The tiny arms of small children stretched around the massive girth of the ailing indigenous Blakeney’s red gum. Their piping voices exhorted the gnarled old tree to ‘Get better, please’! Ten years ago, one half of its foliage was there, the other was stark white bare branches. It had stood in the yard of what would become the Tuggeranong Schoolhouse from before the arrival of Europeans in Australia.

It would have sheltered Aboriginal people before they ascended the adjacent Simpsons Hill, leaving their stone tools, some of which have been found on site, to look for game and other clan fires. It would have also sheltered native animals such as possums, as well as later, grazing stock, particularly sheep, from the distant Tuggeranong Homestead.

It was there when a slab schoolhouse was built in 1878, and it was there, in front of the current brick building when that was erected in 1880. While there was no water on the site, the tree still flourished. At some point between 1878 and the 1890s an extensive shelter belt of Monterey pine trees was planted to enclose the long schoolhouse paddock. One pine remains.

In these current times, when we are exhorted to grow shade trees on our ever- decreasing suburban blocks of land, it is timely to reflect on the plantings at the old schoolhouse on this now diminished acre of Canberra’s history. Over the years the schoolmasters tried to establish vegetable and flower gardens as well as orchards of fruit trees, using only tank water, and child labour, to keep them watered.

In 1938 schoolmaster Cecil Browne accepted a gift of British oak saplings from the prominent Sydney retail firm ‘Anthony Hordern and Sons’, whose motto was, ‘while I Live, I’ll Grow’. Mr Browne wrote back to the firm saying that the little oaks would be planted as part of the school’s Empire Day celebrations, and that ‘they will continue to thrive and in due time will stand as sentinels to remind us of our British heritage’. A year later the Second World War was declared, and Australia became involved. There are no surviving oak trees at the Tuggeranong Schoolhouse precinct.

In 1898 schoolmaster Frank McGee and his young family arrived at the site- they stayed for the next thirty years. An ardent arborist, McGee, and his pupils, in their time, collected seeds to assist Charles Weston, the botanist tasked with greening the fledgling city of Canberra.

McGee was also a keen apiarist and in 1901 was reported, very favourably, in the Queanbeyan Age, on his successful beekeeping. The reporter noted that there were 50 large hives and four for the Queen bees from which he was able to annually extract three tons of honey. The bees would have feasted on the many indigenous trees as well as those that had been introduced. He also noted that McGee was growing excellent green barley for his two Shorthorn cows and his horse, and his cows were also yielding 8 to 12 pounds of butter per week.

1901 was a propitious year for McGee, and the nation. On 1 January Australia’s states federated to become the Commonwealth of Australia. On that day the first Arbor Day was declared which was used to encourage the greening of the land, especially for school children. For McGee it was a propitious time in that he had a schoolroom of 26 primary school students, his fifth child was born that year, and his successful efforts as a farmer and apiarist had been recognised by the newspaper report. In the following years Canberra was selected for the site of the National Capital.

Again, as reported in the Queanbeyan Age, 7 December 1915, McGee is lauded for his progressive instructing of his students in growing crops, vegetables, trees, and flowers using scientific principles. He ‘combines practical agricultural methods with the elementary rules of mathematics’. His sixth child, James, was to be become an eminent scientist for the British in the Second World War, and he was involved in the development of television.

So successful were McGee’s lessons that, as reported in the Queanbeyan Leader, 9 June 1905, some of his students entered their produce of honey, fruit, and vegetables in the Royal Agricultural Show in Sydney. The Harrison boys of Tuggeranong Platform, a railway family, excelled and were awarded an illuminated certificate of merit for their excellent apiarian products. Considering that these boys had had a very tough life, losing their mother that year, and their father five years later in an horrific railway accident, this achievement was special. The boys, often restless in class and late for school, also appeared regularly in the School’s Punishment Book.

McGee had quite a few problems at the Schoolhouse, primarily to do with water as he relied for his home, and school, on tank water. He reported to the NSW Education Department in 1912 that, ‘every summer for the last 12 years I have been obliged to draw water from a spring a quarter of a mile distant, (the only permanent water in the area), because of problems in collecting tank water from a roof and guttering which are in such a wretched condition’. A corrugated iron roof, replacing a wooden shingled one, was installed that year, and survived until 2010 when it was replaced by the current green Colourbond roof.

Despite these problems the old gum tree in front of the schoolhouse flourished. The death knell for many of the plantings was sounded in the years before I took over the tenancy and turned the site into a museum. The previous tenants ran goats to keep the grass under control. The depravations caused by the goats, plus a prolonged drought had destroyed much of the old garden. Hardy introduced species such as Chinese Elms and Cypress trees have flourished as has masses of the ground cover, periwinkle. Some Australian native trees have also done well – a Tasmanian Blue Gum, Kurrajongs, and an impressive Yellow Box feature in the yard. Of special note are the two very healthy Blakeney’s red gums.

But what has hastened the demise of the magnificent centuries old red gum at the front of the schoolhouse? On a school visit a few years ago, a small boy rushed into the schoolroom and excitedly declared ‘someone’s been sleeping in your tree!’ Unbeknownst to me, or his teachers, he had discovered four old iron spikes driven deep within the trunk of the magnificent tree, enabling access to the branches above. Nicely arranged, in the deep hollows of the old tree, were three pillows. A local historian solved the mystery. Possum hunters in the 1950s raided the hollows of such trees. They were after possums to skin so they could, in this case, make products such as the blanket on the bed in the children’s bedroom in the museum. Forty- eight pelts have been sewn together to make a very cosy blanket.

The drought, plus the spikes finally killed this massive ghostly white/grey tree but it has now been repurposed, with its extensive spectral limbs extensively trimmed to make it into a ‘habitat tree’. Once again it is sheltering native wildlife as well as introduced species, including, possibly ‘persons unknown’.

No one lives in the house now, and the over the last ten years the schoolroom has been filled with the shrill voices of many visiting small school children. But the site is not totally empty. Possums and, until recently, bees, have been the main residents and, the possums particularly, if woken from their daytime sleep, loudly protest often startling the museum visitors. The current residents of the old gum tree are a family of sulphur crested cockatoos whose yellow crests bob up and down from deep in the cosy hollows of the gnarly old tree.

History With a Difference