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Useful And Fantastic: A Goldfield Schoolmaster - 1

Val Yule investigates the truth concerning a "paragon pedagog'' who allegedly taught in a school in the New South Wales goldfields in the 1880s.

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A school in the New South Wales goldfields in the 1880s.

The mystery of William Quintilianus McCombe M.A., a famous teacher in the Golden Age at Kangaroo Flat


Think of a teacher on the Australian goldfields, and you think of the demoralised fellow in the best-seller film and book ‘Wake in Fright’, lost in a drunken and uncivilised society. We don’t think of a different type, an ideal of the nineteenth century. We have forgotten the ideal of education they had then too.

William Quintilianus McCombe, M.A., a famous teacher in the Golden Age, ran a remarkable school at Kangaroo Flat in the 1860s, with an educational vision that contrasts and compares with A. S. Neill‘s Summerhill. Or did he? Did he exist outside Reminiscences of the Gold Fields and elsewhere in New South Wales, covering a period of fortyeight years’ service as an Officer of Police, (1907), and the imagination of its author, Police Superintendent Martin Brennan?

Police Superintendent Martin Brennan (1839--1912) certainly existed. His life, both worthy and adventurous, is recorded in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. But how much Irish innovation went into his reminiscences, and the remarkable events and people recorded in them? Curiously, they omit Brennan’s own major feats as a policeman, which earned him a place in the Dictionary and therefore in history.

In the memoirs, lively accounts of goldfields characters and events mix with chapters reflecting on The Official Career of a NSW Police Officer, Incidents of Official Administration in the Early Days, and Characteristics of the Australian Aborigines: Their Treatment Past and Present. Melodramas such as The Faithful Young Widow, The Washpin Murder, A Woman’s Revenge, Mrs. Lambert’s Misfortune and The Adventures of a NSW Sable Princess are followed with a final eulogy of the Reverend Charles Badham, D. D., a Professor of Classics and Logic at Sydney University. This last chapter explains a strange feature of the memoirs, and, like Brennan himself, I will leave it to the last.

The Dictionary entry and the memoirs both give the impression of a modest, upright, courageous, idealistic and humane police officer with an insatiable curiosity for knowledge of all sorts. He was remarkable as a country policeman when he had colleagues who could not read or write. His own writing is a mix of the solemn style of a policeman’s notebook with the highest flights of the Victorian autodidact.

Brennan claimed that in his experiences and adventures “the principle factors are absolutely true, interesting, and might be, as far as the psychological incidents are concerned, sensational“, but he did, understandably, coin aliases for some of his characters, such as Limbo and Basilisk for colleagues, and Chinese who are described sympathetically but are labelled serially Ah Muck, Ah Luck and Ah Cow. Did he change the real name of his “famous teacher in the Golden Age “? Did he invent him totally? Or is he buried in some State Library archive?

I have been unable to locate anyone like him in inquiries to the most likely sources of information, because records of those times have suffered vicissitudes.

The following account of the paragon pedagogue is to some extent a condensed paraphrase of Brennan ‘s own panegyric, since the style fits the story. His account of conversations and speeches can hardly be verbatim, but it would have been characteristic of Brennan to have kept a detailed diary or notes.

McCombe’s story is introduced with the salutation “Nam non solum scire aliquid, artis est, sed quaedam ars etiam docendi. CICERO, LEG. II. 19. “

The setting is the Catholic denominational school system set up in New South Wales as an alternative to the secular state system that had begun in the 1850s. There was difficulty in finding suitable teachers. “There were many who cut high jinks, and concealed their utter unfitness by posing as bards who received inspiration only after paying devotion to Bacchus. “

William Quintilianus McCombe reportedly arrived in Sydney with letters of introduction from a professor of Trinity College, Dublin, to the Professor of Classics at Sydney University and to Archbishop Polding, that referred to him as a “distinguished M.A. of that University.“ The Catholic Education Board appointed him head teacher of a large school at Kangaroo Flat, near a populous gold field. There were already two national and three denominational one-teacher schools within a five mile radius, and Sergeant Brennan, as he then was, “knew intimately the . . . five teachers, who met weekly at the national school beside the police station, to discuss, as they termed it, ‘difficult problems in Arithmetic, Geometry and Algebra’. “

McCombe began with 130 students and an assistant. His first acts were to “ascertain the degree of knowledge which the children possessed, and to classify them in accordance with their intelligence “. From this knowledge of his pupils he designed his curricula with such success that within two years he had nearly 200 students and an extra room. ‘Scores’ of these students were refugees from the harshness of one of the untrained teachers of the national schools, a man named Harrison. Mr Harrison was annoyed and “denounced Mr McCombe and his teaching in violent terms. “

Sergeant Brennan had the task of collecting school statistics. This gave him the opportunity of visiting to find out about McCombe’s educational methods. He was “surprised at the beauty of the place. The front and sides of the building were laid out in walks, and the beds, representing geometrical figures, were profusely studded with choice flowers in bloom, including the Cytius Aburnum, the Rhododendron, and Lobelia Cardinalis . . . “

The assistant was teaching a class in singing, and the head master was lecturing to the advanced pupils in the outdoors “Academy “, which was by a clump of trees nearby. McCombe, with his coat off, was standing at a blackboard, with six fifth-class pupils on a rustic bench, and Eton Latin Grammars and other books on a desk. He “was about thirty years old, fair complexion, unassuming in manner, and possessed a religious cast of countenance.“

After Brennan obtained his statistics, McCombe told him that he was teaching his matriculation class Latin composition, on the lines of Caesar’s style, which he regarded as “the best for beginners, because it is characterised largely by the ablative absolute, and the accusative with the infinitive.”

The pupils were five boys, and a “half-caste girl named Mary Lee, fifteen years old, the daughter of a well-to-do Chinese storekeeper “. She was described as good-looking; “still, her oval face and jet black hair denoted a slight tinge of the Flowery Land origin “. She “was gifted with a great memory, and was intellectually the best scholar in the school “.

Brennan asked why McCombe preferred to teach outside. “Because my pupils can hear my instruction better and will be free from the disquieting sounds of the singing class. Moreover it is more classical to teach in a grove than in a building devoid of acoustic properties. Miss Lee, kindly tell this gentleman why we call this an academy.”

Miss Lee explained that it was named after a grove in Athens called an academy where Plato and his followers held their philosophical conferences.

“I explain to my pupils ,” said Mr McCombe, “every matter of interest relating to the illustrious teachers mentioned in the Classics. I have named the new room the Porch, to symbolise the great hall where Zeno and his followers taught their philosophy, and I have styled the schoolroom the Lyceum, after Aristotle, the founder of peripatetic philosophy.”

“You must feel very contented in the noble work you are engaged in,” said Brennan.

“Yes,” he said, “My duty is a sacred one. I delight in teaching the children, who are the embryo of the future generation; but still I have been subjected to annoyance by a malicious person in the district who has written anonymous letters reflecting on my teaching and my school.”

McCombe suspected Harrison’s jealousy, and felt the aspersions unjustified, although he himself would not “claim to be free from imperfections, nor do I subscribe to the classical allusion recorded of Seneca’s wife, who to conceal her own blindness, asserted the whole world was in darkness.”

To be continued.

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