Humble Beginnings

Host: Jenny Underwood
Written by Jenny Underwood – Owner, Pine Hills Station.

This week’s blogs are from one of our regular hosts, Jenny Underwood, formerly from “Eversleigh” Station south of Hughenden in north-west Queensland and now of “Pine Hills” Wallumbilla in south-west QLD. Before going to live on Eversleigh, Jenny was the sole teacher at a small school 65km south of Hughenden. Cameron Downs School is only one a few schools left in Queensland that is not based in a town or settlement.  It is right in the middle of a 65 000 acre cattle (and until the ’90s, sheep) property called “Cameron Downs”.

In her blogs this week Jenny gives an outline of the history of the school, as well as some insights into her life in the district as the Principal of the small one teacher school. 

This is the first instalment of a five-part series called “The Bush School”. Visit Jenny’s profile page to find the other instalments.

In my “previous life” I was a teacher – the third generation on my father’s side to be the teaching principal in one-teacher schools. When I started primary school, my father was headmaster at Lake Clarendon State School in the Lockyer Valley (between Brisbane and Toowoomba in QLD). He was my teacher for the whole seven years. I have so many fond memories of my school days with my Dad as my teacher a huge part of them. He was always called “Sir” and I never thought of him as my father at any time during the school day.

Years 1 to 7 at Lake Clarendon School. We were all taught by the one teacher – my Dad – in the one classroom. There were no teacher aides or voluntary classroom helpers and very few “modern” resources which we take for granted these days. (I must point out that the very small child not in uniform, front row on the right, helping to hold the slate with the school name and year, is my little sister who was not of school age; but she somehow managed to get into the photo!)

It probably isn’t surprising then that I followed in his, and my Grandfather’s, footsteps and became a teacher. After 12 years of classroom teaching at four different schools in Qld, I applied to be the Principal of Cameron Downs State School, 65km south of Hughenden, very close to the geographical centre of QLD.

After concerted lobbying by a group of parents from the local area, a one-teacher school on the property “Cameron Downs” was opened in 1967. It was classified as a provisional school – the Education Department leased a small portion of land from the property owners and appointed a teacher and paid his wages. The school building, teacher accommodation, furniture, books, playground equipment, and any teaching aids were the total responsibility of the school community. It was a far cry from the well-appointed and modern schools of today. The school community worked as a whole to do fund-raising and everyone, even those without school-aged children, were proud of the little school.

“Cameron Downs” Station and school complex. The Principal’s residence is on the left, the school building is in the middle and the property house is on the right. There had been some rain prior to my arrival late-January 1993 but the district was still waiting on the Wet Season to arrive. That never eventuated and it was another 4+ years before reasonable rain fell across the district.

By the time I was appointed Principal in 1993, the school had undergone many changes, one of which was being granted State School status which meant it was able to qualify for Government funding. The school building and the land it was on still belonged to the property but the Education Department now oversaw funding arrangements and supplied most of the basic equipment and teaching aids. Prior to my promotion as Teaching Principal, the school was designated the status of “single male only”.

I can only imagine my appointment as the first-ever female teacher at the school would have caused some excitement and raised a few eyebrows at the same time!

The school building had originally been a set of workers’ quarters made up of three rooms. One interior wall had been removed to make the classroom with the remaining room the teacher’s bedroom. Later the Department provided a caravan as accommodation to allow for an extra classroom in the school building. It must have been quite daunting for the young male teachers of those early days who were sent to the school out in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town was 65km away on a rather ordinary black-soil road. Not surprisingly, many of them only stayed for twelve months.

Cameron Downs School 1993. The new school residence can be seen in the background. The playground equipment is in the bottom left of photo under the flagpole.

I was fortunate that a relocatable three bedroom home had been moved behind the school not long before I took up my position. I was welcomed warmly by the owners of the property, the Pensini family, and it wasn’t long before I became “another daughter”. I never felt lonely and this was a great relief to my parents.

The Principal’s residence in 1993. I had literally just arrived and was still unpacking.

Over the years a garden was established by a dedicated past-parent who also worked long and hard to transform the schoolgrounds. This photo (1995) was taken from the verandah of the schoolhouse looking across the playground towards the back of the school.

I started the school year with six pupils – three families each with two children at the school. There was one open classroom which also housed the library, a small activities room, and a downstairs gauzed-in area where we ate our “little” and “big” lunch. The playground had some basic equipment standard for most of the country schools of those days. This equipment had been built or bought by the P&C and was used daily by the students. Although we never had an incident during the time I was there, due to OH&S (Occupational Health and Safety) regulations, after two decades of use, the equipment was suddenly deemed unsafe and had to be removed immediately. The equipment was relocated to the grounds of the property house, where ironically, it continued to be used by the kids after school.

Inside the classroom 1994. There wasn’t a huge amount of room and we only had six students at this stage. Once we started an unofficial preschool program the room took on quite a “cosy” atmosphere!

Over the six years that I taught at the school, enrolments gradually rose. Students came from near and far – including grandchildren of the Pensini family who only had to walk a short distance to and from school. Most families lived between 20-40km from the school although one family with three boys travelled almost 60km one-way to attend school each day.

When I was at primary school, the students walked, rode bikes or horses, were driven to school by their family or caught the bus taking older students into the local High School at Gatton. At Cameron Downs the students came mostly by car, sometimes under their own steam. Bush kids learn early in life how to take responsibility and how to act sensibly. Many learn to drive vehicles at a young age and are often better drivers than their more “mature” counterparts! Some children also rode bikes – but these were of the motorized variety.

At one stage we went through a “bikie” phase. All the children brought bicycles to school which they rode after school before going home. Any “uninitiated” visitors were flabbergasted that students were riding such long distances to school on bicycles!

In general all the children got on well with each other – sure, there were the occasional “spats”, often between siblings rather than friends – but when you only have a small number of students at your school you all need to get on so that you can play “team” sports. In the classroom the children very quickly learned to be independent and resourceful. Older children helped the younger students (and occasionally vice versa!) Quite often I found that if a student was having trouble understanding a concept, another student could help them much better than I could by using their “own language” in getting the information across.

Playing “Lantern Chase” – a favourite game of the children. Six students meant it was three-a-side per team; heaven help us if someone was away!

As the number of students kept growing, it wasn’t long before the one little classroom was bursting at the seams. Because the future enrolment numbers were stable the Education Department came to the rescue and built a brand new classroom – it is the only one of it’s particular deign that has ever been constructed. The new schoolroom was officially opened in September 1997 – 30 years after the school was first opened.

The new Cameron Downs State School building completed and opened in 1997. The original school building was used for the library, student and staff lunchroom, and activities room where there were computers and a TV.

In September of this year Cameron Downs State School will be celebrating its 50th Anniversary – a wonderful milestone for the Little Bush School.

The students entertaining guests and parents at the 30th year celebrations and official opening of the new school building September 1997.