By MICK ROBERTS ©
PRIMITIVE but strikingly beautiful surrounds greeted 19-year-old Walter McLaren after trudging the rugged bush track from Bulli to Clifton in July 1878.
The teenager had caught Waterworth’s Day Coach from Campbelltown to Bulli for his new appointment as teacher of Clifton Public School before setting off on foot and wearily wandering into the newly established mining village.
Alexander Stuart’s Coal Cliff Colliery employed 73 men when McLaren arrived to educate the miners’ children.
With the colliery came a permanent and sizeable population and in January 1878 an application was made to establish a school for the 26 boys and 18 girls of the village.
Approval was granted by the Council of Education on April 8 1878.
One can only wonder the look on the fresh faced McLaren when he strolled into the village casting an eye over its jerry built miners’ cottages and shacks. He didn’t even have a school house or residence and was forced to teach to 17 of his promised 44 pupils in a shed rented from the colliery.
Things looked up for the newly appointed teacher in late 1878 when owner of the colliery, Alexander Stuart, who later became Premier of NSW, donated half an acre of land for Clifton school. Tenders were called and by the end of 1879 a timber school 24 ft by 17 ft, providing accommodation for 49 students, was completed together with a two room weatherboard residence with shingled roof and a kitchen.
As Clifton prospered the ramshackled miners’ homes that greeted McLaren in 1878 gave way to a thriving village by the mid 1880s. There were 150 miners and their families, two pubs and a number of general stores servicing Illawarra’s main commercial centre north of Bulli.
McLaren’s new school, built to house 49 students, soon became over-crowded with more then 80 students. To relieve congestion another school room was built along with extensions to McLaren’s residence in 1884.
Ironically the popular teacher was nearly forced to leave Clifton after lobbying for better conditions for himself and his students.
The School Inspector recommended McLaren be transferred and a married teacher take his place as the newly extended residence was more suited to a family. McLaren, at the age of 25, was “not likely to be married in definite time, in fact has not marriage in view” the Inspector reported.
Residents strongly objected to his transfer and wrote to the Inspector complaining that “his removal at present would cause universal regret throughout the district and we believe would seriously retard the educational progress of the children”.
Their objections were heeded, and in what seems a convenient safeguard against another attempt to transfer him,, McLaren headed to the altar in 1885 and married, Sarah Lindsay, the daughter of local publicans, Alfred and Sarah Broadhead.
At a time when women over 25 were considered well over the marrying age and were destined to remain a spinster, Sarah was 29 when she made her vows to the teacher.
The two had five children over the following 11 years before he was transferred to Stockton, near Newcastle in July 1896.
Over 400 people packed the Clifton Public Hall to hear several speeches praising Walter’s and Sarah’s contribution to the community over 18 years as teacher.
He was presented with an illuminated address illustrated with local scenes and signed by prominent residents.
Amongst the gifts he was presented with by the community and former students were an engraved silver tea and coffee set and tray, a “handsome writing desk” and a silver mounted ebony walking stick.
Clifton’s first teacher, Walter McLaren died in Sydney in 1934 aged 75 and his wife, Sarah in 1964.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2014