UNLOCKING THE PAST: A grand Edwardian picnic on Wollombi Common

GRAND OCCASION: A school picnic at Wollombi Common in the 1900s-1910s. Participants donned their finest outfits, including magnificent hats, for the occasion. Picture: Cessnock City Library Local History Collection
GRAND OCCASION: A school picnic at Wollombi Common in the 1900s-1910s. Participants donned their finest outfits, including magnificent hats, for the occasion. Picture: Cessnock City Library Local History Collection

Our sprawling local government area is full of hidden gems, tucked away off the beaten track and often carrying their own fascinating history.

One of these is Wollombi Common, which sits just outside the beautiful village of the same name. It has been a public recreation ground for over 150 years and in 1886 it even had five trustees elected to look after its grounds, legally appointed under the Commons Regulation Act (1873).

It seems fitting then that this school picnic on the Wollombi Common, in the early years of the 20th century, sees its participants stylishly decked out in outfits as elaborate, detailed and impressive as those at any grand high society event.

There are so many wonderful things about this photograph, but it perfectly conceals as much as it reveals, like so many mysteries from history.

We know that this is a picnic group, but where are the baskets and rugs? We know this is a school picnic, but why are there so many adults and so few children?

In 1900 Wollombi Public School was booming with 71 children enrolled, two teachers employed and operating out of a solid building constructed only nine years earlier.

It is a glorious turn-of-the-century photograph, with its participants resplendent in dazzling Edwardian fashion.

For the women this meant serious corsetry, while the men display heavy fob watch chains and don smart head wear. The women’s clothing is restrained, with long dresses, covered arms and high collars ensuring that as much flesh as possible is concealed.

But there is nothing restrained about their stunning hats, which are enormous, flamboyant confections of ruched fabric, ribbons and artificial flowers. The head wear is simply magnificent and of an astounding size, including one small girl whose oversize hat is threatening to cover her face and a baby sporting a splendidly large bonnet.

The Wollombi Common is still a picnic area, now known officially as the Wollombi Recreation Ground, and it remains much as it looked over a century ago.

The Wollombi Public School is still a place of learning, it has been re-born as the Wollombi School Community Education Trust, which runs the site as a not-for-profit educational resource for the whole community.

A visit to this beautiful place is recommended – just remember to get into the spirit and bring a particularly fabulous hat!

Kimberly O’Sullivan is the Local Studies Librarian at Cessnock City Library