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The opportunity of a good education

Sir John Kerr
Sir John Kerr - former governor-general, ASOPA lecturer and Old Fortian


BUDERIM, QLD - In earlier days, when secondary education was not a viable option for boys and girls from poor working class backgrounds, Fort Street Boys and Fort Street Girls in Sydney were selective high schools run by the New South Wales state government.

Fort Street Boys (later amalgamated with Fort Street Girls) was established in 1849 and is the oldest government high school in NSW and many famous Australians passed through its portals.

Many disadvantaged children, especially the intellectually gifted, were thus able to gain a good secondary education, providing the further opportunity of being awarded a university or a teachers college scholarship.

Unfortunately, for reasons peculiar to young teenage boys, I never took full advantage of winning a place at Fort Street which I came to regret as in later years when I had to get my tertiary qualifications the hard way - by correspondence.

Many a lot of my former school mates had put their heads down and got a relative easy ride by gaining scholarships to university.

Selective high schools were not ‘select’ in a snobbish sense; the selected were students who had high scholastic rankings in their primary school years.

Fort Street had fine teachers and an interesting range of subjects. In my time, Japanese was offered as a subject. The head French language teacher had learned Japanese when he was in the Army during World War II.

We nicknamed him ‘Stinky Wells’ as he always smoked a pipe, even in the classroom.

Stinky had obviously learned a few lessons in management during his time as an Army interrogator. Any student, especially those sitting in the back row, who was not paying attention was a target of an accurately-delivered piece of chalk, blackboard duster and sometimes the three-foot ruler that would spin through the air like well-aimed darts.

Former kiaps, teachers and others who attended the Australian School of Pacific Administration and made their way to colonial Papua New Guinea might remember geography lecturer Edgar Ford who, in his teaching days at Fort Street wrote the whole geography syllabus for NSW high schools and published a popular geography text book used in NSW and beyond.

Fort Street, which still offers an education to bright students, appealed to my somewhat socialist tendencies and sense of egalitarianism by allowing bright, disadvantaged youngsters the chance of obtaining a good start in life.

Amongst them are too many senior politicians, lawyers, entrepreneurs, sports champions, writers and prominent Australian citizens to list here.

Fort Street Public School  1871
Fort Street Public School, 1871

But here’s a sampling: ASOPA lecturer and poet James McAuley, ASOPA lecturer and later governor-general Sir John Kerr, Olympic champions Marlene Mathews and Jon Henricks, NSW director of education Dr Harold Wyndham, actor Jacki Weaver, prime minister Edmund Barton, high court justices Dr HV Evatt, Sir Garfield Barwick and Michael Kirby, NSW premier Neville Wran, Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson, cricketers Fred Spofforth and Charlie Macartney, poet AD Hope, Sydney crime figure Abe ‘Mr Big’ Saffron, ad man John Singleton, and diplomat Sir Percy Spender.

All Old Fortians.


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Harry Topham

Thanks for the edit, Keith, a great improvement on my original version which would have been described by Henry Lawson as written in a style like a thumbnail dipped in tar.

"I had written him a letter which I had for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan years ago
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him
Just “on spec” addressed as follows: “Clancy, of the Overflow”

And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected
(And I think the same was written with a thumbnail dipped in tar)
‘Twas his shearing mate who wrote it and verbatim I will quote it
“Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving as we don’t know where he are”

The first two stanzas of the eternal Clancy of the Overflow by Henry Lawson. You can link to the complete poem here:

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