Author: Dr Robyn Floyd
Teacher, writer and family history researcher.
In 1904, a sixteen-year-old Victorian pupil Olga Ernst borrowed fairy folk from the rich European literature of her childhood and weaved them into magical stories set in the Australian bush. The result was Fairy Tales from the Land of the Wattle, published in Melbourne with illustrations by Dorothy Ashley. Ernst’s dedication tells us that she wrote the book to:
“…win approval of those to whom a loving study of tree and flower, bird and insect, and the association of familiar elements of old-world fairy-lore with Australian surroundings” (Ernst, 1904).
My fascination with Ernst’s writing led to a PhD. Seeking to understand the author behind the book, I interviewed Ernst’s daughter, Helen, a number of times, sharing tea and cakes by her open fire. Her anecdotes were episodic in type rather than fragmentary memories without a context. She related personal events or narratives she had been told as a child. While I accepted the anecdotes relayed to me as truth, I was aware that bias, time, memory and even retellings may change any narrative or family story. Olden-Jørgensen (1998) suggested that the closer a source is to an event the more it can be trusted to be accurate, although he cautioned that the researcher needs to be aware that the reality presented may not be completely valid. I wanted to ensure that information gleaned from my conversations with Helen, as a secondary source, were verified where possible and aimed to cross-check it with multiple sources. While I hunted through TROVE and examined microfiche in the State Library, there were still gaps that needed to be filled. So, one cold wintery day, I arrived at Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) armed with my laptop and camera.
My notes from those days capture my excitement and disappointment: A piece of the puzzle…; Finally, finally… I have confirmation …; No luck with Asylum info…maybe next time!
What I was seeking at PROV was information about formative events in Ernst’s life such as her teaching career, and those of her mother and sister, her father’s incarceration at Yarra Bend Asylum and schools she taught at. I was hoping official records and registers would confirm dates, times, and events that Helen had mentioned. With anticipation I thought perhaps they might also provide specific information relating to Ernst that would allow me to build a deeper understanding of her character or furnish background information about the environments in which she taught and wrote. I was interested in examining the autobiographical knowledge that had been distributed through, generated by the family, and generously shared with me by Helen (Bietti, 2010).
Teacher Record Books 1863-1959
I began my search in the Teacher Record Books 1863–1959 which revealed that Ernst commenced work as a Monitress in Croydon State School 2900 on 7 August 1905. Contemporary attitudes to women can be gleaned from both these and the Education Department Inspector records. Trotman (2008) argued in reference to women teachers in Western Australia that Education Department policies were “overtly shaped by 19th century gender discourse." At the Melbourne Teachers’ Training College, supervisors commented on the technical aspects of teaching such as organisation and voice production in their reports but also evaluated character and behavioural traits (Vick, 2003). When Vick analysed comments about character in the critical remarks by inspectors applied to men and women in the Faculty of Education Record Book of 1910, he found little difference except for one notable aspect. Males were described as “industrious” and females were judged to be “gentle” (p. 4).
Once Ernst had commenced teaching, her practice was regularly reviewed by visiting the oft feared Inspectors. Having a monitor with such literary skills with a published book would have been a bonus for Croydon State School, a school that already had a reputation for being one of the foremost schools in Victoria, and Inspector Gamble had earlier claimed it was “one of the very best in the colony” (Croydon State School Attendance Records, 1901-1914). After observing Ernst teaching in her first year as a Monitor, Inspector Gamble commented on the 23rd March 1906 that she had a “fair natured aptitude for teaching” (Teacher Record Books, 15493). On the 19th November 1906, on his return to the school, Ernst is assessed as being “earnest and docile.” Mr. Gamble added circumspectly that he believed she could become “useful in the school”. This was not a glowing beginning. The writing of reports that highlighted the feminine traits of docility or sympathy says more about the male inspectors and their attitudes to female teachers than about Ernst.
Three years later, the Principal of the Melbourne Training College gave a more positive comment on Ernst’s commitment when she wrote Ernst was: “energetic and anxious to excel, always makes good preparation” while the following year the record described Ernst as “a student of pronounced philosophical type…has shown a great earnestness and a desire to teach” (Teaching Record, 15493, 1909).
Central Inward Correspondence 1902 –1906
Inspector Gamble writes admiringly that Head Teacher Hotton, “always keeps neat and careful notes.” What luck! How appreciative am I that HT Hotton has chosen to file Ernst’s references? Ernst is the only staff member whose records have been kept in the correspondence from School number 2900, Croydon State School.
Ernst’s certificates, medical and character references make interesting reading and contribute to an understanding of aspects of her character and family life. Dr. Simpson gives her a medical certificate that certifies that she is in “good health, sound in constitution and free from anything that would prevent her from entering the Department of the Public Service” while Richard Sherwood, Reader under the Rev, Newton, St. Bartholomew’s Ferntree Gully states that Ernst is a “true Christian girl, and I have always found her honest and upright in every way.” He further explains that Ernst has proved that she is a capable Sunday School teacher and that her family credentials are impeccable. For added emphasis he signs it “Believe me, Yours Sincerely.”
Outward Passengers to Interstate, UK, and Foreign Ports & other records
To delve a little deeper into Olga’s family history I viewed the Teaching Records of her mother Johanna Olga Straubel and confirmed her father Theodor Ernst’s arrival on the Orient on 14 September 1884. The Pharmaceutical Register for 1886 indicates that the industrious Theodor had set up shop as a chemist in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy in 1886.
However, finding information was sometimes less fruitful. There were some discrepancies I was unable to authenticate. One example was the claim that Theodor Ernst was a judge at the 1888 Melbourne International Exhibition in the Pharmacy section, and in fact had arrived from Germany to undertake that role for a German Pharmaceutical company. Despite pouring over a number of records relating to the Exhibition such as the Photograph Albums of Individuals Associated with the 1888 International Exhibition Melbourne (Trustees, Exhibition Building VA 1070) I was unable to confirm this until a relative unexpectedly provided me with a photograph of Theodor Ernst’s judge’s badge and documentation three years later.
Yarra Bend Asylum Records
Unfortunately, the Financial Crash of 1983-1894 had a significant impact on Theodor’s health and access to the Yarra Bend Asylum Records confirmed for me what Ernst herself had noted in her unpublished notes. She suggested that his deteriorating condition may have been precipitated by “the ‘Bursting of the Boom’ … when my father’s pharmacy as all other businesses had felt the frightful business depression” (Waller, n.d., 1). The Casebook of Male Patients records that Theodor was admitted voluntarily “due to financial worries” after three weeks of “mania.” The Theodor Ernst who arrived at the Asylum on 17th November was a very different man from the methodical and conscientious pharmacist of Brunswick Street. The admittance notes indicate he was in unsatisfactory health (Asylum Records, 1887). He was given chloral to help him sleep. It is hard to imagine in more enlightened times that being force fed five days later helped his recovery.
Exploring the shelves of Education Gazettes, Rate books, Municipal Records and more
The shelves of PROV’s North Melbourne Reading Room provide further opportunities to glean background material on Olga, and my search focused on information about teaching between 1900 and 1910 found in the Education Gazettes. The Gazettes are such delightful time wasters!
The Gazettes were distributed monthly to all Victorian teachers and provided professional reading and up to date information about teaching methods and classroom organisation. Examples of the wide variety of subjects including articles on How to set up your Infant room (DE, 1906) and a timetable of Instruction for Pre-Service Teachers to be given by the experienced Head Teacher including subjects such as Latin and Euclid as well as Singing and Needlework (DE, 1904).
Lists of suitable books were also published in the Education Gazette to inform and guide teachers. Reward books had become popular as an end of year prize for good behaviour and achievement in schools and became institutionalised within the school system. Publishers took the opportunity to advertise books that were suitable for this purpose (Reynolds, 2008) and the Gazette recommended books that promoted good values and an educational purpose. I found reference to Ernst’s books including Fairy Tales from the Land of the Wattle which indicated that it was recognised for its reward book potential with the reviewer suggesting that:
“In this book buying time of the year, we trust that teachers will remember this book” (“New Books”, 1904).
The records at Public Record Office Victoria provided a methodological balance to Helen’s oral history of her mother’s life and enabled me to develop a more vivid and reflective analysis by locating Ernst, and her family within primary sources. Helen’s oral reflections, and the PROV sources allowed me to contextualise her life and begin my thesis.
Dr Robyn Floyd is a teacher, writer and family history researcher. Robyn's dissertation focused on early Australian children's literature. Robyn lectures in the Humanities and is passionate about engaging students in historical inquiry. She is currently completing her biography of Olga Ernst.
- Bietti, L. M. (2010). Sharing memories, family conversation and interaction. Discourse & Society, 21(5), 499–523. https://doi.org/10.1177/0957926510373973
- Croydon Primary School Attendance Records (1901-1914) (unpublished)
- Department of Education (1904a) Instruction of Pupil Teachers, in Victorian Education Gazette and Teachers Aid, 20 September, 3, Education Department
- Department of Education (1904b) Fairy tales from the land of the wattle in New Books. Victorian Education Gazette and Teachers' Aid, November 21, 77, Education Department
- Ernst, Olga D. A (1904). Fairy tales from the land of the wattle Retrieved July 9, 2023, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-24533848
- O' Donoghue, T., & Punch K. (2003). Qualitative Educational Research in Action: Doing and Reflecting. London: Routledge
- Olden-Jørgensen, S. (1998). Til kilderne :Introduktion til historisk kildekritik. [To the sources: Introduction to historical source criticism]. Copenhagen, Denmark: Gads Forlag
- Reynolds, K., (2008) Rewarding Reads? Giving, Receiving and Resisting Evangelical Reward and Prize Books. In J. Briggs, D. Butts and M.O. Grenby, (Eds). Popular children's literature in Britain. pp.189–207. Burlington, MA: Ashgate Publishing.
- Trotman, J. (2008). Girls becoming teachers: An historical analysis of Western Australian women, 1911–1940. New York, NY: Cambridge Press
- Vick, M. (2003). Building 'professionalism' and 'character' in the single purpose teachers college, 1900–1950. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 28(1)
- Waller, O. (n.d) Familien-Plauderei. [Family Chit-Chat]. Unpublished.
- The Casebook of Male Patients VPRS 7417/P/1 Unit 10 Page 13
- Central Inward Correspondence PROV VPRS 640/p/07 Unit 1241 File 2900
- Outward Passengers to Interstate, UK, and Foreign Ports VPRS 350 VPRS 947 July- December 1884
- Pharmacy Register 1877-1890, Pharmacy Board of Australia VPRS 16384/P0001
- Teaching Record Books 1863–1959, Teaching Record No. 79411, J. Straubel, VPRS 13579/P0001, Teacher Record: No 7901-8200
- Teacher Record Books 1863–1959, Teaching Record No. 15493, O. Ernst, Public Record Office Victoria, Australia, Record Series Number (VPRS): 13579/P1 Teacher Record No. Teacher Record No. 15401-15700A
- Teacher Record Books 1863–1959, Teaching Record No. 15638, E. Ernst, Public Record Office Victoria, Australia, PRS 13719 Teacher Record No. 15401-15700A
- Trustees, Exhibition Building (VA 1070) 1881 – 1996.
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