Back to Mortdale School

As told by Mr. E. Fletcher, of Frederick Street, Penshurst
Mr. Fletcher was one of the pupils who enrolled in the opening day of the first Mortdale School, built in 1888.
(Booklet obtained by courtesy of Mrs. J. Wotherspoon, Mortdale Public School.)

Please note that some of the terms used in this article reflect the attitude of the author or the period in which the item was written and may be considered inappropriate today.

A Brief History of Mortdale
Because of the shallowness of Botany Bay and the difficulty of clearing land, settlement of the St. George area was slow. But as numbers and the need for land increased the people were encouraged to move to the area.

Early land was at first granted by governors. In 1833 James Oatley, a watchmaker, was granted 300 acres around the Georges River area by Governor Bourke.

In 1861 Thomas Sutcliffe Mort acquired land which was originally called Mort’s Hill but later became known as Mortdale.

The Mort estate was then subdivided. The brickworks was established in 1884. For a time it was the only industry in the area. The bricks were handmade and very soft and porous. This pit closed and was replaced by a mechanised one. Only about thirty or forty persons were in that area then. The brickworks siding came into use in 1886. In 1888 the eastern part of Kemps farm was acquired for school purposes. A few houses mostly semi-detached were now erected. Most of these still exist though some have been modernised. The most prominent building was the two-storied one at the Princes Street corner. It was the first Post Office combined grocery store. About 1897 the Post Office was moved to the two-storied building opposite our present school.

Mortdale Station was opened on 20th March in 1897. The original station has been demolished while a subway replaces the old level crossing and gates. The first electric train in N. S. W. ran from Sydney to Oatley and began operation on 1st March 1926.

Mortdale Public School was erected in 1888 and was a brick building which housed three blocks of desks and forms. Mr. Joseph Coleman was in charge and occupied the school buildings. This has since been demolished. The actual opening was in January, 1889, after the Christmas holidays. As it was not quite ready, the pupils were sent home and came back a week later. In 1892 a classroom was added and Miss Ritz was appointed assistant teacher. She stayed for 3 years. Mr. Garden succeeded Mr. Coleman.

In 1936 the two-storied brick building was erected. Judd’s paddock has been placed at the school’s disposal for additional playground area.

James Oatley had a grant of 300 acres of land on George’s River, also one of 175 acres in the Kingsgrove-Moorefields district, and another of 40 acres in the South Hurstville area. Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, some time prior to 1861, acquired the south-western portion of Dr. Robert Townson’s grant. This portion embraces what is now known as Mortdale. It is from these two persons that Oatley and Mortdale derived their respective names, though originally Mortdale was known as Mort’s Hill.

Like other areas in the St. George district these two were cut up and acquired by others. At Oatley, on the eastern side of the railway, the Griffiths family had a substantial estate which was subdivided and sold at various times from the mid eighties. On the western side what was known as the Oatley Township Estate was dealt with in a similar manner during the nineties. At Mort’s Hill the brickworks, established in 1884, had, and still has, a substantial area, and the Kemp family had a farm area extending from Mort’s Road (now Colbourne Avenue) on the east to Boundary Road on the west. When the railway was put through in 1885 it cut this farm into two practically equal portions. Gates, adjacent to the brickworks, provided access from one portion to the other. Then in 1888, practically half of the eastern portion was acquired for school purposes, and finally about 1920, the balance of the Kemp property was acquired by the Railway Dept. for railway purposes and includes what is known as Railway Reserve. The original farmhouse stood in the paddock below the school, but later a two-storied building was erected facing the road and adjacent to the school residence. These three residences – the old farmhouse, the new residence, and the school residence have since been demolished to make way for school extensions. Towards Penshurst, Mrs. Parkes had a farm area which had also been cut in two by the railway. Gates which were in the vicinity of where the subway is now located, gave access from one part to the other. At Penshurst, Mr. Myles McCrae had an extensive area and his old residence, “Kintail”, still stands. A macadamised road, now known as Railway Parade, ran through this property from Laycock Road to Mort’s Road, and was the only direct access to Mortdale as it then existed. The area bounded by McCrae’s southern boundary (approximately the present Grove Avenue on the north, railway on the west, the present-day Princes Street on the east, and Mort’s Road on the south, had been sub-divided into building blocks sometime during the early eighties). A few houses, mostly semi-detached places, had been erected, and most of them still exist and can be picked out quite readily, though some of them have been more of less modernised.

The most prominent building was the two-storied one, still existing at the Princes Street corner. Here was located the first Post Office, combined with a grocery store. About 1897 the Post Office was moved to the two-storied building, the front of which has been added to in more recent years, opposite the school, and was managed by Mrs. Phillips. Mort’s Road was macadamised from Princes Street corner to approximately Kemp Street, whence it meandered as a bush track to Forest Road. It crossed the railway through Mort’s Gates. The present business area of Mortdale, bounded by the railway, Mort’s Road. Grump Street (approximately) and Kemp’s northern boundary, which corresponds with the back alignment of George Street allotments, was a fenced paddock of fairly thick bush and scrub, It was known as Newmants paddock. A Mr. Newman lived in a brick cottage nearby and since demolished to make way for railway alterations, which was the only residence that side of the line.

Newman seems to have been the caretaker of this property. About 1894 it was sub-divided into building blocks and sold at auction under the name “Mort’s Estate” ,the auctioneer being Mr. E. C. V. Broughton, and so Mortdale began to grow. Just about this time Victoria Avenue was constructed from Laycock Road (now Penshurst Street), to Mort’s Road Mortdale Station, opened in 1897, was to the southward of the gates, with the platform ramps adjacent to them.

What the population of Mortdale was when the Railway opened in 1885 is doubtful – probably not more than 30 or 40 persons, perhaps fewer. When we took up residence at Oatley shortly after the opening of the Railway, the population increased five persons (ourselves) with one house. Almost simultaneously another family – Mr. Orange and his son, together with his housekeeper (Mrs. Baker) and her daughter – came on the scene. He was caretaker for the Griffiths Estate and lived in the brick cottage in Oatley Avenue between Frederick Street corner and the hotel, and is the oldest building in Oatley. The census of Oatley, early in 1886, was nine persons and two houses. From then on growth was fairly rapid and homes began to spring up in all directions.

Raine & Home and Richardson and Wrench conducted the sales from time to time and special trains brought crowds of people out to attend the sales which were very successful. Oatley’s first Post Office was in a cottage which stood on portion of the site now occupied by the hotel. There are two coral trees growing on the Reserve opposite the hotel. They were planted there by my father over 60 years ago – the more southerly of the two was grown from a slip brought from Tongarra, a few miles outside Albion Park – the other was a cutting off the first tree.

James Oatley’s burial place does not appear to be quite definitely known other than that it took place on some part of his estate. In 1925 a Mr. W. Sivertsen, of Bexley, came across his tombstone lying on some vacant land on the Moorefields Estate. In an article in “Truth” under date 8th May, 1921, reference is made to: “an old grave near what appears to have been a farm. This farm is situated on the country lying between Penshurst and Lakemba. On the slab of stone covering the grave is the following – ‘Sacred to the memory of James Oatley. Obit October 8, 1839. Aetat (Ed: aged; at the age of) 70 years.'” But the site of the grave was not stated in the article. James Oatley was a watch and clockmaker. Frederick Oatley, whose grave is in a paddock at Moorefields, was his son. Many years ago a grave existed on the hill overlooking Mortdale and Oatley. It was on the Oatley side of Boundary Road at approximately the Waratah Street corner, but there was nothing on it to indicate who was buried there. I last saw it about 1897, but it cannot be located now because the site has been built up completely.

On Oatley Point there was, many years ago, a large, round, flat rock, which, judging by its appearance and surroundings, seemed to have been an aborigines’ feasting ground. Wind and rain storms during the past 60 years have covered it with soil and growth and it is not visible now.

Beyond all doubt the district between Hurstville and river owes its rapid growth to the railway’s establishment. The opening of the railway from Illawarra Junction (Eveleigh) to Hurstville took place on 15th October, 1884. The intermediate stations were Erskineville, St. Peters, Marrickville (now Sydenham), Tempe, Arncliffe, Rockdale and Kogarah. Carlton was opened in 1887, Banksia on 21st October, 1906, and Allawah on 25th October, 1925. The extension – Hurstville to Sutherland was opened for business on 26th December, 1885, with Como as the intermediate station. The Brickworks Siding came into use in 1886, Penshurst opened in 1886, Oatley in 1886 and Mortdale, 20th March, 1897. Jannali was opened on 7th February, 1931. The extensions beyond Sutherland took place in subsequent years until Nowra 26 was reached. The duplication between Hurstville and Waterfall was completed by 22nd March, 1891. This was a big step forward as it permitted a more frequent service which hitherto had been confined to three or four trains daily. Oatley platform, which originally was only a dump, was lengthened, and became a station with “up and “down” platforms, and a resident stationmaster in charge. The residence was built on railway land alongside the “down” platform. The deviation, Como to Mortdale, was carried out in 1905 and resulted in Oatley Station being moved about one quarter of a mile westward to its present site and opened on 7th July, 1905. A subway took the place of the original level crossing and gates. The station-master’s residence was abolished. The night officer’s residence which stood near the beginning of the big rock cutting below the school, had been destroyed by fire a few years previously and had not been re-built.

Oatley was re-named Oatley’s in 1889, but the original name was restored in 1890. The present island platform with a goods yard adjoining, was opened on 7th July, 1905. Automatic signals were installed south of the station on 1st November, 1918, and on the north side on 12th January, 1926, The goods yard was closed on 22nd December, 1940. Mortdale Station was moved northward beyond the original gates on 14th September, 1922, The original station has been demolished, while a subway has replaced the old level corssing and gates. Penshurst Station was extended northwards, thus cutting out the level crossing at gates which were replaced with an overhead traffic bridge. It is not possible to name the first station masters at the various stations. Mr. Hall, who lived in the railway residence which stood just about where the Post Office is now, was S. M. at Hurstville for a number of years in those early time. Mr. John Brown was the first resident S. M. at Oatley. He died there on 3rd June, 1902. Mr. Cuneo was S. M. at Como for a number of years.

Hurstville is named after the Rev. W. A. Hurst (Wesleyan) of Tempe, who took a very great interest in the district. Penshurst is named after a locality of the same name in England. Mortdale after Thomas Mort, Oatley after James Oatley, and Como after Lake Como in Italy. Sutherland is named after Forby Sutherland, one of Captain Cook’s seamen and “the first white man to die in this newly discovered land.”

The first electric trains in New South Wales ran from Sydney to Oatley and began to operate on 1st March, 1926, and were extended to Sutherland on 12th August, 1926, and to National Park on 24th December, 1926.

The nearest public shool was Hurstville, which opened in 1876, though there had been schools held in various kinds of buildings for some years prior. Mortdale Public School was erected in 1888, and was a brick building which housed three blocks of desks and forms. My sister and I were two of the pupils enrolled on opening day. Mr. Joseph Coleman was the teacher in charge, and he occupied the school residence, a. brick cottage alongside the school building. The cottage has since been demolished to make way for another building. I think I am right in saying that the actual opening day was in January, 1889, when schools resumed after the 1888 Christmas recess. The school was not quite ready when we presented ourselves and we had to come back a week later. My stay at Mortdale was not a very long one as in 1892 I was sent back to Hurstville, where I had been before Mortdale opened. Somewhere about this time a classroom was added to Mortdale School and Miss Frize was appointed assistant teacher, and she remained at the school for a number of years. I am sorry I cannot add any more details about the school, but no doubt somebody else in the district will be able to do so. Mr. Garden succeeded Mr. Coleman and some old pupils of these two gentlemen will be able to relate some interesting details of Mr. Coleman’s later days and Mr. Garden’s early days at the school.

Naturally, when I returned to Hurstville, my interests centred round that school.

Church Activities
The first Sunday School was organised by an elderly widow (Mrs. Smith) and her three daughters (the Misses Bessie, Georgina, and Florence Smith), and the classes were held in her private residence at Oatley. The cottage still stands and is known as No. 27 Woonoona Parade. There is no way of establishing the exact date of the beginning of the school, but it was about 1889 or 1890. It continued for about three years, when failing health caused the dear old lady to give it up. At intervals during the currency of the school, church services, mainly for children, were held by visiting clergymen, two of whose names can be recalled, viz. (Ed: abbreviation, meaning “namely”), Rev. W. Patterson and Rev. M. Moore. The former came from Parramatta and the latter from Sydney. After the school ceased to function there was a gap until 1894 when Mrs. Saunders and family took up residence in “Dewerara” Cottage, Woronora Parade, Oatley. This residence is still in existence. Soon after her arrival, Mrs. Saunders started a Sunday School and these activities have continued without a break ever since. The school grew so rapidly that it soon outgrew the accommodation available at the cottage. In 1898, St. Peters Church, Mortdale, was erected and the Sunday School was moved to it. Church services were held at the cottage at regular intervals and were conducted by Rev. M. Walker (Wesleyan, and then styled) Rev. McKay (Presbyterian), and Rev. W. Killworth (C. of E). In fact, Mr. Killworth, who was Rector of the Parish of St. George (which extended from Kogarah to the River) was responsible for the building of St. Peter’s Church, Mortdale. This lonely little outpost of 1898 is now the Parish Church of its own Parish. In 1889, Rev, James Clarke was appointed Rector of the Parish of St. George, as it was then known, and continued in charge until 1895. During his travels in the Holy Land, he obtained a bottle of water from the River Jordan and he used this water in connection with baptismal services during the early nineties. My youngest sister was baptised with this water and no doubt there are others living in the district who can claim the same distinction. Mr. Clarke was a fine horseman, a very fast walker, and a splendid preacher. The present St. George’s Church, Hurstville, was erected in 1889, and took the place of a wooden building which was propped up on the graveyard side with several large logs.

Methodist (then known as Wesleyan) Church services were held at regular intervals at Mrs. Kemp’s residence during the early nineties. This residence has long since disappeared to make way for school extensions.

The first public school at Mortdale and the first Sunday School at Oatley have an interesting feature. Mr. Coleman, whose first wife had died, married Miss Florence Smith, thus bringing about, as it were, a union of the two fiist schools. Miss Smith was also the first bride from Oatley. Following an old-time custom, the newly married couple were vigorously tin-kettled for several hours on their wedding night. This was the first and only tin-kettling at Oatley.

It is interesting to note that the large parish of St. George which was sparsely populated, has since been divided into six parishes – Kogarah, Hurstville, South Hurstville, Penshurst, Mortdale, and Oatley, and each one is thickly populated.

During the early nineteen hundreds, church services were also held in the School of Arts Building at Oatley.

Social Life and Services
We had to make our own pleasures and succeeded very well, and taken all round, we were a happy community. Band of Hope concerts, amateur plays and concerts, with occasional tableaux, etc. , afforded enjoyable entertainment. Dances in Hales’ Hall and at various residences also had a good following, and surprise parties were popular. In summer time, boating picnics or gipsy teas as they were called, were a much appreciated and very enjoyable pastime. Oysters were very plentiful and easily obtained. Public holidays saw crowds of picnickers brought to Oatley by special trains, for Oatley Bay was a favourite picnic resort and a very interesting and pretty spot it was, too. Harry Linnark’s Boatshed did a thriving business on such occasions. Even Chinese New Year celebrations and Salvation Army picnics were a regular feature. At one time two pleasure steamers ran from Lady Robinson’s Beach (Brighton-le-Sands of to-day) up the river to Parkesvale, calling in at Como en-route. It was a pleasant and interesting trip.

Early in 1902, a debating club was formed under the high-sounding title of “Mortdale Literary and Debating Society,” and out of it sprang a cricket club – the first, by the way – and we played in the St. George District Competition during the 1902-03 season. We sought and obtained permission from Mr. Percy Judd to put down a concrete pitch in the brickworks paddock, and the matches played drew fair attendances and added some variety to the usual Saturday afternoon pleasures.

Among the first buildings to be erected on the newly cut up Mort s Estate was a shop by Mrs. Hales, in Pitt Street, somewhere about where the Post Office is now located and further along the street she erected a hall where many a pleasant function was held. This hail still stands, though a front has been built on to it, and is now Costello’s Hardware and Grocery Store.

The nearest doctor – Dr. McLeod – lived at Hurstville, and the nearest police station was Newtown. The local limb of the law was Constable Guess, who lived in Victoria Avenue. For a long time bread, meat, and groceries were delivered from Hurstville – Fred Mumford was the baker; Tom Hillard, the butcher; and C. A. Morgan, the grocer. Sing Hop, with his horse and van, and Ah See, with his baskets on the bamboo carrying stick, provided fruit and vegetables. Syrian hawkers, with their drapery packs, were almost a pest. Charles Barsby established a drapery and mercery business in Hurstville, and travelled the district with a light vehicle and that settled the Syrians. Milk was supplied by a local dairyman (Mr. Gorman), and the run was usually done by his children carrying cans. A very essential service was rendered by a quiet, unassuming dear old lady – Mrs. Kemp – who was the local midwife. No doubt there are quite a few persons still living hereabouts who were ushered into the world by this good lady. My second sister is one of three and she has the distinction of being the first child born at Oatley.

Mumfords residence and bakery were – and still are – at the corner of Bridge and Forest Roads Hillard’s butchery was – and still is – on the opposite corner. Before erecting the existing shops, he had the old style open-front shop with large cutting block. He made his deliveries from a cutting cart. Morgan’s grocery store is now the Hurstville Bedding Store, and Barsby’s drapery was two doors from it.

Originally there were only two hotels, both at Hurstville – the Blue Post Inn and the Hurstville Hotel. The former received its name from a blue hitching post which stood in front, and was opposite the Public School. Its site is now occupied by a block of flats. Hurstville Hotel still stands, though in a very modernised form. About 1900 a hotel was built in Victoria Avenue, and was the first in the immediate locality. The building now accommodates the Police Boys’ Club.

The brickworks, which came into existence in 1884, was the only industry in the area for many years and is still in a thriving condition. Prior to that a small brickpit existed on the site now taken up by the Memorial Park, Mortdale. The bricks were hand-made and very soft and porous and, naturally, could not compare with the machine-made article, and so this little pit closed down.

These notes have been written mainly from memory, but where it has been possible to obtain confirmatory details, I have done so. In this regard I wish to record my grateful thanks to the Mitchell Library, the Railway Department, and the Manager of the Brickworks, and I am very appreciative of the courteous manner in which they dealt with my requests.

9th September 1955. E. Fletcher.

This article was first published in the March and April 1970 edition of our magazine.

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