the beautiful southern highlands of New South Wales, a bit over an hour's drive from Sydney south east along the Expressway.

I got lost getting to the sports fields and therefore had an unexpected tour of the extensive and attractive school grounds that would have been very interesting had I not been worried about getting Clare to the game on time.

It had been raining heavily when we left Sydney and was still misting when we arrived at the driveway that took us down through the bush to the hockey fields, parking in a paddock nearby marked out with streamers as a car park. Being in the highlands, Mittagong is a lot colder than Sydney, so I clustered with the other parents on the sideline in the cool and misting rain to watch the game. The open fire in the canteen was a welcome and civilised touch at half time. The game itself was a good, free flowing game finally won 2-0 by Frensham.

I had always known that Frensham was a Winifred West school, but had no idea who Winifred West was, so I did some research when I got home. The West story is a remarkable one, one that illustrates both the diversity of life in Regional Australia and its excellence, while also having an unexpected but somehow satisfying link to hockey. The material that follows is drawn especially from Priscilla Kennedy's article in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Winifred West (1881-1971) was born in the village of Frensham in Surrey, England on 21 December 1881. She was educated at Queen Anne's School, Caversham, and Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read Medieval and Modern Languages.

After leaving the University in 1903, Miss West taught at Guernsey Ladies' College. While teaching at Guernsey, she became engaged to an Australian and followed him to New South Wales in 1907: on the voyage she fell in love with an explorer in the British Antarctic Expedition and broke her engagement. Staying in Sydney, she taught private pupils, studied painting with Julian Ashton and played hockey at Rushcutters Bay where she met Phyllis (d.1973), daughter of (Sir) Charles Clubbe. In 1908 they founded the New South Wales Women's Hockey Association and then in the following year an interstate women's competition. Both played for NSW.

A critic of contemporary education, Miss West was persuaded to implement her own ideas. She and Miss Clubbe decided to return to England so that Miss Clubbe could gain teaching qualifications at the Bergman Osterberg Physical Training College and to enable Miss West to gain further teaching experience at Harrogate Ladies' College. This completed they returned to Australia in 1912 to begin their quest for a suitable site.

Believing that children should be taught in rural surrounds, Miss West selected Mittagong as an attractive rural location while still being relatively close to Sydney via a direct train route. In July 1913 they opened Frensham as a girls' boarding-school, with a borrowed £A1000 and the help of Winifred's mother, sister Frances and friend Margaret Hartfield who had all arrived in New South Wales. Later, in 1920 Winifred's other sister Margaret and her husband Arthur Topp, who became school secretary, would also settle at Mittagong.

The school began with just three pupils outnumbered by the five mistresses! It quickly became known as an unusual school with a family atmosphere: with non-denominational religion, few rules, and no competitions, marks or prizes, it emphasized music, art and drama, as well as academic subjects and sport. There was always provision for examination and non-examination courses. Stressing self-discipline and flexibility, Miss West aimed to develop the whole nature, aesthetic and spiritual, intellectual and physical. Numbers grew steadily, passing the 100 student mark by 1925.

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Miss West played an active role in discussions on educational issues. A member of the British Music Society, she was a vice-president of the New Education Fellowship in the 1930s. With Phil Clubbe she travelled abroad in 1921, 1927 and 1931, and visited the Soviet Union in 1935.

Few Australians now will understand the degree of isolation felt by many Australians during this period with a small European population located on the edge of Asia and at the end of long steamer routes from the mother country, Europe or North America. The New Education Fellowship Conferences held throughout Australia in 1937 played a major role in bringing new ideas to Australia. David Drummond (here and here), the NSW Minister for Education and a leading educational reformer, described the Sydney Conference as "one of the finest things that has happened to education in this state for many years".

Laying foundations for the future, Miss West insisted on the involvement of staff, past and present girls, parents and friends. She lived simply and could be shrewd with money. When a suitable house or piece of land came on the market, she bought, confident that funds would be forthcoming.

By the time she retired formally as head of Frensham in 1938, Miss West had laid solid foundations. I have used the word "formally" to describe retirement because she continued to live nearby with Miss Clubbe and remained Governing Director until 1971.

In 1941 Winifred opened Sturt in Frensham's grounds to provide spinning, weaving and carpentry for 14-year-olds from Mittagong Public School. Professional production began in 1951 with the arrival of a German master weaver and in 1954 a pottery was established.

By the time I first came in contact with Sturt in the late 1960s, it was recognised was one of if not the leading Australian centre in ceramics due partly to the presence of high profile potters such as Les Blakebrough, John Edye, Ian McKay and Campbell Hegan. Today Sturt continues this tradition under Paul Davis (photo), while also playing a significant role in other craft areas.

The third school in the Winifred West Group, Gib Gate, was founded in 1953 as a primary boarding school for girls, again with Miss West's support and encouragement.

Winifred West died on 26 September 1971, leaving a very substantial legacy.


Anonymous said...

Fantastic Description and detail I have heard about Winifred West schools and they truely are magnificent!

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you anon. I am glsd you found this post.

All those years ago when I first met Frensham girls I found them a bit terrifying. I had no idea of of the history and tradition behind the Winifred West Schools.

Anonymous said...

I have a child in the school and have removed them due to how rude the staff are and how incompetent the school is. It does not live up to it's to it's reputation. The school at the end of the year is losing more than 50 students. Now what does that say about the school. If it doesn't change it's ways I can't see it operating for much longer.

Jim Belshaw said...

Sorry to hear that, anon.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to see such a bad appraisal from anon! My child is receiving a wonderful education at Frensham and the school certainly has lived up to it's tradition, aesthetics and ethical teaching practices. You can certainly easily recognise a Frensham girl due to their quiet confidence and impeccable manners. If such a large number of girls left I dare say it would be a case of if you can't handle the heat get out of the kitchen. Thanks for the article

Anonymous said...

I have been attending this school for three terms now, and I can honestly say that I have never been happier at a school. Between the old school traditions, the close bond between the younger and older years, the amazing academic opportunities we receive, and yes, the sport on the weekends, it all adds to that sense of community. The classes are challenging and engaging in equal measure, and honestly, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.