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What school was like in South Australia in the 1950s and 60s

I WAS invited recently to my grandson’s school to talk to the class about what school was like when I was growing up in the 1950s. I worried about it momentarily, after all, I don’t think I have ever done a presentation for a room full of eight year olds, and I didn’t really know what they expected, but it turned out OK (I think).

What caught the children’s attention most was that we never had computers, the internet, iPads, iPhones or any digital devices and back then, if you were naughty at school, you got the cane.

“Did you have to be really naughty?” asked one, “Did it hurt?” was the next question, “How many times did they hit you?”. The boys seemed to want to pursue the topic more than the girls, “Why did you get into trouble?” and “Where did you get hit?”. They wanted all the gory details. I was reluctant to be too specific about the sort of punishment we Baby Boomers copped as kids. It was the sort of treatment that would now constitute a criminal offence.

Here’s how we did it before the internet, iPhones and iPads

Back in the day though it was considered an important tool to maintain discipline, and discipline and the fear of the Almighty were the two things the Dominican Sisters belted into us without fear or favour. Education came in a poor third.

But the nuns weren’t the only teachers of the era guilty of dishing out harsh corporal punishment. Private, Catholic and state schools all adhered to a code of disciplinary standards which they maintained with brutal efficiency.

On the Australia Remember When Facebook page recently the subject attracted almost 400 comments from readers including Wanda Bentley who wrote; “Barbaric didn’t begin to describe the nuns. Canes, thick leather straps, 36” blackboard rulers, they came equipped — boys, girls, everyone copped it. Migrant kids were especially targeted and I went through primary school believing I was a dunce. Of course we dare not tell our god-fearing parents who would have sided with the nuns”.

Heather O’Neill agreed, “Totally awful. My husband tells me most nuns and the Christian Brothers were sadistic. But he says he just accepted it as a child. My public schooling was much kinder but not free of the cane.”

Not everyone had the same opinion or shared the same experience. Susan Johnson said “I don’t agree about the nuns. I don’t know about the Brothers but not all nuns were sadistic. I only met one in my entire schooling who I would say was sadistic and she just hated the boys. Most of the nuns were kind and gentle.Ascot Park Infant School students Robert and Terry, both 5, on their first day of school in 1960.

And to be fair, for some, school was a pleasant experience. Kathleen Watkins recorded; “My years at a public school were wonderful! Caring teachers who could teach at infants, primary and then my years at high school were inspiring. Poetry, science, French, music, needlework and Shakespeare! Never forgotten! Thanks to the wonderful teachers.”

Without a digital device anywhere. Kids playing in the school grounds at lunchtime in the 1960s

The other subject that really fascinated the children was no computers, internet, mobile phones or digital devices.

Come to think of it, I’m intrigued myself about what life was like in those pre-computer, pre-mobile days. Thinking back, I can’t recall that it was all that different, but it must have been a lot slower.

How did we find information before Google? We looked things up in books and encyclopedias or went to the library. If we wanted to travel somewhere and weren’t sure of how to get there, we used a street directory. To call someone, we memorised their phone number, found it in the Teledex or looked it up in the phone book.

It wasn’t until the ’60s and ’70s that people could afford a telephone at home so until then we used public phones in red telephone boxes that were sprinkled throughout the city and suburbs, often smelt like urine and occasionally didn’t work. We always had some small change in case we ever needed to make an emergency call. People read books (a lot still do, thank God) and quite often communicated with each other by speaking out loud instead of emailing and texting.

Some folks just stared into space while travelling on public transport or in a lift instead of desperately scrolling through their emails.

To communicate to a relative or friend in another city, state or overseas we would sit down and write a letter with pen and paper.

This could take maybe an hour or two, then we would place the letter in an envelope, put a stamp on it and drop it in the mailbox. Delivery could take three or four days within Australia or several weeks to an overseas destination.

Before the internet, newspapers and the evening TV news were our primary means of learning about the events of the day.

We read the newspapers in the morning, which was all yesterday’s news and the 6pm bulletin on the telly brought us up to date with what had happened throughout the day, sometimes to within a few hours. It’s remarkable to think how far we have travelled in the past fifty years, how much we have changed and the kind of world our grandchildren and their children will inherit.

As I looked out over that sea of young, inquisitive and innocent faces I couldn’t help but wonder if in maybe fifty or sixty years from now, one of them will be standing in front of a room of young children, trying to explain what the internet was and contemplating how much the world had changed in the past fifty years.

19 Responses to What school was like in South Australia in the 1950s and 60s

  1. June Miller October 21, 2017 at 10:06 am #

    I was a kid before TV even, and we used to sit around the radio every night, listening to the news and all our favourite serials

    • Stewart Lowe December 6, 2021 at 10:13 am #

      June Miller I remember the great days of pre-TV Australian radio too. We had a highly developed Commercial Radio system in the Macquarie service.
      The programs were always very good because station owners could only attract advertisers if they could offer them large audiences.

      Not so the ABC which had the fall-back of Radio Licences as funding. Still I always enjoyed listening to the Argonauts after school.

      The Unseen Voice: A Cultural Study of Early Australian Radio : Lesley Johnson, gives you a good background on the history from 1920 to 1960.

      You don’t gave to buy the book go to a State or university library it should be Cat Number >384.540994. J67u

  2. Terry L February 15, 2018 at 5:21 pm #

    Every now and then I pull out an old album and there I am, 1949 Lower I, Alberton Infant School, proudly being photographed for my first school photo, front toothlessly grinning with my lunch stuck up my jumper, all of which making me look a bit like a carnival exhibit. A couple of years on and Upper IIA, now one of the big kids, progressing to the Big School up Broad Street a bit towards Port Road, where I was destined then to become a little kid again. Grade III, and life was simple. Learning to write cursively with a dip pen and ink – no mean feat for a left hooker – my work was often demonstrated as a “how not to do it” example. Times tables learned by rote, mental arithmetic “sums” to be done quickly, sitting up straight, holding the pen correctly, dreading doing anything wrong which would have you sent to the “Opportunity Class”. How cringeworthy is that nowadays – a class of underprivileged and sometimes “special needs” kids who through no fault of their own were deemed “backward”. I wonder how many went on to become industry leaders and university graduates. Mustn’t forget the photo of us proudly standing out the front of the Adelaide Children’s Hospital with what must have been hundredweight rolls of silver foil, collected over months from chocolate wrappers and the like. I wonder what they did with that? Grade VII and dux of the school – a big kid again, destined to be a little kid once more in High School. The photos stir so many memories, too many for here – but overall it was a stressless time, a wonderful time, when school was simple, learning was exciting, technology was totally absent, discipline was present, understood and accepted – and we regularly sang the Song of Australia!! (Check out Peter Dawson’s version on youtube).

    • Jennifer February 19, 2019 at 1:54 pm #

      Hi – I, too, went to Alberton Infant and Alberton Primary Schools. I remember being whacked with a wooden spoon in the soap room at Infant school because I had entered the assembly room at lunchtime and taken out some costumes from the cupboard. I was 5 years old. Entering the assembly room was strictly forbidden and I got my whacking from the head mistress (charming woman!)
      We used to have to wash our hands in metal troughs with giant blocks of foul smelling yellow soap (kept locked in the aforementioned soap room)! I’ve never been able to use ‘Velvet’ soap since then.

      I remember the smell of very ripe bananas coming from the lunch lockers and the sheer terror of being lined up for our polio injections – I’m pretty sure we all got the same hypodermic – a huge instrument that would have terrified Winx and that pushed a measured dose into the arm of each tiny student.

      I also remembered the ‘Opportunity Class’ where children who didn’t quite fit the norm were placed.

      Primary school was where I learned to despise milk, because we got compulsory bottles of the stuff with globs of cream floating on top. In summer it was always delivered early – about 4am I think – and the bottles sat in crates under the sparse shade of a tree in Broad Street. By the time it was distributed to the students it was warm and slightly curdled. Haven’t drunk milk since…..

      • Lawrie Guidera May 2, 2020 at 2:23 pm #

        Yes you brought back the smells so vividly. The bananas, that velvet soap and I can add the occasional terror.
        I was whacked with the yard ruler as a year two infant because I had forgotten to bring my coloured pencils into the classroom from the porch. She was a crabby reliever who taught us for six weeks.
        (Miss Crabtree is a name I recall!!???)
        Our usual classroom teacher was Miss Casey. She used put me on her knee to have me read to her because I think I was her pet.
        Memories. I recently gave a 50 minute power point presentation to a group of 70 plus year old men about the old days and contrasted them with some of the new ways. Cheers.

      • Leya August 4, 2023 at 12:29 am #

        Hi Jennifer,

        How interesting, I see not much has changed in regards to the milk!

        I’d love to hear more about your experience in sixth form

        I’m working on a period time piece that will partly showcase women’s education. I would be happy if you could help us in any way.

        We are looking for stories and personal accounts from women who attended school during the late 1950s

        Exactly how life was like for young girls in education?. Like how was the process and were there any limitations to what you could study?

  3. Deana S February 25, 2018 at 1:58 pm #

    I’m of a later generation than what Bob is referring to here, but perhaps I can tell you what my primary school years were like in the mid 1970s, and high school in the early 80s. Nothing sweet or charming to relate, and I’m still furious after all these years about the treatment we received. Murray Bridge North & High; school bullying rampant and unchecked by teachers and staff (my brother was abused so badly at MB north, he had to be pulled out and was subsequently enrolled in Fraser Park (primary). Additional things to describe about MB north – marching (what in hell was the purpose of that?), singing “God Save the Queen” at assembly (why? – when we had an Australian anthem), a headmaster who I suspected went back home to watch TV for the day after addressing morning school assembly. Poor quality, inadequate and inconsistent education (typical of the public school system), fetid facilities (I still remember that filthy toilet block in junior primary – it was so scary, you’d rather mess your pants than use it, and then the broken desks and chairs, and the sickly, unwatered trees in the yard). And my biggest gripes – weaker students overlooked and marginalised on the basis of perceived lack of ability (“special” class groups – where they also put the aboriginals) – this practice was maintained even in the high school, and the lack of compassionate, caring teachers – most of them were cold, dismissive and abusive hacks. Two of them I would dearly love to name publicly, but verbal abuse of kids by teachers was common. The abuse was over the top in some instances – I had my experiences, but I also still recall a deputy headmaster directing a group of boys to “stretch” one particular boy in the schoolyard (the kid was held aloft by four other boys, one per limb and they were ordered to pull on each limb – to stretch him apart; this for a crime I don’t exactly know of, but I suspect he was accused of being a “poofter”. MB high no better in most respects – I was driven to tears and despair, and was terrified by the bullying, as were several others.
    But I’m told both schools became much worse in subsequent years. It is interesting to read the comments on “Adelaide Remember When” from those who recall earlier times with fondness. However, not all was well, really.

  4. Colin hazell September 13, 2019 at 9:12 am #


  5. Stewart Lowe October 28, 2019 at 12:07 pm #

    God I remember that milk from the Woodville primary school when I was a child. It was delivered first thing in the morning in bottles in crates. It was delivered cold and it would sit out in the sun until morning recess hen we were allowed to drink it warm by the sun. Yuk it was awful.

  6. Kevin from Glenelg November 22, 2019 at 8:53 pm #

    A teacher in high punched me in the face. Ten years later I caught up with him and gave him a hiding.

    • Peter H February 23, 2021 at 12:49 pm #

      Judging by your more recent actions you probably deserved it.

  7. Gordon Hazel April 2, 2020 at 6:55 am #

    Bill Woolley no doubt long dead now. The sadistic headmaster of Watervale Primary School way back in the late 60s and early 1970s. We had a lovely old Headmaster before him, but he was moved on due to local politics, one of the influential locals felt he was not tough enough on her daughter. John Hurn as fine a gentleman as you could find. Woolley who came after him was a sadist and brutalised a lot of children with his love of flogging with the cane. His keeping kids back in school doing impositions and keeping parents waiting. My late father finally had enough of him one day when a bunch of us were being kept in. Father came to the door and told all of us kids to leave the room, he then gave Woolley the rounds of the table, he did not lay a hand on him, but reduced the headmaster to a snivelling mess. My late father was literally quite of the Victorian age and and Englishman who would never interfere with a teachers duties, but in this case the headmaster had gone to far.

  8. Peter Newell April 22, 2020 at 9:34 am #

    I went to the Elizabeth south primary school from 1960, on my first day my mother took me the gate pointed to the building and said goodbye, the only time she went to that school. there I was with my satchel with a sandwich rapped in wax paper and an apple. I was the only child who fronted up alone, every kid had there mothers with them. I loved that school although I had run ins with a few of my teacher, mainly my grade 7 teacher who caned me pretty much every day. I never told my parents. I terrorised him for years later in life for that. in the late 70,s I worked on the new primary school and in 2016 the new kindergarten. in 2017 I caught up with the kids I went to school with that I hadn’t seen for 55 years. 2018 I attended the primary school to be interviewed with several other old scholars and participate in a time capsule. how thinks have changed, in my day every one was seated, no one spoke. you raised your hand if you wanted to speak. you addressed the teachers proper, it was yes sir no sir. hate to say it but school today is a joke, teachers must be banging there heads against the wall. 60 years ago they were highly respected members of the community.

  9. trevor jewell September 1, 2020 at 12:14 am #


    It was like hell every day. it was verbal and physical abuse were the learning tools used to educate . It starts in the primary school years and contuined till i left . This has i beleave caused
    my anxiety too every time i am to learn any thing ..
    To the teachers of today . I ask you never to use this failed ways these methods they dont belong in classrooms . make it a happy experience for all children to remember

    • Liz Fry September 22, 2021 at 4:00 pm #

      Burnside Primary School early 1950s – Grades 5, 6 and 7 I had Mr Norman R.L.Macleod – what a wonderful teacher he was. Only punishment the boys got was “lean over and see how much water’s in the well” then they got one whack on the backside. Can’t remember if he ever punished the girls. Another teacher – nasty – was Old Ma Mitchell. One of my Cousins suffered under her and I think it still affects her life. This woman tried to belittle me and break my spirit too, but I just thought she was a nasty old person and moved on. She even washed my mouth out with soap on my first day transferring to this school – said I was cheating. I finally convinced her I was in the wrong class and had no idea how to do long division and just wanted to see how it worked. And don’t talk to me about the milk – yuck – I hated it and avoided drinking it whenever I could. Have been a non-milk drinker all my life. One year at Norwood High I must mention Mr Koch – also wonderful man – he encouraged my interests in science and bookkeeping.

  10. Bill Dowd January 15, 2021 at 5:09 pm #

    I too remember education the 1950’s and early 1960’s .I must have been a fairly good boy because I only got two cuts of the cane very infrequently.

    i went to a private Church of England high school , Trinity Grammar in Summerhill Sydney. We used to get the cane on the backside .Sometimes i knew I would get the cane so I went to the swimming pool change room and found another pair of shorts to put on under the ones I was wearing so I didn’t feel the cane as much .

    Most of the teachers were good teachers . However , some of them were lazy and just dictated notes from the previous year .
    I remember Mr Crowfoot , a geography teacher . He was a veteran of World War 1 and had a steel plate in his head. He used to demonstrate how to throw a hand grenade using a blackboard duster..Mr Crowfoot would write notes on the blackboard straight from the textbook .

  11. Benjamin Antell May 23, 2021 at 9:46 pm #

    We also got the cane if the teachers were in a bad mood. At least in Camp Hill State School, Belmont State School and Bonegilla State School.

  12. iota somalis September 19, 2021 at 4:41 pm #

    we had a teacher called mr short but he was 6 ft 4 inch tall. he hated kids. and a teacher miss porter who sent me out at lunch time to buy her fish n chips. I was 10. dog shop was one block from school lol.

  13. Gail Greaves January 5, 2024 at 2:09 am #

    So sad to read of the abuse of children in past times: I was at school in Adelaide from 1956 until leaving at aged 15, despite having the potential to go on to further education. We had no career advice and I believe we girls suffered from this. The choices were so few – teacher, nurse, secretary or hairdresser ; that was it! Luckily I had an adventurous, curious spirit and worked for some years until travelling overseas on an overland journey to London, experiencing totally different cultures and languages. But discovering this website has been very nostalgic and I can remember my Adelaide days so vividly, for better or for worse.

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