UNLOCKING THE PAST: School book of 1890s Pokolbin girl Vara King on display at Cessnock Library

1880 was a watershed year for school education in NSW.

BRIGHT: Vara King's homework book showcases her natural intelligence, with astute essays and impressive mathematical prowess.

BRIGHT: Vara King's homework book showcases her natural intelligence, with astute essays and impressive mathematical prowess.

The Public Instruction Act was passed, making it compulsory for all children aged between six and 14 years to attend school regularly.

The philosophy which lay behind these reforms was sound.

Schooling was central in creating a well-balanced, literate child one who had basic numeracy skills.

As these children would form the backbone of the next generation of adults, giving them a good education would bring great benefit to Australian society as a whole.

The children helped greatest by the Act were the most vulnerable.

Large families, particularly rural ones, often could not afford to educate all their children, or required them to be working on the family farm, not sitting in a school room.

The reforms had a gender benefit too.

As education at government schools was free, families no longer had to make a financial choice about whether or not they could afford to educate their daughters.

In the years following these educational reforms Vara Selina King, daughter of renowned Mount Pleasant vigneron Charles King and his wife Elizabeth, attended a one-room school at Pokolbin.

As the middle child in a family of 11 her school education may not have been guaranteed and she was just the kind of young person protected by the provisions of the new Public Instruction Act.

Remarkably one of Varas homework books has survived. Covering the year 1890-1891, it was passed down through her family and has now been generously donated by Marcia and Colin Maybury and Helen Cade to the Local Studies collection, Cessnock Library.

This delightful school book showcases 12-year-old Varas natural intelligence, with astute essays on English history, Australian geography, anatomy and even metallurgy.

Her mathematical prowess is impressive with page after page showing complex equations, including the use of practical Hunter Valley examples in her formulas.

In one multiplication exercise Vara calculates the cost of 12 gallons of wine at 13 shillings, nine and a half pence per gallon.

This school book is full of Varas neat copper plate hand writing, accidental ink blots and even homework corrections from her teacher.

It is now on display at Cessnock Library, providing a unique opportunity to have a glimpse into this bright girls life; by reading her words we hear her own voice.

Kimberly O‚ÄôSullivan is the Local Studies Librarian at Cessnock Library. Email kimberly.osullivan@cessnock.nsw.gov.au.