Historical Account

The History of St James College

Prior to European settlement, Brisbane was well inhabited by the Turrba people. In 1824 the explorer, John Oxley, noted a large group of Turrba people along the present day site of the Wesley Hosptial, the Regatta Hotel and Coronation Drive. Earliest historical records suggest the population of the Turrba people was large and was distributed along the banks of the Brisbane River.

St James College is located on Boundary Street. The street is aptly named Boundary as it was the boundary over which the Turrba people could not cross after white settlement.

Since 1868 St. James has been faithful to many strong Christian values which provide firstly, an insight into a particular leadership style, and secondly, strong indicators for the future direction of the school. The following historical musings shed some light on what St. James' history informs us about our current reality.

St. James, the oldest Catholic boys school in Queensland, was indeed one of the first three schools established in the colony of Moreton Bay, in 1868, one year before the Christian Brothers were established in the country. This was a time long before Federation, before the identities of the city of Brisbane or the state of Queensland were developed. This was a time when the newspapers were filled with the stories of the exploits of the bushranger, Ned Kelly and his gang, and when sailing ships bringing their human and other cargo sailed up the Brisbane River and kept the wharves all around Fortitude Valley very busy.

The administrator of St. Stephen's Cathedral was keen to establish the school, and did so with Catholic lay men who taught and conducted the school for the first 25 years. One of the earliest Principals, Mr. Long, a giant of a man in many ways, in stature, in teaching skill and in reputation, was a first class first division teacher brought out from Ireland especially for the role. The government tried to intercept him but he honoured his commitment to St. James, although later became Queensland's first inspector of schools. Under his leadership, St. James, providing a primary education, was regarded as the best school in Queensland, and consistently its students won nearly every scholarship to further education at Brisbane Grammar School. The Sisters of Mercy, and most lay men entering the teaching profession undertook their teacher training at St. James College under his guidance. From this earliest time, St. James valued a quality education for the poor migrant families newly arrived by ship into the quickly expanding colony.

Today, with its excellent and dedicated teachers, its innovative pedagogy, and its relevant and diverse curriculum, St. James continues to promote lifelong learning for all of its students.

As a non-vested Roman Catholic boys school in these early years, the Government paid the salaries of the teachers and inspected the schools, while the Church owned and maintained the buildings. By 1880, the salaries of the lay teachers were no longer being paid by the government and the number of students was up and down. Such a volatile situation heightened when in 1893 Brisbane suffered its worst floods in recorded history (almost matched by 1974!) at the same time as experiencing a major economic depression with eight local banks collapsing. Finally in 1893, the Christian Brothers agreed to take over the school with the first Christian Brother principal being Br. Hogan (Interestingly the Church continued to own the school until 1965 when the deeds were finally handed over to the Christian Brothers). The Edmund Rice ethos fitted easily with the soul of the school and the transition was a smooth one.

The informal motto: 'Every boy who presents himself is admitted' continued, highlighting St. James' inclusion of all. All students were not only welcomed, but every effort was made to meet their needs.

A Christian Brothers publication to celebrate 50 years of the Brothers in 1919, reveals that St. James was the biggest Christian Brothers school in Australia with 530 students, and quite possibly the biggest school in Australia. It is interesting to note that there were only four classes, with well over 100 hundred students in each!

The tough times called for tough measures as indicated by this account of how one mother dealt with her son's wagging: 'I can still see a diminutive lady walking down the middle of Boundary Street, her hulking son by her side, his right wrist chained and locked to her left wrist. When the Brothers who walked down from the Terrace arrived, the chain and locks were with due ceremony unfastened and the youth handed over to their care.'

Through the Great War, the depression years, and the subsequent decades and despite very limited funds, St. James met the challenges and needs of its students, being highly responsive to needs of the times. A strong characteristic of the school brought about in the early days by the waves of migrants through New Farm and surrounding areas, was the cultural diversity of the student body. In recent times the school serves students derived from over 50 nationalities.

In the 1920's, waterside workers (many of them fathers of the boys) would sit around for days waiting to be selected for work, and still not get any. Conditions were appalling, and pay was minimal. On the 1st October 1928, the men gathered up Boundary Street in a Union centre, planning a strike and a march down Boundary Street. In the land beside the school, the old school parade ground, mounted police brought in from the country gathered to confront the progress of the march, and cut off their escape. Br. Redmond, sensing danger, went from classroom to classroom telling the students: 'The men are upset. Stay in your classroom.' Within minutes the police were chasing the strikers through the school rooms on the ground floor. The brother in the classroom said to the boys: 'Keep working and don't say anything even if the police ask you!' The police came to the door, looked in, and missed seeing the strikers hiding under the students desks!

St. James College has remained ever faithful to its social justice principles and values, expressed in so many different ways in different eras. Producing past students such as peace activist Ciaron O'Reilly, promoting support for asylum seekers, maintaining its strong commitment to the education of the poor and the needy into modern times and pushing for the freedom of East Timor long before it became a reality have all been part of the Jimmies' way of life.

St. James has many past students whose deeds and accomplishments have met with outstanding worldly success. In the telling and remembering of its history and the gathering of its past students, it does not however focus on the fame and glory of individuals. There is a genuineness, a humility and simplicity in its families, whereby St. James College's history is remembered and treasured, but where the past is not over glorified, and the school does not get bogged down in meaningless or empty traditions.

Past student Dr. Bob Anderson (Queenslander of the Year 2001 for his contribution to the Union movement and to the advancement of his people, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples) slips in and out of the school with little fanfare. Past student Tony Fingleton (Commonwealth swim star, movie playwright) visited the school between filming scenes at the Spring Hill baths for his recent movie, 'Swimming Upstream', walking in off the street unannounced to just look around and say 'hello'. Benefactor, Tom Carey, epitomised the Jimmies persona with his humble generosity carried out behind the scenes so as not to receive any reward or recognition.

At the end of the 1980's and into the 1990's, St. James underwent a challenging process of honest soul searching in terms of it role, its significance and its future. This review process revealed St. James as a school community of unique and special character which was doing wonderful work, real Edmund Rice work, with disadvantaged youth. Emboldened by the positive findings, the school sought creative and innovative ways to reestablish itself in a era of great social, economic and geographical change in Brisbane. By building a climate of positive change, monitored through a process of action research, St. James as it has done throughout its history has sought constantly to renew itself to meet the ever changing needs of the youth of South East Queensland.

St. James has a proud history of being 'Faithful Forever' since 1868 - faithful to the teachings of Christ, to the Catholic ethos, to Edmund Rice education, and to social justice. It has not lost touch with its roots, its origins. St. James College's history as its stands in 2008 provides the school community with a sound platform for the future. Considering the 200 years of history of the Brothers, and the size and extent of their operations around the world, this is an extraordinary event. However, it does not surprise those of us who work at St. James and are aware of its history. St. James is just the school where such things happen: where dreams are possible, and where people are prepared to imagine the unimaginable.

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