Since arriving at Girls Grammar, I have heard many a mention of The Wider View, a text that presents the life and times of the School from its beginnings in 1892 to the time of publication in 1992. I took the opportunity over the weekend to read through a number of chapters of the book, and found much enjoyment in the various accounts, memories and recollections contained within.
Given the restricted opening of the School this term, I was interested to read of two other ‘closures’ of the Girls Grammar over its 128 year history. The first was due to another pandemic, the influenza outbreak that reached Australia in 1919, causing more than 12,000 deaths and affecting the lives of millions of Australians. According to the Wider View, the pneumonic influenza:
swept New South Wales by February 1919 [and] reached Rockhampton in May. Four teachers were unable to return from New South Wales and with no teacher for mathematics or science, new timetables were drawn up. Some cases of the disease were reported in Rockhampton, so parents of boarders were notified and thirteen pupils were called to return home. In the sixth week of the epidemic in Rockhampton, the order came to close schools in the district. The School conducted open-air classes for boarders who had remained. Desks and blackboards were moved to verandahs and the gym shed so lessons could continue. Public gatherings were a threat to health, so boarders enjoyed rambles in the nearby bush as an alternative to church services. The attacks of influenza suffered by boarders were slight but teachers did not escape so lightly….During the last three weeks of the epidemic, many day girls returned and attendances rose to 60% of enrolment. (p53)
This account provides a number of similarities to our experiences over the last few weeks. Borders between Queensland and New South Wales have been closed, prior to the end of Term 1 we had a small number of cases of COVID-19 reported in Rockhampton and most of our boarders had to return home or be billeted with other families. The government ‘closed’ schools in the final week of Term 1 so that staff could prepare for online learning and, after the holidays, the school was only allowed to open on a restricted basis. Significant measures had to be put into place to protect staff and students. Whilst we didn’t quite take our lessons onto verandahs or outdoor spaces, we have had to maximise the opening of windows and doors to allow ventilation and fresh air and also consider how we deliver lessons to maximise student safety. As in 1919, in 2020 public gatherings were also highlighted as a threat to health, preventing gatherings at school and forcing the cancellation of a number of school events. Since the government has allowed schools to re-open, Girls Grammar’s attendance has exceeded the 60% attendance rate of the 1919 reopening, but will not be at 100% until all our boarders are able to return.
The second time the School was forced to close occurred just over twenty years later, when the impact of World War II reached Australian shores. Between 1942 and 1944, Rockhampton became the centre for more than 70,000 American servicemen and many Rockhampton buildings and sites were used by the military. Across Queensland, including in Central Queensland, many schools were commandeered for military purposes and students relocated to other districts. This did not happen to Rockhampton Girls Grammar School, however, in 1942, the Headmistress of the School, Miss Smith, advised parents:
that the School would be closed indefinitely, and later, for reasons of security, she was unable to have the re-opening date announced by radio. Families in Rockhampton district offered to billet students and staff, but other parents advised that their children had been evacuated to the far west or south-west. Some western parents kept their daughters away from the coast and sent them to local schools where practicable. Ms Smith kept classes current by arranging for small groups of pupils to attend lessons in the private homes of teachers resident in Rockhampton….Although the School reopened in April, 1942, many girls did not return, and for some, the correspondence lessons Miss Smith introduced were continued until third term. (p73)
Whilst the challenge of being a nation at war is different to the challenge of a pandemic, we nonetheless see in this example the same response of resilience and flexibility from staff, parents and students. Despite the difficulties and inconveniences, families put into place alternative arrangements to ensure their daughters could continue their learning, other families gave generously to open their homes and offer support. The school offered lessons by correspondence, which can’t have been easy in the 1940s but shows the School has a proven track record of providing remote learning when needed.
Reading through The Wider View, and I still have a number of chapters to go, I can definitely support author Betty Cosgrove’s assertion that ‘The Girls’ Grammar School, Rockhampton, has an atmosphere of timelessness’ (p v). The values of the School remain, the community is strong and proud, and the girls will always be the heart of the School. The incidents outlined above, as well as our own experiences of the past term, show that ‘The way ahead has not been easy, but perhaps the School is stronger for that’ (p v). I am proud of our community and proud to be working with our staff, students, parents, Old Girls and friends to contribute another chapter to the rich history of this beautiful, strong school. As we enter the final couple of weeks of Term 2, and look forward to what we hope is a more ‘normal’ Term 3, let’s remember the words of Girls Grammar’s longest serving principal, Ms Margaret Smith, and ‘be true, be loyal, be unselfish, put the interests of the community before your own, remember that great happiness lies in service to others’ (p81).