Osborne Ladies’ College – A “Gothic Fantasy Tale”

Week 36 OF 52 ANCESTORS CHALLENGE

PROMPT: SCHOOL DAYS

The story of Osborne Ladies College, a girls’ school which operated in Blackheath in the Blue Mountains from 1923 until the death of its founder in 1958 reads in places more like a gothic fantasy tale than reality

“‘In the spirit of the Navy’: Violet Gibbins and Osborne Ladies’ College, Blackheath

My maternal great grandparents Henry John Everingham (1860-1943 ) and his wife Elizabeth Campbell Laughlin (1866-1955) could never have imagined that the school they had decided to send their two youngest daughters to, the impressive Osborne Ladies’ College led by the equally impressive Miss Violet Gibbons, would come to be described as a “gothic fantasy”.

They would also never have predicted that Victoria Tresna Everingham, the eldest of the two girls, would remain at the school from her enrolment in 1923 until 1958, when she closed the school as Acting Head.

The Everinghams, a farming family from Batar’s Creek near Kendall NSW had responded to an advertisement similar to the one below offering scholarships to ‘the daughters of country families’ to attend the Osborne Ladies’ College, then in Epping, Sydney.

In 1923 their two youngest daughters, two of my great aunts, the sixteen year old Victoria Tresna Everingham (1906-1999) and her twelve year old sister Ena Laughlin Everingham (1910-1993) entered the college as boarders – see photo below.

L to R: Victoria Tresna Everingham (16) and Ena Laughlin Everingham (12) on entering the College at Epping in 1923

The school

Osborne was housed in an impressive building, some two kilometres west of Blackheath on Paradise Hill, on 40 acres (16 hectares) overlooking the Kanimbla Valley. The school was advertised as being “amidst scenery unequalled the world over in a climate which defies disease”.

In the spirit of the navy

The ethos of the school developed out of Violet Gibbons belief in the “right of girls to share in the ‘glorious inheritance’ of the spirit of the navy, mostly possessed by boys”. The school took the name Osborne when it started in 1900 in honour of the Royal Naval College on the Isle of Wight in Britain; school houses were ‘ships’, newcomers were ‘middies’ and the formidable headmistress, Miss Violet Gibbons, addressed Assembly from the bridge as Admiral of the Fleet.

Each of the rooms was named after a warship; HMS Pelican was Miss Gibbins’ bedroom, HMS Sirius was Miss Everingham’s bedroom, HMAS Sydney, HMS Sussex, HMS Revenge and HMS Arethusa were some of the pupils’ bedrooms. The dining room was HMS Vincent and HMS Albion, HMS Rodney and HMS Blake were classrooms. The main assembly room was HMS Nelson, a bathroom was HMS Neptune, and the sick bay was HMS Dreadnought.

Great pride is shown by the pupils in the care of their bedrooms–or ‘ships’ as or ‘ships’ as they call them–and a special prize is awarded each term for the best kept bedroom. A senior prefect (‘lieutenant’) patrols each corridor of rooms and reports any breach of regulation to the teacher on duty. She also supervises a ‘parade’ at 8.30 a.m. to assure that the general appearance of the pupils is up to the standard of the R.N. in cleanliness and smartness each day,

School prospectus, 1921

The military focus of all aspects of school life bordered on the bizarre. The walls of the ‘big schoolroom’ were entirely covered with photographs of military identities such as Admiral Jellicoe and General Allenby, as well as paintings of battles and great ships. One student recalled that even though she was unable to do the simplest forms of arithmetic her lessons involved

the memorisation of such arcane facts as the battle array of Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar, or the ability to draw the battle plan of Bunker’s Hill…useless information for a schoolgirl

It was highly disciplined and distinctly spartan. But it was healthy and there are photographs of the girls in school uniform on bush-walks or practising the fashionable eurhythmics in the grounds. There was pre-breakfast marching and exercise in all weathers in either bare feet of ice-cold gum-boots.

The scars of Osborne

A real sense of isolation permeated the school. As well as being physically isolated, the students were not allowed to speak to members of the local community. The girls were not permitted to tell their parents about life at the school. One woman who was a pupil in the 1940s wrote decades later to Victoria Everingham, ‘the scars of Osborne have worn off in places but some are still there‘. My great aunt tried to get Violet Gibbons or “old Violet’ as the girls called her to ‘lessen the militaristic punishment regime’, but to no avail.

School promotion

Avertisement from the Sydney Mail, 14 December 1921 p.44.
Sydney Stock and Station Journa), Tuesday 6 December 1921, page 5

The entire story of the school bears a strong element of theatre, borne out by photographs used in promoting the school, such as those accompanying this article, of girls dressed in quasi-naval uniform, or in fairy-like costumes in a woodland setting for their eurythmic displays

“‘In the spirit of the Navy’: Violet Gibbins and Osborne Ladies’ College, Blackheath

Looking at the stylised images, particularly the one below of the line of girls heading off into the Australian bush along a fern-lined path, leads me to wonder if Osborne was an inspiration for Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. My great aunt would often lead these walks.

Choices

You can look at life as a series of choices. I am sure my mother wondered how her life might have been different if her parents had chosen to take up “Aunty Tory’s” offer of a scholarship to Osborne Ladies’ College in the early 1940s. Would she have enjoyed being one of the young ladies doing eurythmics in the gardens of the college? I think so. Did Victoria want to train my mother to be Osborne’s next Miss Everingham? I will never know.

Pupils visiting “the Glen” to pick wildflowers c. 1930s

Postscript

Victoria Tresna Everingham died at the age of 93 on November 1999 and is buried in Kendall, NSW. She was involved with Osborne Ladies’ College for 36 years and was the only person to have been with the college for its entire existence in Blackheath, Her length of service to the school, and to Violet Gibbons, is remarkable, especially as students remember ‘old Violet’ treating ‘Miss Everingham’ like ‘a slave’.

Miss Everingham was remembered with fondness and even pity by the women in oral history interviews and in letters sent to her. One former student wrote to Miss Everingham: ‘In hindsight, you were the stable, reliable “house mistress” who was always there, usually with a smile too.’

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The Free Library. S.v. ‘In the spirit of the Navy’: Violet Gibbins and Osborne Ladies’ College, Blackheath..” from https://www.thefreelibrary.com/%27In+the+spirit+of+the+Navy%27%3a+Violet+Gibbins+and+Osborne+Ladies%27…-a0133107168, Accessed 3 September 2019