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HomeIssue 1War and peace: Supporting soldiers and students

War and peace: Supporting soldiers and students

For nearly 25 years, 1941 to 1966, St John’s was a key community centre in Alice Springs supporting the war effort by providing comforts to soldiers and providing a place for young people to live and access education. JOHN P McD SMITH reflects on the history legacy of the hostel.

Concern that many outback children had little access to purposeful education led Father Percy Smith, the first resident Anglican priest in Alice Springs, in 1933 to devise a support plan.

Until 1951 station children only had access to an education through the Correspondence School of the Education Department of South Australia, which was established in 1920.

Sets of lessons were prepared in Adelaide by teachers and posted fortnightly to pupils. The only other option was for outback children to go to boarding school. Other than the Hermannsburg Mission School and the school at “The Bungalow” in Alice Springs there was no education available to Aboriginal children.

It was against this backdrop that Father Smith decided that the Anglican Church should help to improve educational outcomes for bush children.  So in 1941 he began St John’s Hostel as a place where bush children could reside while having the chance to attend school.

Bush children meant all outback children, which therefore included Aboriginal children. This was part of Father Smith’s resolve to do something to improve the lot of Aboriginal children.

Father Smith began to let outback people know that he was establishing a hostel in Alice Springs where their children could reside and go to school every day.  At the outset there were seven children who took up residence and initially they had to sleep in the sleepout at the rectory. 

Miss Isobel Wilson was engaged to be the first matron.  However, it was soon obvious that a separate facility was needed. 

Father Smith began negotiations for establishing a suitable building which meant where do we get the money from? Local people made donations with some using War Savings Certificates. 

After the bombing of Darwin in February 1942 the proposed hostel took on a military role.

The defence authorities wanted the proposed building to be made available as a recreation centre for soldiers stationed in Alice Springs as the desperate rush continued to get Australian armed forces north.

The plan was that sections of the building were to be used for troop recreational purposes.

One room was set aside as a dormitory for the first seven outback children.  To reside at St John’s Hostel one boy had ridden 60 miles from his station and then flown 600 miles to Alice Springs.  A long way.

In earlier times he would have had to travel yet another 1000 miles to Adelaide.  He did not consider himself far from home at Alice Springs!

The war created new roles for many people. Father Smith became a part-time Army Chaplain. By developing a plan to use sections of the hostel as a recreation centre for the AIF, he was able to attract more donations towards the cost of the first phase of the building project for St John’s Hostel to support the war effort. 

General donations had raised 500 pounds.  Then a generous donation came from the Church of England War Council (The Church Federal War Work Council).  A further 1350 pounds was required.  It turned out that 850 pounds was borrowed to complete the building. 

The building was opened by Major J W S Greaves representing the Military Authorities on Sunday August 23, 1942 with Father Smith blessing the new facility. 

The top floor of the centre was set up as a dance hall with venetian blinds and a cool tropical layout. 

Downstairs had a large lounge room with curtains, paintings by noted artists, comfortable easy chairs, a well stocked library, a baby grand piano and a small billiard table.  All these features were supplied by the military. 

Troops could have hot baths and appetising meals.  The centre was supervised by Church Army Captain Collier.  Many soldiers gained much solace, friendship and comfort from the Recreation Centre. It was an important contribution to the war effort.

Money still had to be found to pay off the debt.  Over sixty weekly dances raised 500 pounds.  A series of picture shows brought in 600 pounds.  The proprietor of the Pioneer Picture Theatre, Mr Kenna, lent his theatre for this purpose.  There were card evenings which raised a substantial sum, while the Federated War Work Council provided 5 pounds a week towards maintenance. The debt was cleared!

Father Smith was full of praise for the soldiers commenting: “We’ve experienced no acts of vandalism, no books or equipment have been removed nor has anyone defaced the property

“I have found that if you give the men something worth looking after and treat them in the right way, they’ll respect your property and reciprocate your hospitality.” 

The second section of St John’s Hostel was completed in 1945 with the war having ended.  It was opened and dedicated by the Bishop of Carpentaria (Rt Rev S H Davies) on October 14. 

In his address, the Bishop said that with a hostel such as this the Church was helping in the development of the Northern Territory by assisting the settlers and miners and those who lived away from main centres by providing a place where their children could be trained and educated. 

It was also helping the government to maintain schools, and although the Church of England did not ask for any special favours from the government by way of grants it did expect the government to maintain the present high standard.

This threw the burden of financing this project on church people in Alice Springs and in other parts of Australia.  The second section of the building cost 5000 pounds of which 2500 pounds had been raised.   

Some of the Aboriginal children who have resided at St John’s Hostel over the years are: Charlie Perkins, Malcolm Cooper, Bill Espie, John Palmer, Noel Hampton, Bert Furber, Les Nayda, Billy Briscoe, Harold Thomas, Lana Thomas, Diane Thomas and Dennis Wickman.  A number of the boys in this group went on to live at St Francis’ House, Semaphore South in Adelaide.

The role of St John’ Hostel changed in 1951. In June the first School of the Air opened in Alice Springs based at the Alice Springs Primary School, known as the Hartley Street School. 

It was partly an initiative of Miss Adelaide Miethke who was an inspector of schools for the Education Department of South Australia.  The School of the Air meant that the same level of urgency for bush children to reside at St John’s Hostel diminished. 

However, the work of St John’s continued especially for Aboriginal children.

Father Smith had returned to Alice Springs from St Francis’ House in Adelaide in 1949. The Rector of Alice Springs has always been Superintendent of St John’s Hostel and Superintendent of St Mary’s Hostel, Alice Springs.  While this was the case St Mary’s was administered separately from St John’s from the time of its inception in 1946. 

Father E K Leslie was the founder of St Mary’s, which he established as a hostel for Aboriginal children from the bush to reside while gaining an education in Alice Springs.  Theirs was a great need.  Sister Eileen Heath was the first caregiver at St Mary’s in 1946.

St John’s Hostel assumed another role in 1953 when Father Smith and Mrs Lucy Britain, a parish worker, established the first Aboriginal preschool in Alice Springs.  They both keenly realised that when Aboriginal children started school at the age of five they were far behind the white children in terms of their cognitive and social skills. 

Modern research has shown that 50% of a child’s intelligence is formed by the age of five. 

The Aboriginal children in the town lived at an area known as The Gap.  The housing and facilities were poor and it was a little south of the town near Heavitree Gap.  The Aboriginal people who lived there were isolated in a socio-economic sense as well as there being no means of transport. 

Father Smith and Mrs Britain realized these circumstances.  Father Smith knew most of the Aboriginal families at The Gap and he encouraged them to take up the offer of a special preschool. 

He arranged for a government truck to go to The Gap each day, pick up the children and return them at the end of the day, which solved the transport problem.

Mrs Britain ran the preschool very well. She was ably assisted by Ms Marie Burke who was an Aboriginal woman who resided at St Mary’s with her two daughters. 

Marie Burke was more than likely the first Aboriginal teacher aide in Australia. This arrangement lasted until 1960 when the government established an Aboriginal preschool in Alice Springs. 

It is well worth remembering that in 1948, at a conference in Darwin, the Professor of Anthropology at Sydney University, Professor A P Elkin stated: “Australia was forced by world opinion to adopt policies to improve the conditions of her Aborigines.” 

After 1960 the role of St John’s changed again.  Fewer bush children lived there with older children and young adults residing there to take advantage of vocational and employment opportunities in Alice Springs.

In 1966 disaster struck St John’s Hotel.  On the August 23 fire broke out on the first floor and spread down through the ceiling to the ground floor.  Twelve people were sleeping in the building that night.  They all managed to escape. 

The cause of the fire was unknown according to the official police report.  By this time the hostel was no longer a residence for children attending school in Alice Springs.

The building was gutted and could not be repaired in a way that would meet required building regulations. 

Eventually a new hostel building was established in front of the old St John’s.  It was now for people seeking accommodation in Alice Springs while studying, doing apprenticeships or gaining employment. 

The role of St John’s in supporting the Australian Army during WW2 is important and memorable.

In addition, the hostel holds a noteworthy and significant place in the church’s work to improve the lot of Aboriginal people. Quite a number of the Aboriginal children who resided at St John’s have become noted, high achieving Australians setting a benchmark for Aboriginal achievement at a time when few Aboriginal people gained education and experiences to which they have a right.

Main photo: Group of St John’s Hostel children 1953 ready for sports day.

John P McD Smith is Chair of the St Francis’ House Project.



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