Unlocking the Past: Education minister encounters snake on 1937 visit to Cessnock High School

It's back to school month and the new influx of young people to high school for the first time could find some classrooms full, or even overflowing.

That was certainly the case in February 1937 when the crowded conditions at Cessnock High School were so bad that Cessnock Council stepped in.

Council complained to the NSW Minister for Education, David Drummond, about the drastic lack of space for new students arriving at the school. Cessnock Mayor Sam Horne and Alderman John Brown went to Sydney to meet with the Minister and further council deputations followed to the Minister for Works and Local Government.

In 1937 Cessnock High School was the largest high school in NSW and possibly the largest in Australia. While a new high school building was under construction an alarmed Parents & Citizens Association and Council could already see, before it was finished, that it was too small. The political pressure worked and the Minister agreed to visit Cessnock High School on March 6.

A deputation was ready with its list of demands: daily milk rations for all students, the construction of a school railway siding by the South Maitland Railways allowing direct access to the school, the playground cleared of scrub and a gymnasium and tuck shop built.

GRATITUDE: David Henry Drummond visited Cessnock High School in 1937 at the request of the council. Picture: State Library of NSW

GRATITUDE: David Henry Drummond visited Cessnock High School in 1937 at the request of the council. Picture: State Library of NSW

The nearness of scrub to classrooms was demonstrated clearly during David Drummond's tour of the school. The official party came across a five foot black snake coiled in one of the school rooms, Alderman Cecil Smyth quickly seized a block of wood and killed the unfortunate reptile, but not before it startled the official visitor.

The Minister was given gifts made by pupils: a wooden inlaid tray by three woodwork students which was lined with an embroidered cloth made by Hazel Salton. The Minister was touched saying he would 'treasure' the gifts as they were made by the students themselves.

The visit was deemed a success: a bigger school building was constructed, a tuck shop and gym were built, but the railways baulked at providing a school siding, the provision of daily milk did go ahead - possibly creating queasy memories for many students and putting others off milk for life.

At Cessnock Library we remember Minister Drummond with gratitude. Widely read and known for his love of literature he carried through the Library Act (1939) which established the State system of free public libraries.

Kimberly O'Sullivan is the Local Studies Librarian at Cessnock Library. Email her on kimberly.osullivan@cessnock.nsw.gov.au.

  • READ MORE: All previous Unlocking the Past columns can be found here.