AceHistoryDesk – Whitlam was in the Lodge, flares were in fashion, man had walked on the moon, and in the South Australian regional town of Mount Burr, children were walking into open space
Ace Press News From Cutting Room Floor: Published: Nov.27: 2023: TELEGRAM Ace Daily News Link https://t.me/+PuI36tlDsM7GpOJe
It was 1973 and that space was a prototype of what was still a fairly new concept — the “open area school”.
There was so much excitement around the opening of the new school, the ABC sent a film crew to the tiny timber town to document the moment.
After that it was long forgotten, but the opening of a 50-year-old time capsule buried on school grounds has revealed a snapshot of life in 1970s regional Australia.
The time capsule, the teacher and the reporter — a surprise connection
When the time capsule was dug up, the film came as a surprise, but it had an ABC label so the school sent it to the broadcaster’s Sydney offices and asked if it could be digitised for them to view.
Its arrival sparked interest and, as a journalist based in South Australia, I was asked if I could take a look at it and turn it into a story.
As soon as I heard about the film, I had one main thought — I wonder if my mum is in it?
By pure coincidence, my mum, Ann MacLennan, had worked at the Mount Burr Primary School in the early 1970s.
Once it was processed and entered into the ABC’s digital archive there my mum was — almost a decade before I was born — a young teacher standing in the back row of a school assembly.
Teaching at Mount Burr was mum’s first job straight out of college, part of a program that sent newly-trained teachers to regional areas.
“I had never heard of Mount Burr and it was a big adjustment for a city girl,” she says.
Despite being in the vision, mum couldn’t recall being filmed — the memory was lost in the blur of dignitaries frequently visiting the school.
“Because it was such a new concept, we had visits from many politicians, principals and teachers wanting to observe how the idea of open space teaching worked in practice,” she says.
“It was certainly an exciting start to my teaching career.”
Mum wasn’t the only person I recognised in the vision.
Standing next to her was another long-haired young teacher, Bettina Ritchie, mum’s lifelong friend.
Ms Ritchie says she has many fond memories of her time in Mount Burr.
“The staff was wonderful, everyone got on well and they had a good sense of humour,” she recalls.
“I met many great parents and children and the school council was really good too.
“We had a staff barbecue one night and we finished off with all of us dancing to Credence Clearwater Revival.”
Mum and Ms Ritchie both travelled to Mount Burr for the opening of the time capsule, but said they didn’t remember where it was or what was in it.
“The capsule contained a lot of printed information about the forestry industry and how important it was for the area,” Ms Ritchie says.
“But there were no writings by teachers or students and no children’s artworks which surprised us.
“I would definitely be adding them if I was burying it today.”
Surviving five decades underground
ABC archivist Jon Steiner was the first to see what was on the film, lacing it up on an old Steenbeck film machine and transferring it into the ABC’s digital archive.
Running just over a minute in duration, the silent, black and white film appears to have been recorded to mark the opening of the school and shows children in the playground and inside the new open-plan classrooms and a local MP, Des Corcoran, speaking to students.
“The film is in pretty amazingly good condition which I think is a testament to the robustness of film as a format because I don’t think a video tape or a digital file would have lasted 50 years underground in South Australia,” Mr Steiner says.
Steiner and his colleagues are in a process of transferring the ABC’s video and film records to a digital database, preserving and making them more accessible to staff across the country.
“For me it’s always that connection,” he says.
“You look at archival vision and think this is a different world but then you realise those are actually people and they are still around and it isn’t just some abstract history.
“It’s a crucial role because the ABC has been there to document all of these very significant events in the nation’s history both culturally, artistically, politically, socially and the ABC’s been there recording it.”
The more things change…
In the 50 years since it opened, the school has added a few partitions, but it still largely adheres to its original open air philosophy.Mount Burr Primary School today.
Current principal Anne-Marie Fitzgerald says it works for their small school.
“Certainly there are not doors that close anywhere and fortunately we’ve always had staff who are happy to work together in those spaces and we have a lot of collaboration between staff,” she says.
And while smart boards have replaced chalk boards, Ms Fitzgerald says what students care about the most hasn’t changed much.
“When we ask the children what they like about the school, they talk about they like the teachers,” she says.
“A lot about relationships which is probably no different to what it was 50 years ago.”
While mum and Bettina spent a few years at Mount Burr before moving on, former teacher Julia Whennen has a lifelong connection to the school and says things have changed for the better.
“I think the school’s a much happier place now,” she says.
“It’s a beautiful school, smaller numbers in classes, more variety in the curriculum definitely probably due to technology these days.
Ms Whennen was a teacher at Mount Burr when the time capsule was buried, and still volunteers there now.
“I didn’t think I’d [still] be here when I was younger,” she says.
“I thought I would be here on a walking stick.
“I’m privileged to work right across the school now when I come and this school’s amazing.
“It’s my whole life, it always will be, this school and the people of Mount Burr and the children.”
Ms Whennen said she’d been looking forward to seeing the film.
“I loved it, absolutely loved it,” she says.
“It brought back many memories.
“Probably some I didn’t like, like the milk delivery and kids having to drink this revolting milk, things like that.”
Current Mount Burr year three student Eloise Teagle says the school has changed a lot since the film was made.
“I thought [the film] was cool and it was weird how they took their shoes off in the classroom,” she says.
“You don’t need to take your shoes off and there used to be different things in different places.”
Year two student Michael Williams says his grandfather also went to the school, and it was interesting to see what life was like when he was young.
“[It was] really different from young to old,” he says.