Our house: histories of Australian homes

Peter Bell
Australian Heritage Commission, 2001

12 - Ravenswood School Residence

Ravenswood, Queensland

Ravenswood School Residence in 1997.

Ravenswood School Residence in 1997.

Ravenswood, the oldest inland town in northern Queensland, is now a sleepy relic of the goldrush days, but at the turn of the century it was a thriving community with its mining company names listed in the financial pages of the London newspapers. On the hill overlooking Ravenswood is the oldest building in the town, the weatherboard school residence, built in 1873 and extended to its present form by 1897.

Gold was discovered in Elphinstone Creek, a tributary of the Burdekin River, in 1869, and the surrounding quartz reefs made it the most promising gold discovery in the north to that time. The town that sprang up at the creek crossing in the following year won no prizes for civic amenity: it was a straggling cluster of tents and bark or slab huts, with a gold crushing battery, a highly irreverent newspaper, a Chinese boarding house and a gold commissioner's office. It was a year before the commissioner reported in the Port Denison Times the construction of Ravenswood's 'first comfortable weatherboard cottage with real glass windows'.>

As the town grew, a local committee was formed in 1872 to press for a government school. The Ravenswood school building and a teacher's residence alongside were built in late 1873 on the ridge overlooking the General Grant and Sunset mines, and the first classes were taught in January 1874. Both buildings were framed in sawn timber, clad with weatherboards and roofed with corrugated iron, the standard form of construction for government buildings in tropical Queensland.

The teacher's house, which still stands, is not only the oldest building in Ravenswood, but the oldest house in any North Queensland town. In its original state it had some very unusual features, for it pre-dated the standardisation of northern house forms that came with more experience of the tropics. The house was a simple core of four rooms, a common floor plan, but it had only a front verandah with no verandah at the rear. It also had a transverse gabled roof, where a later house would have had a pyramid or hipped roof, and most unusual of all, its kitchen was inside the house core, with a brick fireplace on the side wall.

The house was to be modified several times over the next 24 years. The first change came very quickly, when the teacher pointed out that the house needed a rear verandah, and one was added within the first year. The second teacher who arrived in 1877, William Samwell, was blessed with a large family, and found the house a little too cosy for his needs. He asked for a separate kitchen, 'as this climate does not admit of cooking being done in the midst of sleeping apartments'. The house was extended to the rear by an external kitchen bought secondhand in the town and connected to the rear verandah by a covered way. At the same time a section of the rear verandah was enclosed to form a servant's bedroom.

The school residence c1979.

The school residence c1979.

Ravenswood's population was steadily rising as the mines went deeper, new gold treatment plants were built, and rich silver mines were opened at Totley nearby. The school, originally a single classroom, was extended as the town grew. In 1885 the new headteacher, Edward Hurworth, complained that in the booming town, his house was looking shabby: 'as the town is now improving very noticeably in outward appearance, this building is becoming conspicuous by its dilapidated aspect.' Two years later he was rewarded with a major refurbishment. The old kitchen was demolished and replaced by the present one, walls and ceilings were lined, and the original fireplace in the core was replaced by a doorway.

This was still not what Hurworth had in mind. He wrote again in 1889 to point out that his residence was 'one of the smallest and most unpretentious in the district', and requested, 'more suitable and worthy accommodation'. The Education Department apparently saw his point, for within months the house had a most unusual extension; the front verandah was demolished and replaced by a square sitting room with verandahs on two sides. This gave the house a unique floor plan, and transformed its external appearance.

School Residence, drawn by Shibou Dutta.

School Residence, drawn by Shibou Dutta.

Note: The original 1873 house is in the centre of the plan (shown in white). By 1887 the fireplace was removed and a rear verandah and kitchen added, and by 1897 the house was extended to the north and the west.

The school residence c1979.

The school residence c1979.

One major extension followed in 1897. The entire northeast side of the house was extended eight feet by enlarging the rear verandah and two bedrooms, and adding a verandah to the third side of the sitting room. The floor area of the house was now about three times as large as the original cottage built in 1873. In the century since, that form has been only slightly modified by changes to the internal partitions.

These processes of extension and the reasons for them are unusually well-documented, for the school residence has always been a government building, and information exists in the Queensland State Archives that is rarely available for any private house. What is interesting is that the extensions were triggered by a perception in Brisbane that the public appearance of the residence fell short of the prestige of the department and the social standing of its occupant. It is also a surprise to find that a teacher in a country town in the 1870s employed a domestic servant.

Ravenswood's heyday came in the early twentieth century. The New Ravenswood company was registered in London to consolidate the major gold mines, ushering in an era of efficiency and prosperity which saw the town grow to a population of 5000, with a new generation of brick buildings lining the main street. But by 1919 the company was in bankruptcy and the mines were closed. The town shrank to a population of a few hundred, and slept for 70 years until the mining revival of the 1980s brought Carpentaria Gold Pty Ltd. Ravenswood is now a gold mining town again, but this time flanked by enormous opencut mines which employ very few miners and seem to bring little economic benefit to the local community.

 the Pickering family in 1997.

Last residents: the Pickering family in 1997.

The school never closed, and the residence has been occupied by the headteacher since 1873. That is about to change. A new teacher's residence has been built on another site, and in 1998 the old house became a community centre. Its last residents were Paul and Donna Pickering and their children, who moved into the house in 1993. They admitted that their hearts sank when they first saw their 120 year old home. All they knew about the house before they moved in was that it was old, and their first reaction when they saw it: 'It was old!'

By modern standards, the house is hot in summer and cold in winter, and not many people still have to brave an open walkway to reach their kitchen on rainy days. But Paul said 'once we realised the history of the school itself, and how many people had lived here over the time, we came to feel the character of it.' Donna remembered their first night: 'I was sure I saw and heard a ghost. So many people have lived here before us, and Ravenswood has so much history, and stories about ghosts.' Just before moving, they expressed mixed feelings about being the last teachers to live in the house. Donna thought it was 'a shame to leave it, but the other house is a lot more modern.' Paul said, 'We're happy as well as sad, because so much that's happened here over the years is going to stop'.

Acknowledgements and Bibliography

Gai Copeman interviewed Paul and Donna Pickering in Townsville on 30 June 1997 and took those photographs.

Bell, Peter, Timber and iron: houses in North Queensland mining towns 1861-1920, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1984.

Bell, Peter, 'Ravenswood', Heritage Australia 4, 1, 1985.

Menghetti, Diane, Ravenswood: five heritage trails, Department of History & Politics, James Cook University, Queensland 1992.

Port Denison Times 3 September 1870.

Ravenswood School File, EDU/Z 2309, Queensland State Archives. Includes letters dated 19 January 1877, 15 December 1885, and 12 January 1889.

The Author

Dr Peter Bell is a director of the consulting firm Historical Research Pty Ltd, based in Adelaide. Peter spent his early years in North Queensland, and taught in secondary schools. He obtained a PhD in Australian History at James Cook University, specialising in the study of mining settlements. He was involved in heritage conservation at the State Heritage Branch in Adelaide from 1983 until 1994, then taught industrial archaeology and heritage conservation at Michigan Technological University for a term before returning to Australia to concentrate on heritage and historical consulting work. He has recently completed a history of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and conservation management plans for the old Townsville cemetery, a wartime underground hospital in Mount Isa, and properties owned by the Australian Army in North Queensland.