Mystery Ballarat School unravelled as Preston Bell School #4309

Bell Street School Photo
Dad’s 1938 school photo is now believed to be the Bell School in Preston (#4309) rather than a Ballarat-based school.

There is growing accord among the historians at least that our mystery 1938 Ballarat ‘Bell School’ photo   is instead the every well known ‘Bell School’ in  Melbourne’s northern suburb of Preston.

In the absence of any evidence that a Bell School ever operated at  Ballarat,   I have to agree with one experienced historian  who says I have been missing the blindingly obvious and that Dad’s family must have moved to Melbourne.

But there was such a short window of opportunity that the occurrence opportunity is puzzling in itself.

Dad was enrolled in the Macarthur Street state school in Ballarat in November of 1937 (and still noted in their records in 1938), a sibling was born in Ballarat in February 1938 and the family were definitely in Apollo Bay by March 1939.

The State of Victoria was in the grip of a infantile paralysis (polio)  epidemic,  the Great Depression was only yesterday and World War 2 was about to be declared.

Money was tight, jobs hard to get and families mostly poor.

The Education Department of Victoria along with Ballarat City Officials had declared a delay to the  annual school openings,  and statewide children in Grades 5 and under were not to attend or congregate at schools in the interest of public safety.

There were four cases of polio in Ballarat and surrounds, and over 100 in Melbourne so its hard to know why anyone would leave the comfort of family support in a rural town and head to the metropolis.

To complicate matters there was more than one school named Bell in the Preston region of Melbourne.

Fortunately schools were assigned specific Government registration numbers,  which can help link photo and documents to a particular school.

Unfortunately my father’s photo doesn’t have the official school number chalked on the little sign,  which simply says ‘Bell School Grade 1B,  1938’.

Susie Zada  has just released another of her brilliant history indexes ‘Victorian School Names and Numbers‘ (Vision and Realisation: a centenary history of state education in Victoria, Vols. 2 & 3, Education Department of Victoria, Melbourne, 1973) so at least  one can find  a one-glance summary of similar-named schools in Victoria:

The Public Records Office of Victoria  (PRO) holds a lot of records relating to Victorian schools (particularly building plans), and between these two sources a list of ‘Bell’ schools in Victoria in 1938 can be formed:

  • #4309 Bell Primary School   (Preston)
  • #3824 Bell Street Special School (Fitzroy)
  • #4962 Bell Park North Primary School  (Geelong )
  • #7029 Bell Park Secondary School    (Geelong)
  • #4804 Bell Post Primary School  (Geelong)
  • #3195 Bell Brae State School  (southern coastal, BellBrae)

It seems agreed that the Bell School in Oakover street Preston  (#4309)  is the mystery school Dad was photographed at,  in 1938.


To complicate the search this school’s principle advises that the school records for this Bell School were destroyed in a fire (palm-to-face moment).

Respected and experienced historian Lenore Frost  was quickly able to narrow down the search,  with the discovery at the State Library of Victoria  of this markedly similar 1942 handwritten class sign  which matches Dad’s 1938 board.

The photo is of a class of Grade 2B school children at the Bell School in 1942, attributed as being Bell School #4309.

Bell School #4309 1942


Bell School #4309 class board comparisons @ jenny fawcett.jpg
It is the writing style of  the 1942 Bell school  class photo sign which links Dad’s 1938 school photo to the Bell School numbered #4309

The Darebin Library  has an online copy of a c1930 ‘Prep’ class at the Bell School #4309. The writing on the class board  is different,  and earlier than Dad’s time but this photo is acknowledge as the Bell School #4309 in Preston.

Bell school #4309 1939 Prep Class @Darebin Library
Original donor Mary Ritchie believed the photo was taken about 1930 and was the Prep class of Bell School #4309


A 1928 ‘Prep’ Class and a 1931 ‘Grade 2’ class photo (also at the Darebin Library) of students at the Bell School #4309 suggests it was common for school classes to be photographed, but its hard to image who could afford the pictures in those tough economic times.

Bell School #4309 1928 Prep Class

Bell School #4309 1931 Grade 2 Class

I have been promised a 1946 photo of a Bell School photo which is definitely #4309, and though it is later than Dad’s time there, it will be interesting to compare.

In the meantime its off to TROVE Digitised Newspapers which is every historian’s lifeline, to see if I can flesh out happenings at the Bell School #4309 in 1938.



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