‘Pen and ink and peppercorn trees: Primary school in the 1960s’

Aug 30, 2019
Remember using pen and ink at primary school? Deb does. Source: John-Mark Smith/Pexels

Who was it who said school days are the best days of your life? Well, whomever it was got it right. I loved school, both primary and secondary.

My brother, Clive, and I grew up on a new housing estate in Victoria in the early 1960s; an area of dirt roads, gum trees and a far distant strip of shops. Nearby was the local primary school, Doutta Galla, and for six years we lugged our brown leather satchels to and fro (we didn’t get bikes until high school age).

I thought for the benefit of this blog I would jump online and find a picture of my much-beloved primary school, but to my dismay I found this: “Lost Schools of the 1990s: Doutta Galla Primary School (Niddrie). State School 4708 opened in 1953 … Enrolments reached 664 by 1960 before gradually declining. The school was closed in the mid-1990s, with most of the site becoming the Western Autistic School. The remainder became a housing estate.”

I shall have to paint you a picture. Weatherboard buildings painted pale green, white-framed windows that pushed outwards on a hinge, a corrugated iron roof and a massive peppercorn tree planted in a dusty playground. In the middle of the buildings was an asphalt quadrangle bearing a flagpole, and on one far side of the school were netball/basketball courts; the other side, bike racks.

At the rear of the buildings was a ‘sports’ oval (dust bowl in summer, quagmire in winter) with footy goalposts at each end. Beside this was a large building painted dark green, roofed but only enclosed on three sides — a ‘shelter shed’ — and near that, a dark green brick toilet block. All of this was surrounded by a waist-height cyclone wire fence.

I have fond memories of most of these things: shooting goals in the school netball team; racing around inside the shelter shed playing ‘corners’; enjoying tunnel ball, cross ball and elastics on the quadrangle; playing God Save the Queen on the recorder at Monday morning assembly in front of the flagpole and listening to stories being read under the peppercorn tree against the background drone of summer insects.

A massive peppercorn tree reminiscent of the one at Deb’s primary school. Source: Wikipedia Creative Commons

The ubiquitous peppercorn tree could be found in many schools in the area and while writing this I wondered why. Some sleuthing brought forth:

Professor Craig Burton, adjunct professor at the University of Western Australia, landscape architect and arboriculture historian said: “They are targeted because of their ability to deal with the unpredictable climates. And not just schools, they were planted everywhere — parks, streets, railway stations, everywhere.”

Dr Jodi Frawley, environmental historian, believes their use would have extended to form as well as function, with the peppercorn tree’s weeping foliage. “This was really about ensuring that kids had places that were shady, as well as beautiful, to be in when they weren’t actually in the classroom.”

That is actually spot-on because back then there was no air-conditioning, classrooms were stifling hell-holes in summer! At assemblies we tried not to wobble as our shoe heels slowly subsided into the melting asphalt. Phew.

I remember most of the primary teachers, some more fondly than others. Grade 1 was Miss Scholl. She was lovely and I had a fascination with watching her knees turn purple as she sat on a small chair to read to the cross-legged class on the floor. Nylon stockings in those days had absolutely no stretch! Grade 2 was the blonde and rather pinch-faced Miss Madigan who had a perfect French roll beehive hairdo! So glam!

When Clive started Grade 6 he got the tyrant, Mr Duffy, who used to keep a thick brown leather strap folded on his desk. If he spotted someone talking in class, he’d throw it at them. They then had to return it to him, hold out their hand and receive ‘six of the best’ — ‘the cuts’ as they were known. These beltings were dished out even if his throw was off and landed on the wrong desk!

On a cheerier note, you had to have perfect cursive ‘joined-up’ pencil writing before progressing to fountain pen. Each desk sported an inkwell filled every morning with blue-black ink. We all had ‘dip in’ pens (I know they had a proper name but can’t remember what they were called, can anyone?) and we all progressed to using them. I recall being so chuffed to start writing in ink!

My friend Suzanne had very long plaits and often got in trouble from her Mum because of ink stains on the back of her dress. Thinking it hilarious, whoever was sitting behind her would dip the ends of her plaits into their inkwell. By the time we moved to high-school, cartridge pens had been invented and it was a joy to see on the school booklist, one Platignum cartridge fountain pen! No more inkwells!

Deb still has her fountain pen and ink well. Source: Debra Trayler

Just writing this piece brings back many more memories of a wonderful time — one that we’ll never see again. It is devastating, so, so sad, that beautiful handwriting once received with delight in the letterbox is now anachronistic; dead, gone and pooh-poohed in one generation of ‘modern’ education. I still have my fountain pen and have an urge to write to someone, right now. What a surprise it will be!

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