Beecroft School of Arts

Early residents in Beecroft quickly established a community life for the new village. Churches were built. Shops were built. An area, which became the Village Green, was set aside for recreation. By 1897 some of that land that had been set aside for recreation was leased for the establishment of Beecroft Tennis Club, which proceeded to initially build two courts.

A public space to meet, have performances and to offer intellectual stimulation was also considered essential for Village life. As early as 1896 then then President of the Progress Association (Walter Perdriau) raised the possibility of a School of Arts with the local member of Parliament. The local member suggested that this might be on the northern corner of Copeland and Beecroft Roads ie where the fire station is currently located. This was then further pursued in 1902, but this time a site on the northern side of the Village Green was suggested. Possible trustees were nominated and a fund-raising committee established [1]. 

One of the most important of these fund-raising events was later in 1902 when the New South Wales Governor, His Excellency Sir Harry Rawson, came by train to attend an open-air sports day, held on the Village Green which was also decorated with streamers between ‘innumerable stalls’ staffed by fancy-dressed stallholders. The local newspaper reported that 2000 people attended. Profits went to the building fund [2]. 

The Building and governance of the School of Arts 

The foundation stone for the building was cut by George Willis (the father of David who is commemorated in the Boer War memorial) from his land in Welham Street. The foundation stone was laid by sixteen-year-old Doris Tucker, daughter of one of most active of the community organisers, Charles Churchill Tucker.

Once the building work was completed the School of Arts was opened in 1904 by the Governor Sir Harry Rawson – who was known to Mr Chorley. Miss Alice Chorley presented flowers to the Governor. Two leading families of the day (one from Beecroft and the other Cheltenham) had thus been represented in the opening of this auspicious building. The initial building was designed by Lindsay Thompson and its construction was paid for by the local residents. 

Following the success of the School of Arts, planning commenced for additions, designed by William Nixon the local architect, to be approved by the trustees in 1907 and by 1910 sufficient funds had been raised for extensions to the building. These extensions more space for the library, a new billiard room, a classroom and reading room, a caterer’s kitchen and four cloakrooms. In 1909 some of the land of the Village Green was gazette to be used by the School of Arts for the extensions [3]. The extensions were opened by the Premier of New South Wales, the Hon. Charles Wade. Within the next few years, there was even a rifle range opened in the basement. The floor of the hall is ‘sprung’ to help with dancing and this was said at the time to be an unusual feature in community halls. There is a small brass plaque inside commemorating a lady who sold violets. The District Honour Roll was sadly removed at some stage for ‘restoration’ and never returned. 

The trustees appointed in 1904 were David McCall, Charles Dobbie, George Perry, H O Holcombe, William Chorley, John Lee, Charles Churchill Tucker. [4] 

Trustees remained in control of the School of Arts until the 1960s. 

Activities 1900 to 1920 

One of the earliest formal gatherings was for the already established Literary and Debating Society which initially met weekly on a Monday night from 1903 to 1907 and then again from 1909. It appears to have gone into recess during the First World War but resumed in 1918 – holding a ‘first’ annual general meeting in April 1919. [5] Prior to the building of the School of Arts it had initially met in the Ravenshurst (or as it was later known, the Ogden) Hall. Its membership from its beginning included both men and women [6]. 

The group held ‘manuscript’ evenings when members read their own writing or evenings when there were debates on contemporary issues such as: trade unions, compulsory military training, breach of promise laws, the mental differences between men and women, ‘Should Australia have a navy?’, ‘The Yellow Peril’ and ‘White Australia’. Mr E S Harrison spoke on ‘literary degeneracy’ in 1904. At one meeting in 1905, by way of example, the topics of debate were “Would the so-called Socialism of the Labor party be a menace to the future prosperity of Australia” and “which is the more intellectual amusement – billiards or dancing.”  Active participants across these years included Mr Forsyth, Miss Ogden, Mr & Mrs Dobbie, Mr Meadmore and Mr & Mrs Murray. [7] 

A ‘smoke concert’ was held in 1904 and this time, ladies were invited for the first time to actually join in the debate. The local paper commented that the lady debaters were ‘seldom at a loss for words.’

 The Amateur Musical and Dramatic Society staged regular performances of operettas. A concert in 1911 comprised ‘comic songs rendered by Mr Rowley, a recitation by Mr Vernon, a pianoforte solo by Mr Griffiths and a number of records were gramophoned by Mr Daley. Refreshments and smokes were also supplied.’ [8] Other music is described in a separate article on this website about Music in Beecroft. 

Parties and wedding receptions were held. Balls included an annual ‘bachelors and maids dance’. Each year there was a fancy dress party for the local children. One early resident reported that usually the doctor’s children won the prize for the best costume until one year the policeman’s child won. 

As well as billiards and snooker, locals met to play euchre and whist. The library comprised 1730 books in 1912 [9]. 

A camera club met, often weekly, under the guidance of John Laurie and then Dr Holt from 1911 to 1914. It too had both men and women as members [10]. 

Despite initial ‘great opposition’ to purchasing a billiard table it was eventually agreed that residents ‘found [the game] kept the young fellows from the hotels and out of bad company.’ A 1905 competition seems to have been amongst older residents rather than young men! Billiards became a popular male past time and they frequently engaged in matches with other clubs. A trophy was donated by Harley Sargent in 1908. A second table was purchased in 1912 [11]. 

World War 1 

At the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914 the School of Arts became the focus for local residents’ support for the war effort. Fundraising events were held. For one early event, the hall was decorated with wattle and ferns. Recitations and songs were part of the entertainment. Patriotic concerts continued throughout the war and there were ‘sendoffs’ for local men who joined up. Mr Vicars, owner of Vicars Woollen Mills, presented a woollen rug to each of them. 

Ten days after war was declared, ladies met in the supper room to organize ‘comforts’ for the soldiers. They formed a branch of the Red Cross and all agreed to knit socks. Mr Vicars donated a hundredweight of knitting yarn to the knitters. The ladies met on Tuesday and Friday afternoons to collect knitted and sewn garments. They held a sock knitting competition in 1915, won by Miss Sherring, with 26 pairs knitted. Sadly, she lost her fiancé in the fighting and never married. In 1916, 260 pairs of socks were knitted and sent to the men serving in the Camel Corps in the Middle East. About fifty ladies attended the Red Cross meeting on Thursdays to sort old linen into nursing packs of pads, swabs and bandages.

Other fund raising activities included Cheltenham ladies holding a Bohemian evening for ‘the distressed Belgians.’ Mr W Harris donated a fat bullock for that event. Euchre parties, school concerts and fetes were regularly held ‘to show patriotism is pretty strong locally.’ Children at Beecroft Public School collected 27 dozen eggs which were sent off to the Red Cross for the ‘soldiers at the front,’ and a school concert raised money for sheepskin vests for the men in the trenches. Meanwhile, in the school grounds, fifty men were attending ‘drill.’ 

After War’s end fundraising functions continued in the School of Arts to raise money for a war memorial, designed by local architect William Laurie of Hannah Street. Two-thirds of the required sum was raised by April 1920. 

Influenza Pandemic 

During the Influenza Pandemic (‘Spanish Flu’) on 1919-20 the School of Arts was used as a depot to treat local residents. Medical students from University of Sydney assisted local nurses and general practitioners. A butcher who lived in Mary Street died of this pandemic [12]. 

1930 – 2020 

In 1920 a motion was lost to permit women to join the Committee of the Progress Association. There were regular performances of Operettas, many Gilbert & Sullivan, and balls including an annual ‘bachelors and maid dance.’ Parties and wedding receptions were held here. 

In the 1970s Peter Law, a local interior designer, was a key organiser of functions in the hall. The hall is still well used for regular bush dances, self-defence classes, instrumental music practice and exhibitions of model trains and parties. A lapidary club meets in rooms underneath the Community Centre (facing the railway line) and this is an interesting space if the club is open and you are invited inside. Less frequently, of recent times, but through the second half of the twentieth century this hall was the site of local protest against liquor licences, home unit development, building motorways, meet the candidate nights prior to elections and, of course, of book launches by the Beecroft Cheltenham History Group. 

[1]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 4 April and 2 May 1896; 16 and 23 August, 27 September, 22 November 1902 and 17 October 1903.

[2]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 27 June, 25 July and 1 August 1903.

[3]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 27 February 1909

[4]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 31 December 1904

[5]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 5 April 1919

[6]      On the role of women in this society and generally see an article on Women elsewhere on this website under People.

[7]      Cumberland Argus and Fruigrowers Advocate, 6 September 1902 p. 10; 30 January 1904 p.10; 23 July 1904 p.10;  24 June 1905 p. 10; 30 June 1906 p. 10; 31 July 1909; 30 November 1918.

[8]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 2 September 1911

[9]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 3 August 1912

[10]    Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 5 August and 30 September 2011; 3 August 1912; 14 March 1914 p.8.

[11]    For example: Sydney Sportsman 18 November 1914; Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 17 August 1908, 5 August 1911 p.11; 2 September 1911; 3 August 1912, 31 May 1924.

[12]    On the influenza pandemic in Beecroft more generally see an article on this topic elsewhere on this website