Academic journal article History of Education Review

Mechanical Contrivances and Fancy Needlework: The Brisbane Exhibition and Education in Colonial Queensland

Academic journal article History of Education Review

Mechanical Contrivances and Fancy Needlework: The Brisbane Exhibition and Education in Colonial Queensland

Article excerpt

Since its inception in 1876, Queensland's premier agricultural and pastoral show and largest annual event, the Brisbane Exhibition, has provided a forum in which to observe and reflect on the achievements, values, development and scope of Queensland's education system. The inaugural constitution of the Exhibition's host body, the National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland, drafted by the first headmaster of Brisbane Grammar School, Thomas Harlin, listed among its objects: 'To award prizes for the attainment of proficiency by the youth of the colony in specified subjects'. (1) In its first twenty-five years of annual shows, the Association met this objective at a modest level through its schoolwork category, with the notable exception of 1883, when it sponsored a highly successful Juvenile Industrial Exhibition. Examination of both the regular schoolwork category and the Juvenile Exhibition reveals the elements of the local curriculum that the Association deemed appropriate for inclusion in its annual shows, while comments from newspapers, educators and other individuals on the quality and nature of the schoolwork displays offer insights into the context of and aspirations for the colony's education system. The Association's own early attempts to influence that system initially focused on technical instruction. From the mid-1880s, however, it became more outspoken in its promotion of agricultural education. It also sought to position the Brisbane Exhibition as a valuable asset in Queensland's expanding network of educational organisations, asserting the importance of the show's role in catering to the needs of adults outside the formal education system. Thus, a study of schoolwork and juvenile entries in the first quarter century of the Brisbane Exhibition can enrich historians' understanding of education in colonial Queensland and draws attention to the role of an institution that stood outside of but interacted with the education system.

Getting started

The National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland was formed in 1875, the same year that Queensland's Education Act provided for free, secular and compulsory education for non-Aboriginal children between the ages of six and twelve under the control of a Department of Public Instruction. (2) When the first Brisbane Exhibition opened on 22 August 1876, there were nearly 250 public primary schools in the colony, an emerging Catholic school system, various private schools, and the Ipswich and Brisbane Grammar Schools, the latter including a girls' section. Toowoomba Grammar School had appointed its first headmaster but it would not begin classes until the following year. The primary school syllabus prescribed by the Education Act consisted of 'reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, geography, history, elementary mechanics, object lessons, drill and gymnastics, vocal music and (in the case of girls) sewing and needlework', although contemporary and subsequent commentators have noted considerable variation in the quality and extent of teaching of subjects beyond the three 'R's. (3) Technical and agricultural education were almost non-existent. The Queenslander regretted in 1875 that 'In this colony, as education is at present imparted, it is impossible for any youth to take up the practice of any art or manufacture'. (4)

For its first exhibition in 1876, the National Association prepared an ambitious prize schedule which partly drew its inspiration from London's Great Exhibition of 1851. (5) The schoolwork category was one of the smaller sections, with just six classes: plain needlework, fancy needlework and embroidery, mechanical contrivances, woodcarving, collections of natural history, and drawing. (6) There were sixty-three entries from Brisbane, Toowoomba, Ipswich, Helidon, Logan, Bundaberg and Gladstone schools, representing the state primary, private, catholic and grammar schools. The gendered dimensions were immediately apparent with the needlework categories restricted to girls and the mechanical contrivances category to boys. …

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