Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sharing Memories - Early School Days in the Bush - School of the Air

As promised it is time to start fulfilling one of my new year resolutions, which was to join Olive Tree Genealogy’s Blog’s idea of Sharing Memories.  All family tree researchers wish our ancestors had put more down on paper or had passed on more of their family records and photos.  With this in mind I plan over the next twelve months (there has to be a starting point) to record some of my memories.  Maybe someone will be interested in years to come.

I don’t know that I will be able to be as diligent as Olive Tree Genealogy with a post each week, however I will endeavour to post as many stories as I can.  Here is my first:

Early School Days in the Bush – School of the Air

In the early 1950’s my father took up the position of “overseer” on a station in the far western corner of NSW, Australia.  Nuntherungie Station, a property of 175,000 acres was about 120 miles from Broken Hill and about 45 miles from the small opal mining town of White Cliffs.  The Wool Industry was Australia’s main industry at this time and Nuntherungie’s main produce was the fine merino wool from its flock of sheep.

I was the eldest child so when I turned 5 it was time for my parents to look at the options for my schooling.  Actually, considering the distances to the nearest school there weren’t many options.  I was enrolled into Blackfriars Correspondence School and School of the Air.  Blackfriars was based in Sydney and each week I would receive brown A4 envelope with my lessons for the week.  With the assistance of my Mum, I would work my way through the lessons and send them back the following week (on the weekly mail truck), for marking. 

Mrs Gibbs and children at School of the Air

School of the Air was in addition to the correspondence lessons and provided me with interaction with other isolated students and our teachers who were based in Broken Hill.  I can remember my excitement when the small two way radio arrived and was set up in our family room.  Each day, at 9.00am and at 2.00pm School of the Air Broken Hill would be on line.  Children from miles around would sit up in front of the Radio and wait for the morning broadcast and the teachers Good morning everyone, then there would be a clamour of children calling in with their call signs and a good morning to everyone.  My call sign was 8NEK Nuntherungie, and I would join the throng of calls with “ 8NEK Nuntherungie, Good Morning Miss Gibbs”.  The morning program would include singing “God Save our Gracious Queen” and the School of the Air song “Parted but United”, followed by news.  It would be very exciting if you were called on to tell everyone listening your news for the day.  The time slots would be taken up with lessons, reading, stories, music, all those wonderful interactive activities that children in “normal” schools took for granted.

Mrs Phyliss Gibbs
 When we were visiting Broken Hill we were able to to to the school and sit in on the lessons as they were broadcast out to all the children in the outback.  I loved the opportunity to visit the school, and to be able to borrow books from their library and talk to the teachers in person.  At the time I was a student, the principle was Mrs Gibbs, whose name was synonymous with the development of Distance Education in Broken Hill.

One of my most vivid memories of school of the air was playing the part of a chicken in a play.  All the children selected to be in the play were sent copies of the script and we had to practice reading and learning the lines before the big day when we  read our parts in the play over the two radio.  My mother put together my costume of a cardboard beak, a bonnet with a red comb stitched to the top and a hessian bag with holes cut in the side so that when I put it on the back corner stuck out like a hens tail.  Such an innovative mother!!  The big day arrived and I sat all dressed up in my costume, with my script, in front of the two way radio!!  The teacher announced the play and then asked each member of the caste to describe their costume to everyone.  Then we  waited excitedly for the spot in the script where we had to push the button on our microphone and read our lines.

My family dressed ready for the School of the Air Picnic Day
The staff of School of the Air organised two annual events in Broken Hill where all the children and their families would gather in Broken Hill.  The first was the annual School Picnic which was held mid-year, all the students would go to the school on the day before and be issued with our sports uniform (dark blue jacket, white shorts and white shirts with the big blue logo of School of the Air, on the pocket).  Then the next day, we would assemble in front of the school in our white uniforms, and newly whitened sandshoes ready to catch the buses out to the school picnic.  Our parents and younger family members would follow in the cars to join in the fun.  The day was full of running races, sack and egg and spoon races for all the children, followed by a big picnic lunch.  In the afternoons there were more novelty races and the parents were invited to join in.  Then the highlight of the day for all the children was the “Lolly man”.  One of the parents would don a plastic raincoat which had bags of lollies stapled to it.  He would then run around the oval with all the children running after him, trying to pull off the bags of lollies.  Just thinking about it makes me smile!

The second event for the year was the Christmas Party, which was held in the park next to the School of the Air building in Broken Hill.  Again, families would travel miles into Broken Hill to attend.  The party would start mid-afternoon and everyone  dressed in their best party clothes, would join in the games, receive a present from Santa Clause  and eat lots of party food. For children (and parents as well) who didn’t have the opportunity to socialise and mix with others because of their isolated environments these occasions were very important social events. I can remember myself and my three sisters being bundled along to the shoe shop in Broken Hill so that our parents could purchase some “good” shoes for the occasion.  (As we had always grown out of the shoes we had worn the previous year).

Our family moved away from this district when I was about 10 years old.  One of the driving forces for this move was for our family to be in a place where there were better education opportunities for myself and my sisters.  The burden on my mother of overseeing the education of four girls was considerable, and my parents thought was time that we were exposed to “main stream” education. 

In reflection I would not have changed those few years of my early education.  I believe that School of the Air and Blackfriars provided me with some skills that the mainstream education system would not have, i.e. the ability to be open to different forms of education, to be able to work independently and of course all those wonderful memories.  


  1. Thanks Diane for sharing your memories of your days in the school of the air. It must have been interesting to live on a station. I look forward to reading more of your Sharing Memories posts.

  2. Thanks, I will try to tell a few more stories about life in the outback

  3. A great story Diane. Look forward to the next installment.

  4. I loved reading your story Diane. Today we have Cyber School and Home School in the USA, but you had a true distance learning experience.

  5. Check out the pics on yesterday's blog that go with this story.

  6. I enjoyed reading this Diane. Over the last couple of years I have been helping a relation work on a book she is compiling with the memories of her cousins from around the 1930s to the 1950s. Your description of the social importance of the school picnic and the activities of that day are very similar to the memories about the annual school picnic held by my older relations who attended a small country school in Victoria.

    I always enjoy reading about the School of the Air. Thank you for sharing.