Margaret Davies (nee Jordan)
(Day Student from 1940 to 1943)
At the beginning of the school year in 1940, I commenced my studies at San Clemente High School.
I was a little apprehensive about progressing to secondary school, but, having been all through St. Columban’s primary school, Mayfield with the Dominican Sisters, helped to ease that anxiety.
Compared with the technology and facilities available in schools today. I guess one could say things were fairly primitive in our day. There was no Government aid to Catholic schools, yet they gained good results. The Nuns could not depend on sufficient income from school fees, as a lot of struggling families could not afford to pay these. Our parents worked hard organising fetes, and other fund raising functions, to help the school.
Just emerging from the Great Depression meant that money was scarce. “San Clemente” did not have a library as such. There was a bookcase, with glass doors, housing a small number of books in each of the first, second and third year classrooms. What a contrast to the wonderful new Library opened and blessed recently!
During my time in 1st and 2nd Year the Prioress General of the Dominican Order, Mother M. Concepta O’Donohoe, was a member of the “San Clemente” community, and she taught us English and Art. For the latter she had a habit of bringing something from the kitchen for us to sketch and colour – so there would be a pineapple, a basket of vegetables or a bowl of fruit on her desk.
Mother Concepta’s brother, Rev. Fr. J. O’Donohoe was a Senior Priest in our Diocese at that time and he often visited “San Clemente” to see his sister. Mother would proudly bring him to the classroom, where she kept a clothes brush in her desk. This brush would be given to a student each time Father came, and it was her ‘duty’ to brush his velour felt hat. Then Father would turn to his sister and say “Well Mother, I think they all deserve a half holiday for looking after my hat “and Mother Concepta would agree with him – no such happenings these days!! We enjoyed those days off!!
The Prioress of “San Clemente” at that time was Mother Imelda, and later, when I was in 3rd Year, Mother Anthony. Other sisters who taught me were Sr St Peter (Maths in 1st and 2nd Years) and Sr. St Bernard in 3rd Year, Sister Reginald (Religion and Latin), Sr. Gertrude (French), Sister Chanel (who had taken a vow never to kiss anyone) taught us History and Miss Marion Colligan taught Verse speaking.
Mother Imelda had our choir and we always did very well in the Trinity College of Music and the Australian Music Examination Board Exams. Examiners from both of these always came up from Sydney to hear us.
Sister St. Peter was in charge of Day Pupils in 1st and 2nd Years and Sister Bernadette when I was in 3rd Year. Sister Helena was in charge of the Boarders. She was very ‘short and stout’, (no disrespect intended here), with an infectious smile and was such a happy soul. Everyone loved her dearly.
War had been declared between England and Germany on 3rd September, 1939. Although our young men were enlisting in the Armed Forces, to assist England, and were serving overseas in the Battle of Britain, the Middle East Campaigns and other European theatres of war, it all seemed a long way from us here in Australia – it was “over there”. So school went on as usual in 1st and 2nd Years.
However, when Pearl Harbour was attacked on 7th December, 1941, Australia became much more involved in the war and our way of life was deeply affected.
With the introduction of rationing the Government issued books of coupons, for the purchase of food and clothing, to every citizen – adults and children. Petrol was also rationed, but we didn’t have coupons for this purpose as my parents never had a car in their lives.
Homes had to have at least one room blacked out every night in case of an air raid. This was achieved by covering the windows with black adhesive fabric. Air Raid Precaution (ARP) Wardens took turns in patrolling the streets to check that no light was showing during air-raid drill which occurred frequently – without notice. The ARP Warden had to knock on the door of any home showing light and advise the owner of this. My father, who worked in the Administration Office at BHP, did this voluntary ARP work on some nights – part of his war effort.
Observing these blackout regulations meant that all the family often had to be together in the room that was blacked out (in our case the dining room where our fireplace was), so that meant we school children were all sitting at the one table doing our homework – not away on our own at a desk in a study – probably not the best conditions for study – but we got by. It was part of the “what you didn’t have you didn’t miss” approach. The blacked out windows room was the only room where we could have a light on.
Because of the proximity to BHP and other Industries which would be a prime target for enemy air-raids, San Clemente was situated in a dangerous environment, so the Boarders were all evacuated to the Dominican Convent at Maitland. Thus our 3rd Year Intermediate class reduced considerable to thirteen (13) students. My youngest son has since questioned (jokingly) “Were the Day pupils expendable?”
It turned out to be quite an eventful year with lots of interruptions to routine with regular air raid drill, for which we received no warning. The air-raid siren would sound and we immediately had to stop whatever we were doing, even exams, and proceed to the air-raid shelter, where we had to remain until the ‘all clear’ siren sounded, often which we returned to our class rooms and resumed “business as usual”.
“San Clemente’s “ air-raid shelter had been dug out under our tennis court, which could no longer be used for tennis, as the roof of the shelter consisted of corrugated iron covered with sand bags.
As well as carrying our school ports (suitcases - no back packs in our day) to and from school every day, we had to take what we called our “Dilly Bags”. These were made from strong fabric, canvas or calico, and contained items of necessity in the event of an air-raid. They were hung over the back of our chair in class but had to be taken with us wherever we went to the air-raid shelter, as we wouldn’t know whether the siren had sounded for drill or whether it was ‘the Real Thing’!
The contents of these “Dilly Bags” were as follows: - A knitted Balaclava cap with pockets on the inside oat ear level – cotton wool to fill into these pockets for protection of our ear drums from bomb blasts – corks to bite on to prevent lock jaw – some bandages - soup cubes - barley sugar and blocks of chocolate.
We also wore identification bracelets in wartime – our name and address inscribed on a disc attached to a band on our wrist.
One of the first interruptions to school routine occurred during our first week back in 1942, after the Christmas vacation. We were in the process of doing a Mathematics exam to determine who would do the Advanced Papers - Maths I and Maths II when we sat the Intermediate Certificate exams at the end of the year. The silence in the room was broken with a tremendous roar overhead, the like of which we had never experienced in our skies before. We all hastily downed pens and ran from the room, with Sister St. Bernard our new Maths teacher, gathering up the skirt of her habit following in hot pursuit. We stood looking at the sky, with mouths open, for some time.
What we observed that day was the arrival of the first American Bomber Planes on their way to Williamtown where an Airforce base was established and remains to this day. Up till then we had only been used to seeing small planes like Charles Kingsford Smith’s “Southern Cross” and other similar aircraft in our skies.
The outcome of the exam, when we settled back to it, was that Marie Scanlon and yours truly would be taking the Maths I and Maths II level, and the rest of the class would do the General Maths.
A most unsettling event occurred on 8th June, 1942 when Japanese Midget Submarines, (which had been launched from a larger Submarine, standing off the coast), entered our harbour and shelled Newcastle. We were all wakened from sleep just after midnight to the sound of shells whizzing through the air and we saw the night sky lit up with the piercing rays of our searchlights and the enemy flares sent up to identify their targets.
We had to follow air raid protocol to make sure our homes were blacked out – fill kettles, jugs etc. (even the bath) with water to ensure a supply in case water mains received a direct hit and burst. We knew this was the ‘REAL THING’, so set about doing what we had to do. Newcastle was certainly looked after on that terrifying occasion as most of the shells fired on the city, the BHP and other industries and even the grounds of the Redemptorist Monastery Mayfield (very close to our home) were duds – so minimal damage. It was a miracle that there wasn’t more destruction to those targets!! What a huge relief it was to hear the All clear siren, but it was hard to settle back to sleep. However, next day it was “business as usual”- back to work and back to school. Life had to go on.
There was very little mobility during the war, years eg. no school excursions or interschool sports competitions. Everyone stayed close to home. Although our school would take part in the St Patrick’s Day march at Maitland and the Health Week march in Newcastle - and that was about it!
What we did have was a wonderful Christmas Concert at the end of the year, with the Primary and High Schools combining to present the various items. The Dominican Nuns were renowned for these events, held over two nights, because the Mayfield Parish Hall was not large enough to contain the numbers attending on one night. It was packed to capacity at each performance.
Our mothers spent many hours sewing costumes and making Angel wings etc. for the Nativity Play and the various items, while our dads worked on preparing scenery and other props. The rehearsals and preparations for these concerts took a considerable amount of hours from our scholastic timetable but I think one could say that ‘the end justified the means’ as we all enjoyed ourselves and the concerts were a great success. They gave a lot of pleasure to a lot of people both students and parents alike.
My three years at “San Clemente” were very happy ones, despite the war and I was sad when it came time to leave. We didn’t have Formals or Schoolies Week Celebrations. On our last day at school we had a simple luncheon with each one contributing something from home for the meal. My mother made a beautiful big sponge cake, big enough for each student to have a serving and she decorated it with mock cream and strawberries from Dad’s garden. It was delicious and very popular.
At that time “San Clemente” only extended to the 3rd Year Intermediate level. The Dominican Order had plans to add on 4th and 5th Year – thus raising the school to Leaving Certificate level – but the Government had frozen all building materials, as they were needed for ammunitions and war effort purposes.
There was no University or Teachers’ College in Newcastle at that time so I didn’t go on to any other school to obtain my leaving certificate.
Little did I realise in 1942 that in future years Newcastle would not only have a University but that it would also establish, (in the mid 1970s), an Open Foundation course. This afforded great opportunities for students who had not had the chance to further their education in earlier years.
I enrolled in this course in 1978 and after fulfilling all the requirements of the curriculum matriculated to University. The following year I commence my studies for a Bachelor of Arts Degree.
Being a busy wife and mother, I undertook this on a part time basis and succeeded in gaining my B.A by the end of 1985, the year my first two grandchildren were born. All my children travelled long distances to be present with me at my graduation on 3rd May 1986. It meant a lot to me to wear the cap and gown previously worn by my three sons at their graduation ceremonies.
I feel I owe a great debt of gratitude to “San Clemente”, and the Domicican Sisters, for inspiring in me a love of learning.
These are a few of my memories of “San Clemente” when it was an all-girls school, with 3 term school years.
Margaret Davies (nee Jordan)