Ebbs and flows in history of Hunter River school

Largs Public School, near Maitland, is one of the oldest schools in the country. Luke Horton reports.

Students and a teacher posing for a photo on the roots of a tree. Students and a teacher posing for a photo on the roots of a tree.
Image: Largs Public principal Sharon Palmer with students Evie Oswald, Misha Thew, Makayla Knox, Liam Sexton and Archie Burns.

The small, rural community of Largs holds a special significance in the long history of public education in NSW.

“We’re the oldest public school continuously operating from the same site in Australia,” Largs Public School principal Sharon Palmer said.

“There’s a lot of history here.”

Largs township sits just over five kilometres from the centre of Maitland and was once a thriving river port and boat-building town, until the nearby Hunter River changed its course.

The first school in the town started operating in 1838. It was built by Reverend John Dunmore Lang and doubled as a house of worship.

The school originally housed 60 students and was built of mud bricks with a stone floor.

In 1848, Dunmore School as it was then known, became the first school to apply for inclusion in the new NSW public school system.

“It was built in 1838 on the same site it sits today, but it wasn’t able to be registered as a public school until 10 years later,” Ms Palmer said.

Ms Palmer moved to the school as a teaching principal in 2004. When she arrived at Largs, there were just 34 students and one other teacher at the school.

“Like the river, the size of the school has ebbed and flowed a lot over the years,” she said.

“For example, in the early 1890s the school had an enrolment of about 113 students and an average daily attendance of 67.

“In 2008, four years after I started, we welcomed a third teacher and a year after that we had four teachers and 89 students.”

Students sitting on a horse-drawn wagon. Students sitting on a horse-drawn wagon.
Image: Students from Largs Public celebrating Empire Day in 1915. Photo: NSW Department of Education ©

A special place for family

The school currently has more than 140 students, six teachers and two assistant principals.

Ms Palmer said the school, which was renamed Largs Public in 1892, had a long and proud history of serving families in the community.

Three generations of the Knox family have attended the school.

“I have four beautiful children and they have been part of Largs Public School for more than 13 years now,” Michelle Knox said.

“My eldest son has an apprenticeship, and my other son is in Year 10. My daughters are at Largs Public in Year 6 and Year 1.

“I also went to Largs Public School, starting Kinder in 1986 and completed Year 6 there.

"My children’s grandfather and other relatives also went to Largs, so it holds a very special place for our family.”

Students sitting in rows knitting. Students sitting in rows knitting.
Image: Students from Largs Public knitting for the war effort in 1916. Photo: NSW Department of Education ©

Proud school community

Jenny Datson has researched the history of the school and volunteered as a tour guide for the old Bush School Museum, now closed, which sits on the school site.

She has been involved with the school for two decades, but her family can trace its association with Largs back to the early 1850s.

“I have been involved with Largs Public School as a volunteer, parent and casual teacher since 2003. My sons, Sam and Steven, started at the school in 2008 and 2009 respectively,” she said.

“Our family can trace five generations who have attended Largs Public. Sam and Steven, their father Greg, his brother Glen and his two children Eva and William, grandmother Roma and her brother William, great grandmother Eva, her siblings and their children.

“Eva’s father, Henry Bridger, and his nine siblings are also likely to have attended as their father George owned the wheelwright business on the corner of William and George streets in Largs in 1853.”

Ms Datson said it was a proud school community, which embraced its long history.

“I love the family atmosphere of Largs. The older children take the younger ones under their wing, caring for them and teaching them playground games,” she said.

“Largs Public School staff form a very close-knit team. They are passionate about education and their dedication and commitment continue today as many are long- term staff. It is great to pop in and still be greeted by familiar faces.

“After 185 years of education and 175 years of public education, I can say with confidence that the pride we have carried so far will continue well into the future of this wonderful school.”

An old timber slab hut. An old timber slab hut.
Image: The old bush hut was thought to have served as a bush school at one point.

The Old Bush School

There is an old bush hut on the current school site, which was thought to have served as a bush school at one point.

The slab hut was originally built by a tenant farmer in the 1830s when the land was part of the Dunmore Lang Estate.

It stood about 100 metres south-east of its current position and was lived in continuously until the 1940s.

In 1978 it was relocated to its current site and a decade later it became a museum.

It has an area set up like an old classroom, with items such as chalkboard-topped desks, ink wells and quills, as well as memorabilia from throughout the school’s history.

The museum was established as a Bicentenary project in 1988.

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