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Neglected history at the Launceston Infant School

It is sad to see the poor condition of the now vacant Launceston Infant School building in Frederick Street.

The main building dates from 1836 and the property is currently the subject of an Expression of Interest process for its future use by the City of Launceston Council.

It was Launceston’s first infant school and has given great service over the past 187 years, serving as a school, church, kindergarten and childcare centre.

Cracks and peeling paint on the exterior are clearly visible but more concerning is an engineers’ report, made available as part of the Expression of Interest process, that lists numerous structural problems.

As one of Launceston’s more historic buildings it surely should have been better maintained.

The Infant School is a typical story of early Launcestonians having to build their own public institutions.

Tenders were called for its construction in April 1835 by a group of community-minded citizens and followed the establishment of an infant school in Hobart in 1832.

Public subscriptions, a government loan of £250 and the promise of £50 a year to pay for a teacher had been obtained to get the Launceston school underway.

Prominent among the founding members of the Launceston Infant School committee were businessmen John Ward Gleadow, Phillip Oakden, Lewis Gillies and Henry Reed, solicitor Henry Jennings and the Reverend Henry Dowling.

They announced the school would be open to all children between the ages of two and seven years, with the Holy Scriptures being the basis of all instruction.

Transfer of ownership of the Infant School to the Launceston Municipal Council was completed at the end of 1887.

The Tasmanian newspaper of Saturday, January 7, 1888 described the infant school as one of the earliest public buildings in Launceston:

In those early days it was not a difficult matter to obtain from the Government a grant of land for public purposes, and the need for an Infant School in Launceston having been felt several gentlemen applied for a site for such an institution.

The minutes of their proceedings show that on 9th January 1835, the committee wrote to George Frankland, Esq., Surveyor-General, asking him to point out the piece of land set apart by the Government for an Infant School.

Shortly afterwards, but for what reason does not appear, unless that the site understood to be reserved by the Government was deemed too far from the centre of the town, Mr Gleadow and Mr Reed were empowered by the committee to select and purchase a piece of land and procure specifications for a building.

The land offered by the government turned out to be a quarter of an acre fronting on Tamar Street, at the end of Cameron Street, near the entrance to today’s City Park but it was thought at the time to be too remote.

On January 27, 1835, John Gleadow and Henry Reed reported that they had bought a block of land in Frederick Street, from John Thompson for one hundred and twenty guineas, and had accepted builder John Anderson Brown’s tender of £564.

Work was expected to start immediately with the government providing a gang of convicts to dig the foundations and quarry the stone required. Bricks that could be spared from government works were to be provided.

Progress was slow and in the meantime the committee announced they had obtained temporary premises at the southern end of Charles Street (on the corner of Balfour Street) and recruited an infant school master and mistress, Mr and Mrs Lilly, from NSW.

On June 16, 1835, eleven children were enrolled but this soon increased to about 60 and no more children could be accommodated until the new school house in Frederick Street was completed.

Subscribers and other interested citizens were invited to the new Frederick Street Infant School to celebrate its imminent completion on March 3, 1836.

When the annual meeting of the Launceston Infant School Society was held on Wednesday, February 15, 1837 there were 100 students on the books.

Over the next 30 years the building was also used for church services, at first by Rev. Henry Dowling, and a meeting place for organisations like the Launceston Temperance Society.

However, in 1860 the building was leased to the government “for a peppercorn rent” and became a state school, a role it filled until the construction of a new school at the Sandhill in 1885.

The last surviving trustee of the Launceston Infant School Society, the Reverend Charles Price, then offered ownership of the school to the Launceston Municipal Council. The transfer was completed at the end of 1887.

The Tasmanian of Saturday, January 7, 1888 noted that the property was very valuable and would become more valuable as time passed, “and we may express a hope that it will never be alienated or abused.”

The council marked their appreciation of the Rev. Price's action by passing a formal vote of thanks, and ordering it to be recorded in the minutes.

Let’s hope this important piece of Launceston’s history isn’t “alienated or abused” by the current council after the Expression of Interest process.

The copyright for the words and images in this article are held by Julian Burgess


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