We know that before 1860 there was a one teacher school in Balmain. Records tell us that this school of 39 boys was in a wooden building about 10m x 5m. The exact location of this school is not known. About this time, some very well known local men including Dr. Spencer Evans, Alexander Chape, Michael Fitzpatrick and Rev. Ralph Mansfield applied to have this school recognised as a National School. This meant that financial aid became available to pay the salary of the teacher, provide certain text books and equipment, and supply two-thirds of the cost of buildings, repairs and sites.
The school officially became a National School in February, 1860, and by the end of the year had an enrolment of 138 pupils. In 1861 plans were drawn up for a brick building for three hundred children. The land, next to the Roman Catholic Church, was purchased and the build was built for 1280 pounds, the local patrons contributing 300 pounds. The new building was occupied in November 1862, but by 1864 this became too small for the 350 pupils, three teachers and two pupil teachers. New rooms were added.
School fees were set by the local patrons at 8d. per child per week in 1863. These fees were divided among the headmaster, the first assistant and the infants teacher. With the passing of the Public Schools Act in 1866, the school became known as a Public School, girls went to the school as well as boys.
In March 1881 the school was made a Superior Public School, that is, a primary school with secondary classes. Practically all the secondary education in N.S.W. was carried on in superior public schools such as this for many years afterwards. Balmain during these years was a rather inaccessible place, and the teachers were often late. One pupil-teacher, Miss Elphinstone, lived at Glebe and had to leave home at 7:30a.m. to arrive at school by 9:00a.m. She had to go through the city to Circular Quay and take the ferry to Balmain Wharf. Another teacher, Miss Heydon, came from Parramatta. She caught the earliest ferry of a morning from Parramatta, but oftentimes, as her ferry came close to Balmain there would be no boatman on the wharf and so she would be taken on to Circular Quay and have to catch another ferry back.
For many years the school had an accommodation problem: too little space for so many children. In 1875 land was bought from Mrs. a'Beckett across the road. In 1876 the two-storey building was errected for the Girl's Department and the Infants - the girls upstairs and the infants downstairs.
By 1883, the school enrolment has risen to 1269 children. In 1892 the infants building was erected. There was very little playground, just the strip between the two buildings. By 1912 the full site now occupied by the school was separated from Gladstone Park.
The three-storey building was completed in 1915 and became known as the Girls Building. The boys moved into the 1876 building and the 1862 building was sold to the Roman Catholic Church for their extensions in 1920.
In 1958 a fire destroyed much of the 1876 building. This is the reason for the red brickwork on the outside and the modified rooms inside. As it was planned to send the secondary boys to Ibrox Park the next year, two downstairs classrooms were formed into the existing hall. The school has served the community in various ways over the years. In 1899 an evening school was established. It seemed to have been successful and to have continued for many years.
In 1901 special classes for retarded children were begun for children over eight years of age. These were probably the earliest of such classes ever formed in N.S.W.
In 1946 the school became a Demonstration School in conjunction with Balmain Teachers College. When the College moved to Lindfield this association ceased.
In 1950 the girls' secondary classes ended. In 1959 the boys' secondary classes ended, the boys going to classes at Ibrox Park High School, Leichhardt.
Attitudes to education have changed over the years. On community involvement, one anecdote reads: In May 1880, the Mayor of Balmain wrote asking if the newly formed Town Brass Band could use the school for practice. This request was refused as the Headmaster said the request was likely to lead to inconvenience and possible damage. "In addition", he said, "I am of the opinion the very fact that the premises are used for purposes of the character specified must tend to lessen that moral influence arising from the veneration with which the pupils are taught to regard the school room."
Money for education has always been a problem. By 1874, new accommodation was required, but any move was reviewed with some apprehension by the staff as it would mean a reduction in the amount of money received from school fees by the headmaster and the other assistants. Approximately one third of salaries was paid by the Council and two thirds was raised from school fees.
Water also became a costly problem. Each of the buildings had an underground tank from which water was drawn, but in 1878 these tanks were found to be polluted. The matter was reported, but nothing was done. The headmaster was instructed to get water for drinking elsewhere, a most difficult and inconvenient duty. In late 1879 above ground tanks were installed, but not before the headmaster was in serious trouble for an unauthorised expense he had incurred for having water delivered to the school for drinking purposes.
World War I brought a patriotic response from schools. Balmain raised money for relief funds among Belgian orphans by holding concerts, knitting for soldiers and their families and organising displays.
Many older residents refer to this school as the Pigeon Ground School, the school in the park. It was an early local practice to shoot pigeons on this area. Resident action had this sport forbidden, but the memory and the pigeons remain.
Changes have been sweeping over our Balmain peninsular and changes have been occurring in education. However our school remains not only as a significant landmark but also as a symbol of an influence which contributes to the development of our children.