Camooweal school celebrates 125 years

TRAVELLING TEACHER: Camooweal itinerant teacher Lionel Saunders crossing the water 1918.
TRAVELLING TEACHER: Camooweal itinerant teacher Lionel Saunders crossing the water 1918.

‘… upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends.’

Those words although said in a speech to the House of Commons in 1873, could easily have referred to the aspiration and dedication of Ralph John Thomas when he opened his classroom doors to the children of Camooweal twenty years later, on June 5, 1893.

One can only wonder how Thomas took the news of being posted to a new school located in such isolation that defied the imagination of a southern city person in 1892. His journey to the new teaching post began with a passage aboard a coastal steam ship from Brisbane to Townsville where he transferred to a cargo schooner, with a payload including pigs, chickens, and dogs. Finally, after a long sea voyage north along the Queensland coast, around the tip of Cape York and south into the Gulf of Carpentaria, Thomas arrived in Burketown. For a city gentleman, the little port with its hodgepodge of shanties on the bank of the Albert River would have been a welcome relief after months at sea. However, the last leg of his journey, which took another fortnight by horse drawn coach, took him over rugged spinifex terrain, southwest to the border town of Camooweal. And there awaiting him was the new provisional school made of galvanised iron and consisting of one room measuring 22ft x 14 ft (6.7mts x 4.3mts), open at both ends and with a white-ant earth floor which, unexplained by the local builders, sat two feet (.6mts) below that of the building itself.

Also waiting to welcome Thomas was the town’s first unofficial and untrained but very enthusiastic conveyor of reading and writing skills, Emily Conroy. As Ada Miller recounted in her book ‘The Border and Beyond – Camooweal 1884-1984’ … Mrs Conroy appreciated the value of an education and recognising the problem she did something about it; namely she provided rudimentary teaching services and books for 1/- (one shilling) per week per child.

YOUNG STUDENTS: Camooweal school children went on to many different professions.

YOUNG STUDENTS: Camooweal school children went on to many different professions.

In 1890, Emily Conroy started teaching twelve pupils in her home and by the time Ralph John Thomas arrived, three years later, the number of pupils ready to be enrolled in the new provisional school had risen to 25.

The enrolees were Mabel and Ernest Letts, the five Jenkins children, Clarke and James Corcoran, little Emily Conroy, Annie Mossner, Violet McDonald, three Anderson and five McDermott children, the two Beaumont girls and Louisa, Florence and Sissie Jones.

Unlike today when teaching is considered a professional career necessitating tertiary qualifications, at the end of the nineteenth century a teacher was only expected to have a good grasp of arithmetic and a reasonable comprehension of reading and writing skills.

Never the less, Thomas certainly made an impact on his pupils as they were soon reciting the alphabet, printing their names on slate boards with slate pencils, and recounting their arithmetic times tables parrot-fashion.

PIONEER STUDENTS: Camooweal state school house  had many pioneering families children pass through it's doors gaining and education.

PIONEER STUDENTS: Camooweal state school house had many pioneering families children pass through it's doors gaining and education.

Those early teachers provided a reasonable standard of education despite deprivation and hardship, and through their efforts made a significant contribution to the economic and social development of Camooweal and the Barkly Tablelands.

As a Queensland Government report of the time acknowledged, while teachers like Emily Conroy and Ralph John Thomas did not aim to produce university graduates, their pupils who had a wealth of knowledge in bush-lore learned to read, write and do mathematical additions and subtractions. Children from the district pioneering families of Beaumont, Clancy, Lewis, Miller, Pedwell, Watson, Saltmere, Hooker, Fernie and Cunningham followed in their fathers’ footsteps in the pastoral industry as drovers, stockmen, and managers.

While others spread their wings beyond Camooweal, Ada Miller (nee Freckleton and a descendent of Emily Conroy) continued her love of the district and extended her political aspirations to be elected as Camooweal’s councillor on Mount Isa City Council.

Her descendants have forged their way in the world as a ballet dancer and teacher in Trieste, Italy (Joanne Ciabatti), a violinist with the Verona Symphony Orchestra (Velemir Duguna), several school teachers including Margaret Kaye Miller, and into the nursing profession (Pat Dawson).

However earlier in 1889, if the local publican, W Beaumont, had spruiked that a great grandson of his would one day become a councillor on two regional councils (Burke and Mount Isa) and later mayor of Mount Isa City Council, there is every belief he would have run himself out of the bar.

John Molony of the Molony’s Western Outfitters, is that great grandson. From these humble educational beginnings, big ambitions have grown as former pupils have gone on to become professionals in their chosen fields; Gavin Spratt (COO, Utah Development Company), his sister Marie became an academic, Noel Synnott (an Anglican priest), Frank Synnott (pilot), members of the Russell family also went into politics albeit on the Darling Downs.

For the Ah Wing, Biondi, Darcy, Dalley, Fernie, Hollins, Leon, Amade, Lewis, Molony, Rankine, Trindle, Wilson and many other families, many of their members went on to successful mining careers with Mount Isa Mines. And when Debbie Sowden successfully gained entry to James Cook University there was great excitement in Camooweal; she went on to become the region’s first local Aboriginal student to gain tertiary qualifications.

She was soon followed to university by Lynette Kum Sing. Little would Emily Conroy and Ralph John Thomas have realised that their rudimentary educational lessons would help to instil a love of learning into generations of Camooweal children over the ensuring 125 years.

Camooweal State School children have epitomised the 1758 quotation of De l’sprit  when he announced … L’education nous faisait ce que nous somms … Education makes us what we are.  

Researched and written by Kim-Maree Burton. Photographs courtesy of Ada Miller. Information sourced from The Border and Beyond – Camooweal 1884-1984 by Ada Miller and  the Cloncurry Advocate.