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Tales of Horton College

OLD-TIME SCHOOL DAYS - The "Dead" Schools of Tasmania
Tales of Horton College - Vanished Landmark Near Ross - Article 1.

There always have been children, and presumably always will be, and so there always will be schools. Cynics say that people who have no children of their own set out to bring up other people's, and that is how the first school started. How ever that may be, one of the most interesting phases of Tasmanian history would set out the records of schools that have waxed and waned since civilisation arrived to dispossess and exterminate the Stone Age blacks. Big schools and schools not so big have come and gone, forgotten by all but those whose early days were spent in their desks, some of them men now in high office. A few of their memories are to be revived in these articles.

That attempts were made to found colleges in Tasmania before the establishment of responsible government is not generally known, nor that the State possesses two of the three oldest schools in Australia.

Intimately bound up with the history of one old school is the history of many others, and delving into their records leads to some strange discoveries. For instance, the famous Dr. Arnold, of Rugby, familiar in connection with "Tom Brown's Schooldays," was concerned in the education scheme which produced Christ College, The Hutchins School and the Launceston Church Grammar. The grant of the land where Hutchins stands led to the gift of the wonderful site of the University for a non-sectarian college - the defunct High School, the initials of whose scholars may still be seen carved here and there in the University building. Clemes College and Friends' High, two of the big Hobart schools flourishing now, were established by the same man. Dr. Froude, the famous historian, almost came to Tasmania as the head of the High School, but his unorthodox views led to the hurried cancellation of his appointment by the sage Presbyterian elders who opened the school. City School, High School, Officer, Queen's, King's Grammar, Horton College rose and declined like the empires of old. The schools are ended, so to speak, but their memory lingers, and very often their buildings linger also.


Horton College was once one of the great public, schools of Australia, and the remains of the imposing building standing back from the Main Road from Launceston are still to be seen midway between Ross and Mona Vale. The "History of Horton College" states that about 770 boys passed through this great old school during its lifetime, which was from 1862 to 1894, and among the names on its roll were representatives of some of the best known families in Tasmania. Apart from the fact that it was so far from everywhere, life at Horton must have been rather fine.

To quote the "History," which was written by an anonymous Old Boy:

"Bathing in the Macquarie River was a favourite sport of the boys, and they were often on hot days allowed to leave school at 3 o'clock instead of 4 o'clock for this purpose."

Those who have attended the military camps at Mona Vale will understand the reason why the Macquarie should have proved such an attraction to the boys. When it is hot in the Midlands of Tasmania, it is really hot. The white marks of chinstraps on tanned faces of military trainees who have been there but a week testify to the potency of the sun. It must have been a healthy life too.

"Another popular way of spending spare afternoons was for small parties of two or three to make for the 'cabooses' - small huts made of stones, the roofs thatched with grass - and to spend the day after the style of Stalky and Co. Al fresco meals of chipped potatoes, with a rabbit boiled in a billycan, and a damper made on the stones, were events of great delight."

It would be of interest to learn whether a half demolished cairn of stones, in the manner of a little "fort" erected by boys laying in the bush, is the remnant of one of the Horton College boys cabooses ?. It stands on the summit of the hill which overlooks Mona Vale house.


Boys of that generation were no better, and probably no worse, than they are now, and some of the Horton College boys used to indulge as boys always do in surreptitious smokes. One old boy tells a story of a schoolmate, a minister's son, who produced a couple of clay pipes and some fig tobacco, and persuaded him to master the art of smoking behind a wood fence. There were the usual midnight suppers, pillow fights, and so on, and during the spring a bird keeping craze always came down upon the school. The large shed in the playground was generally, at this period of the year, lined with boxes containing young magpies, jackasses, parrots, crows and hawks and many of the boys made some splendid collections of eggs. During the egging season, correct records were kept of the dates when the first eggs of certain birds were obtained. The rarest egg was that of the eagle whose nest was built in the highest tree without boughs, except near the top which made it very difficult to climb. This was done in the following manner: First a weight at the end of some string was thrown over a bough, then a rope was drawn over, after which steps were cut in the trunk of the tree, and with the assistance of the rope the boy climbed above the nest and lowered himself into it. The nest was so large that he could lie down in it. These eagles are very large, and it is said that when flying they would knock a man down with their wings. No record would be complete without mention of the wattle tree grubb, which most of the boys used to eat. These were obtained by cutting them out with a tomahawk. After roasting in a wood fire they were ready for consumption.


Horton College was founded by the late Captain Horton, of Somercotes, Ross, and the foundation stone was laid on January 26, 1852, in the presence of about 200 people. The buildings stood upon rising ground, and were regarded as a landmark in the district. They were of brick, and consisted of wings extending on either side of the main building to form a quadrangle at the back. The front of the main building had a fine two-storeyed porch with a tower, giving it a handsome appearance. The part opened in October, 1855, comprised only the central front and the northern or house side wing, and was found to be quite inadequate for the number of boys, of which in 1862 there were 66. In November, 1863, the remaining wing was partially occupied, being near completion. In January 1855, the first Methodist Conference was held in Sydney, and Rev. J. A. Manton was appointed governor and chaplain of the college, which was made over to the Methodist Church. There was a provision that if ever the building were not used for the purpose intended by the founder, the property was to revert to his relatives, and that is what occurred after 1894, when the school was finally closed. So far as its first headmasters were concerned, its experience was unfortunate, and there were frequent changes. The Rev. Manton was succeeded after three years by Rev. W. A. Quick, who remained for 13 years, but the Revs. G. B Richards and Francis Neale, who were in charge between 1872 and 1889, saw the most successful period of the schools history. Mr. J. W. Catton and Mr. S. Fiddian, both of England, were the only ones to remain any length of time. Mr. Fiddian was succeeded in 1863 by Mr. W. W. Fox, and the success of Horton College as one of the most famous Australian private schools was due very greatly to his diligent care in the training of the hundreds of boys who passed through his hands during a period of 26 years. Some 570 boys passed under Mr. Fox's tuition and guidance. In 1889 he resigned owing to ill-health, and Rev. J. de Q. Robin acted for three years. In 1892 it was let to a Mr. Steer, who carried it on as a private school till 1894, when it was finally closed, and a sale of the materials was held to liquidate its debts. Horton College vanished as a school, but not before it had performed splendid services in the cause of education. It had risen, had its hour of greatness, and passed into decline and death, but its site is still pointed out by people who know their Tasmania.


The "History", referred to above was published in 1921, and throws an interesting light upon the old days at the College. On Sunday mornings the boys had to get out of bed at 7 instead of 6.30 o'clock, and when breakfast had been disposed of, they had to walk to church at Ross, 2 miles away - it was practically a march, not a walk, as they went three or four abreast - where they occupied the gallery. Here they seem to have regaled themselves on the sly with a, sort of raspberry squash, which they drew through, a straw from a bottle concealed in an inner pocket. There was church again in the evening for some of them, at least, and at 8.30 they were all packed off to bed.

The celebration of patriotic holidays was evidently an event of some importance us witness, this extract:

"Holidays were not frequent at the College, because it was a boarding, school, and most of the boys were so far from their homes, but Queen Victoria's Birthday was celebrated in very special style, finishing with a huge bonfire and fireworks. The bonfire was prepared on a gigantic scale. A straight green tree would be selected and all the boughs lopped off except near the top. Dead trees would then be dragged with ropes to the spot, leant up against the centre tree and securely fixed. All this was then thatched with green pieces cut from the native cherry trees, and left for a few days to dry. A lady was generally given the honour of lighting the pile with a torch prepared for the occasion."

Above one side of the grounds lie the remains of Captain Horton, the founder of the College, who died in 1867. The tale ls told that in the days of Tasmanian bushranging Martin Cash, the noted outlaw, visited the Captain's home, Somercotes, and the captain, with his men lying bound on the floor before him, stood with his back to the fire and said:

"You may shoot me, Cash, I am not afraid to die; you are."

Bullet marks on the cedar panel of one of the doors, caused by a shot from the outlaw's pistol, were the objects of awed interest to such of the boys at Horton who saw them.


The roll of the College, which is incomplete, contains names that are familiar to all Tasmanians, including those from the families of Headlam, Shoobridge, Kermode, Davies, Gibson, Hutchison, Archer, Brownell, Lyne, Crosby, Page, Crowther, Riggall, Grubb, Hart, Grant, Clerk, Burbury, Parramore, Stackhouse, Keach, Pitt, Lemprlere, Meredith, Bidencope, Colvin, Mercer, Riardan, Ash, Susman, Turner, White, Dowling, Steele, Giblin. Stewart, Risby, Walker, Law, Douglas, Cannaway, Clewer, Bisdee, Dickson, Gorringe, Clarke, Monds, Fysh, Lee, Jones and many others. Well-known individual names include those of the late Sir George Davies, Hon. C. E. Davies, M.L.C., the late Hon. A. E. Solomon (once-Premier of Tasmania), the late Hon. W. H. Burgess, late Mr. William Crooke, Hons. F. ,W. Grubb and F. P. Hart, Mr. George W. Waterhouse and Mr. Cecil Allport. Dr. R. G. Scott was a master at the College for some years, as was also Dr. E. G. Allport at a later period. 1

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