Ballarat’s? mystery ‘Bell School’

Peter Williams attended Bell School 1938 (c)JinnyFawcett 2016

UPDATE 18th MAY 2016. This mystery school identified as the BELL SCHOOL #4309 in Oakover Street, Preston (Melbourne, Vic). READ HERE FOR THE UPDATE


I can easily find my Dad in this old school photo,  but it seems finding the actual Ballarat -based school is another matter entirely!

Extensive inquiries and searches have failed to locate the actual school site or any of its history, so I am hoping maybe some  Ballarat elders might be able to help settle the mystery history photo.

Dad is the seven-year old Peter Williams (1931-2013)  directly behind the school board sign staring down the camera.

Like his first -generation, Australian-born aunts and uncles,  Dad started school life at the State-funded  Macarthur Street School  (#2022) in Ballarat  which had officially opened in 1878.

Macarthur Street Primary School at Ballarat (c) Jinny Fawcett 2016
The Macarthur Street School (2022) in Ballarat,  where some four or five generations of family have been educated.  picture by  Jinny Fawcett 2016


By the year of the school’s opening,  our Williams family had been settled in Ballarat for two decades, and it made sense generations of the family attended Macarthur Street School for it was  merely  two blocks from the family’s residence at 3 Holmes Street.


An obituary for Dad’s uncle John J.H Williams, who was felled in the first few days of the Australian landing at Gallipolli  proudly records John had been ‘educated at the Macarthur Street School’. School registers also  show plenty of the Williams families attended the school.

The ‘Consolidated Index to Ballarat and District School Student Registers’ show Dad  first enrolled at Macarthur Street School on the 29th September 1936,  when he would have been just two months shy of his 5th birthday.

Dad’s parents  Bob Williams (1908-1967) and Jean  (nee Booley, 1908-1992)  were then living at 603 Doveton Street, two blocks north of the Macarthur Street School and four blocks from the Williams’ family home, where Dad often spent time with his grandmother and extended family.

Bob Williams 1908-1967 Ballarat

Dad’s father BOB WILLIAMS (1908-1967) was one of the  eleven Williams  siblings of 3 Holmes street, Ballarat.


According to the Student Registers, Dad was definitely at Macarthur Street School in 1936 and 1937 and was recorded as a ‘Grade 1 student’. In the first half of 1938 he was designated a ‘Grade 1A’ student so was progressing with his grades.

His ‘Date of Last Attendance’ in the Registers says Dad was still at the school on the 13th November 1937 (a month prior to his 6th birthday) . But then  sometime in 1938 it was recorded he had ‘left’ the school and the family was bound for ‘Apollo Bay’.

But it was in 1939 that the Williams’ packed up their burgeoning family and moved to that coastal town on Victoria’s southern coast.

Rather it might have been a polio outbreak late in 1937 and early 1938 that put Dad temporarily into another school or class, because state-wide all junior schools were still closed in February 1938 because of the outbreak.


According to Ballarat and District Genealogical Society Research Co-ordinator Jennifer Burrell, the head teacher at Macarthur Street School between 1931 and 1941 was Mr Robert Francis. Four school photos have been found for 1938 but none match Dad’s and there isn’t one titled ‘ 1B’ like in Dad’s photo.(Source: Macarthur STreet Memories: A Pictorial History of Macarthur Street STate School No. 2022, Ballarat 1878-2003, 125 Years of State Education).

According to Ms Burrell,  Ballarat Schools underwent transitions in this era particularly due to the polio outbreak,  and the Macarthur Street School history shows that  early in 1938 poliomyelitis restrictions prevented the infant department from assembling.

This made me wonder if Dad’s “Bell School” was a popup small class ran by a teacher there named Bell, but Ms Burrell assures there was no teacher documented there of that surname in that period of time.Plus the practice was at the time to not have the little ones congregating in classes, according to Education Department directives (Grades five and under were the target groups to keep seperated so as to stop the illness spreading).

One explanation suggested for the ‘Bell School’ title was because Macarthur Streets school had been issued a  bell (ropes and etc) when it was constructed, by ministerial instruction and the bell could be heard for considerable distance from the school (ibid).

Williams Grandparents

Dad regularly visited his grandmother Mary Ann Williams (nee Brayshaw) of 3 Holmes Street Ballarat, pictured here with husband Charles Francis Williams (who died before Dad’s birth).                 picture source: Williams Family Archives



We don’t yet know if the 1938 ‘Grade 1B Bell School’ photo in which Dad features was taken at Macarthur Street School or if the ‘Bell School’ was an entity elsewhere. We are confident the photo was taken in Ballarat, but maybe if the school wasn’t able to run classes for the younger children, someone set up a temporary school, maybe a minister or teacher.

Dad was one of 750 students at Macarthur Street School  in 1937, and given the family connections, history  and residential closeness I couldn’t understand why he is featured in a different school’s photo.

But I guess anyone who has read Alan Marshall’s epic auto-biographical ‘I Can Jump Puddles‘ can understand parental fears about the spread of ‘Polio’ (and if you haven’t read it you haven’t lived. Seriously, it is one of our greatest Australian stories).

The February 1938 Second Annual Report of the ‘Victorian Society for Crippled Children’ reported the (poliomyelitis) ‘paralysis epidemic’  resulted in their organisation handling some  755 cases over the previous twelve months. 428 patients were ‘paralysis’ cases in the metropolitan area, 229 were city cases and the remaining 98 were ‘country cases’.

During the year the spread of propaganda against the crippling diseases was one of the Society’s chief concerns, along with the problem of providing some specific after-care accommodation for the young adult orthopedic cases (The Age, 12 Mar.1938, p.15.,TROVE, NLA)

Public appeals were made for fundraising and the Society’s  program saw the establishment of care centres at Bendigo, Geelong, Sale and Ballarat (with aim to establish one at each base hospital in every town).

‘Polio Aunts’ were established: 128 volounteers offered their services in homes where  children had been discharged to. 14 more  were helping transport children for outings, visits to hospital or clinics. Groups of young men were employed with ‘perambulating’ paralysis victims.

And in the cases were children were confined to their homes, the Society sent voluntary teachers to assist with education course correspondence supplied by the Education department. (The Age, 12 Mar.1938., ibid)

‘Infantile Paralysis’ was a lay term commonly used to report on  poliomyelitis, a viral infection which generally produced mild symptoms but  for many progressed to a paralytic form.
A poliomyelitis ‘polio’ epidemic broke out in Australia on the back of the   Great Depression  and took rise in the 1930’s to continue on throughout the 1940’s and 50’s.  The last ‘epidemic’ reported in  Australia was in 1956 coinciding with  when ‘Polio’ Vaccines were introduced in Australia,  and mass immunization programs began says  Polio Network. Org:

It is estimated that a minimum of 20,000 – 40,000 people had paralytic polio in Australia between 1930’s and 1960’s. Actual figures for the number of people infected with the virus are up to a hundred times greater: 2 – 4 million Australians (

Whilst the World Health Organisation declared Australia ‘Polio Free’ in 2000,   it is now acknowledged that though decades have passed, symptoms can return to those who had contracted the illness, in the form of post-polio syndrome (PPS):

“In Australia, the disease is still very much with us. It is estimated there are 400,000 Australian polio survivors. Peak body Polio Australia says this makes them the single-largest physical disability group in the country.” (, Norman Hermant  1 Nov. 2015, in ‘Post Polio Syndrome:Australia’s forgotten disability’, ABC News)

Polio Outbreak Ballarat Nov 1937.jpg

By November 1937, when Dad was 6 years of age and in ‘Grade 1A’ at Macarthur Street School Ballarat,  three cases of polio were reported  and officials acted swiftly  to begin closing down Ballarat schools to contain a possible outbreak.

Two cases from Ballarat and another from Stawell resulted in Ballarat city officials working quickly with the Education Department: all classes at the Dana and Urquart State Schools (grades 1 – 5) were closed, as was the Millbrook school. Bishop Johnson of the Ballarat rural deanery also ordered all the closure of its  junior sections of the Sunday schools, children choirs and other organisation.
(The Age, 12 Nov.1937, TROVE, NLA)
Over a hundred cases had been reported in Melbourne with new additions each week. Unlike when the epidemic first began back in the 1930’s and  when ignorance lead to a lot of misunderstandings about the illness, people were now familiar with ‘polio’ and images of children disfigured by the illness, bereaved parents or patients receiving barbaric-looking treatment in creations like the ‘iron lung’.

All the central newspapers were reporting updates on reported cases, hospital admission, deaths and daily tallies.  Images were confronting, headlines dire in their warnings and officials and citizens were rightly worried. A search of Trove Newspapers Online show 42,550 reports nationwide  just on the term ‘Infantile Paralysis’ . Nearly 7000 of the reports were for Victoria alone, in the 1930-1939 era. Adding Ballarat to the mix provides over 500 news reports.  The term ‘Polio’ in the same 9 years results in 2, 276 reports of which a 500 are also aimed towards Ballarat.

Peter Williams and family Ballarat c 1936

My grandmother Jean Williams with  my Dad (far right), and uncle Robin (far left) and uncle Brian (on Nanna’s knee).  picture c 1938 and picture courtesy Williams Family Archives


Little wonder my grandparents might have been anxious to move their four young children the sea air and country lifestyle of Apollo Bay!  
Bob and Jean Williams packed up their littlel family and headed to the coast, separated from their extensive families by those onerous Otway Ranges and a want of decent roads and transport to bring them back anytime soon.
While I have surmised that that Dad’s “Bell School” photo was taken in Ballarat, mounting evidence is showing it was the Bell School in Preston, Melbourne but that would only leave about a six month window of opportunity for him to be in that location.
So where was the Bell School?  And who are all those gorgeous  little children ?


Peter Williams 1931-2013 at Ballarat Bell School Photo by Jinny Fawcett

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