Friday, April 24, 2009

The Giant Stairway, Echo Point, Katoomba

First Steps
At 540 metres in length, with 911 steps hewn from the cliff face and 32 steel staircases, the aptly named Giant Stairway drops almost 300 metres to the floor of the Jamieson Valley below the Three Sisters. At the official opening in 1932, the Newcastle Morning Herald saw it as a "triumph of nerve and skill", while the Sydney Morning Herald concluded that "patience and courage have had their reward".

Such comments, made in relation to the official opening of both the Giant Stairway and the Projecting Platform at Echo Point on Saturday October 1, 1932, were among many offering tribute to Ranger McKay, the man who almost two decades previously had conceived the idea of a track linking the cliff top at Echo Point with the Federal Pass below.

James Henry McKay was born in Balmain on December 4, 1869 and died in Katoomba on September 12, 1947. He appears to have been the third ranger employed to care for reserves in the Katoomba area, following in the steps of John Smith and Charles Deeves. His appointment as Chief Ranger in 1901 came a year after the opening of the Federal Pass, which traversed the valley floor between Katoomba Falls and Leura Falls, an event representative of a new phase in the leisure use of the Blue Mountains. Gaining full time employment with Katoomba Council may have also helped Jim McKay make up his mind in 1902 to marry Emily Cole, a twenty year old widow and mother of four, and have six more children; William 1903, Letitia 1904, Isabel 1908, Dorothy 1910, Edna 1914 and Laura 1921. Emily’s daughter Ruby Cole, born 1901, was killed in Katoomba in 1910 by a kick from a horse; her father Henry Cole had died in a fall from a horse outside the Katoomba Railway Hotel in 1902. Both were attended by Dr John Spark; Henry and Ruby Cole share an unmarked grave in Katoomba cemetery.

Prior to 1890, the development of the Blue Mountains bushland for the benefit of visitors had been concentrated primarily on the cliff tops - constructing lookout access to the most popular views. The 1890s and early 20th century saw interest moving downwards into the valleys with the emphasis placed now on the active enjoyment of walking. Track-walking remained the primary motive behind the development of the area for leisure until the 1930s, when the motor car, speeding from sight to sight with its cargo of ‘sightseers’, revolutionised tourism and re-directed attention once again to the cliff edge. Indeed, Echo Point, with its Giant Stairway down into the valley and its Projecting Platform looking out over the valley, could be said to represent both the end of one era and the beginning of another.

It was from the Dardanelles track that, in 1914, he conceived his idea of a new pass that would junction with the Three Sisters at Echo Point. Scoffed at initially, his project eventually received Council approval in July 1916 following an all-day inspection of the reserves by the Reserves Committee (Aldermen C.L. Dash, G. James, G. Davies and R.V. Smythe), In their report to Council, they recommended "that it be left in the hands of Chief Ranger McKay to construct a new track from the vicinity of Echo Point to connect with Federal Pass at a point below the Three Sisters". Council adopted the report and the work began under the direction of McKay, his assistant Walter Botting and their team of labourers, which included Reubin Esgate, father of the noted Mountains identity Ben Esgate.

An article in the "Blue Mountain Echo" in 1916 reports that McKay "took to the work from the first" and with a dedication few could match today. On one occasion, the writer asserts, his wages were eight months in arrears and he survived only on large credit accounts with local stores. Before he began work on the Giant Stairway, the Federal Pass had 1,764 steps, 500 of which were in reasonable condition. By 1916, McKay had increased this to 6,464 steps, including a new track from near Bull's Head, which skirted the cliffs and led to the top of the Leura Cascades and he planned and opened the Dardanelles section of the Federal Pass. In 1908 he had led the construction of the Furber Steps, his first great stairway into the Jamison Valley.

Delay... then renewed interest
After proceeding for almost a quarter of the distance, however, the work of hacking the steps from the sheer cliff face was deemed too costly by Council and the project was brought to a halt in August 1918 and in 1922 Council's Chief Engineer estimated that a further 300 steps needed to be cut. The whole idea then lapsed for over a decade.

In the early 1930s, Harry Phillips, the noted Mountains photographer, published a small pamphlet outlining his suggestions for the future tourist development of Katoomba. Among these was the completion of the Giant Stairway which, he argued, "Can be completed at a small outlay; it leads directly into the most prolific and prettiest Fern Glen Forest in the Jamieson Valley, Leura, where magnificent motor tracks and camping areas can and should be, opened up immediately." Following vigorous agitation on the part of Alderman W.C. Soper, a close friend of Phillips, a renewed interest in the scheme was awakened early in 1932. A motion put before Council by Soper was passed and work, again under the control of Chief Ranger McKay, recommenced. This proceeded with sufficient speed for a decision to be made in July to arrange for the official opening to take place on the first weekend of October. An extensive publicity campaign under the direction of the Town Clerk, Mr. F.C. Taylor, was set in motion, circularising the provincial and city press, various radio stations and arranging with Cinesound to make it, as the Katoomba Daily put it, "a boost day for Katoomba".

Official Opening
The official opening duly took place at 3.30 p.m. on the Saturday of the Eight Hour Weekend. Following the speeches of welcome by the Mayor Alderman A.E. Packer, and the local members of Parliament, Hon. J. Jackson, Minister for Local Government and Mr. J.N. Lawson M.H.R., The Premier of New South Wales, the Hon. B.S.B. Stevens, responded and declared both the Giant Stairway and the Projecting Platform open. In his speech, the Premier paid tribute to those who carried out the hard physical work, work that on occasions was so dangerous that they had to be roped to prevent them falling. He praised their skill and courage and assured them that "they will always have the satisfaction of knowing that their initiative and labour will bring pleasure to countless thousands in the years to come", and to "have shaken the hand of Chief Ranger McKay made this a memorable day".

The ceremonies over, the huge crowd witnessed an exciting exhibition of rock-climbing by three members of the Blue Mountaineers Club: Dr. Eric Dark, Mr. Osmar White and Mr. Paddy Ellis.
"These intrepid mountaineers first appeared on the sheer wall of the western precipice about 4.00 p.m. and quickly ascended 500 feet of cliff face to the summit of the Second Sister, where the Australian Flag was flown. The descent proved even more spectacular and although the climbers did not take any unnecessary risks, and were on no occasion in danger of falling, many of the spectators literally held their breaths as they witnessed the amazing ascent of the beetling crags". (Katoomba Daily).
While the motor car was ushering in a new era of leisure activity in the mountains, which reduced somewhat the popularity of walking tracks, the Giant Stairway, though perhaps representative of this earlier phase, has, with its panoramic views and as a companion to the Scenic Railway, survived as a popular tourist attraction for the eight decades since its completion. As a memorial to the work and vision of Chief Ranger Jim McKay, and others like him, its value to the Blue Mountains is even further enhanced.

Top: Chief Ranger Jim McKay poses on the Stairs with his assistant Walter Botting (Harry Phillips photo).
Second: McKay with workers, showing use of picks, hammers and chisels to cut back rock prior to step making.
Third: The official party, The Premier Sir Bertram Stevens 4th from right, the man in the bowler hat at rear is Percy Wilson, President of Blue Mountains Shire.
Bottom: The crowd at the official opening, Echo Point.

"The Giant Stairway 1932-1982", by John Low, Blue Mountains City Library 1982.
"The Giant Stairway", by Keith Painter, Mountain Mist Books 2005.
"Walking the Federal Pass, the first 100 years", by Jim Smith, Den Fenella Press 2001.

John Low, John Merriman, Local Studies Librarians.
Blue Mountains City Library 2009

Monday, April 6, 2009

Stratford Girls' School, Lawson

Stratford Girls School, San Jose Ave. Lawson

The original building with its three floor levels and tower was constructed in 1879 and named “San Jose”, by Joseph (Jose) Guillermo Hay, an official in the Lands Department, who had received a grant of 300 acres at Lawson the previous year. In the 1880s Hay took advantage of the Mountains’ new and growing reputation as a health and recreation retreat, and by 1882 the name “San Jose” had the words “The Blue Mountains Sanatorium” added to it and described in a local guidebook as “the best for private families” and “with grounds laid out with romantic paths in all directions”. In 1889 Hay applied for a publican’s licence for the property then known as “Hay’s Family Hotel”, described as having fourteen rooms for public use. During the 1890s the property was acquired by John Ralston who ran it as a guesthouse known as “The Palace” for the next two decades until, in 1919, it eventually took the name and function for which it is best known.

The original Stratford School was founded in Lawson in 1915 by Miss Effie Townsend Wiles, known as Edith, who began classes with six pupils in a rented cottage named Tahlia, on the Bathurst Road as the highway was then known. By 1919 the old cottage was “bursting at the seams” and a move became imperative. The school made the move across the highway and railway line taking the name “Stratford School for Girls” with it. In 1924 Miss Wiles and her sister, who was also a member of staff, purchased the building from the Ralston estate and were then able to make additions and alterations to accommodate the school.

When Miss Wiles died in 1930, the enrolment was 49 girls of which 31 were boarders, five girls sat for the Intermediate Certificate exam and two girls sat the Leaving Certificate. Control then passed to the Stratford School Council and subsequently, in 1936, to the Church of England, and the school entered its heyday as “Stratford Church of England School for Girls”.

“The development of capable Christian gentlewomen in an exceptionally healthy, bracing and invigorating climate” - that was the promise of Stratford School, to prospective students and parents in the 1940s-50s. According to a 1950s school prospectus, boarders at Stratford enjoyed an atmosphere of individuality and co-operation. Pupils were “fitted for practical business”, whilst encouraged to regard life from the stand-point of high ideals and to further their studies at the university.

Stratford’s curriculum, extending from primary to leaving certificate, included scripture, English, history, geography, French, Latin, mathematics, physiology, biology, business principles, book-keeping, art, handicrafts and speech training. Music and singing also featured as an important part of school life and students could choose to sit for Australian Music Examinations Board grade exams.

The girls wore an attractive grey uniform, but jewelry was strictly forbidden, with the gracious exception of the school badge and a wrist watch. Money was also controlled, with all funds going to a pocket money account. Statements on expenditure for outings, church collections and incidentals were issued to parents. There were three school terms, each 13 weeks long, though the girls were allowed one weekend mid-term to visit relations or friends. Travel to and from Sydney for vacations and mid-term holidays, was always supervised by a mistress from the school.

During term, visitors were allowed, by arrangement with the headmistress, but no student could accept invitations without written permission from her parents. Non-vacation weekends were devoted to healthy activities and visits to places of interest in the district. As with most Mountains boarding schools of the era, great emphasis was placed on fresh air, healthy diet and wholesome activities. The dining room menu boasted copious quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables, home¬made jams and preserves and plenty of milk. Prospectus photographs showed bright, healthy young ladies, poised with grace and decorum in the dining room, clearly enjoying their healthy, wholesome meal.

Recreation was also high on the list at Stratford with tennis, netball, Vigoro and swimming at the nearby Lawson Pool offered to all pupils. The girls were accommodated in bedrooms for two and four boarders and there is also mention of a fine glassed-in balcony with an eastern aspect which appears to have housed a few beds as well. During the winter, swimming lessons were abandoned and wood fires were lit in the assembly hall and classrooms. Stratford girls, unlike their counterparts at Osborne College, Blackheath, were also afforded the privilege of a hot water service. The prospectus makes no mention of students’ academic records, but in the early 1950s, following a report by the Department of Education; the school was reduced to Intermediate Certificate level.

The 1957 fees brochure shows that the Leaving Certificate had been reinstated and announced the launch of a building fund to raise ₤5,000 for the erection of new and modern classrooms and to “gain help for Stratford to develop along modern lines.” Two coaches from the Lawn Tennis Association had joined the staff to provide coaching to pupils for which a fee of ₤2.10.0 per term was charged. It appears however that all this was unsuccessful, so with the buildings and furniture run down, changing trends in education and competition from Public schools and other private schools such as Blue Mountains Grammar at Wentworth Falls - Stratford finally closed in 1961.

In 1966, the building was sold to a Sydney couple, who refurbished the interior to house wedding receptions, dinners and private patties. The establishment lasted until the late 1970s, when in 1977, the Blue Mountains Community School moved in with 18 students, a new teacher and Government grants for a library and mini-bus.

By 1980, the building was owned by brothers Lionel and Vivian Coleman of Sydney, but there would be no more tenants for Stratford. On June 4, 1980, as the result of an electrical fault, the building was gutted by fire. Today, the only reminder of Stratford’s former glory is a large stenciled sign on the building's tower, the rest has gone. The remains of the building, except for the tower section, were demolished by a developer in the early 1990s. No further move has been made, at the time of writing, to develop the site, which is listed on the local heritage register.

Stratford at Tahlia and the Japanese Cherry Tree
In 1915 the first home of the school was the rented cottage Narbethong on Bathurst road, then until 1919 at a house named Kawarree, later known as Tahlia House, situated near the Lawson Community Hall. In 2008 Talia was threatened by road widening plans for Lawson and was re-sited back from the highway alignment by the RTA. While the school occupied Tahlia, in 1916, Woodford resident Toranosuki Kitamura, manager of Kinematsu (Australia) Ltd, imported a Yedoensis flowering cherry tree which he planted at the school as a token of respect for the high quality of education his three daughters, Jean, Una and Beth had received. The tree thrived for many years but due to its age and poor health could not be moved to make way for traffic. However over 100 young trees were successfully propagated from cuttings which are to be incorporated into landscape plans for the new highway and town centre. In 2002 a farewell ceremony for the old cherry tree was organised by a former Stratford student from the 1940s, Mrs Kathleen Hooke nee Barwick, and attended by the Japanese Consul General, the Mayor and the Member for Blue Mountains, local councillors and the grandchildren of Mr Kitamura.

Headmistresses of Stratford Girls School
1908 - Miss Effie WILES, known as Edith,“a woman of high ideals and rare courage.”
Effie Wiles, the daughter of a Methodist Minister, the Rev Henry Wiles, was educated at the Maitland High School and at Burwood Methodist Ladies’ College. In 1908 she opened a small school at Lawson, in a cottage called Narbethong. At first there were six pupils, but it was not long before larger premises became necessary and Miss Wiles opened the school in a larger cottage named Kawaree, and it was she who chose the name ‘Stratford’(SMH April 1930).

1919 – Move to the building in San Jose Ave.
Miss Wiles and her sister moved from the rented house to Stratford School for more class rooms. Later teachers were Mrs Senga Erratt, nee Rose, a pupil of Miss Wiles and also a gifted musician and a triple certificated nurse; Mrs Tibbits (nee Plummer) and Lady G. Cassidy, nee Waterhouse, a former Stratford School captain, were pupils of Miss Wiles.

1929 - Placed under management of Stratford School Council

1930-33 - Mrs Jeanette ASHTON
When Mrs Ashton became the new Headmistress in April 1933 the pupils still were devastated by the news of Miss Wiles’ death. She found the fiancial situation difficult and eventually left in 1933. A small committee had been formed to address the financial situation and it was agreed that £100 be borrowed from the Diocesan Education and Book Society on the personal guarantee of Mr R Allen and the Rev F H B Dillon

1934-35 - Miss Rita J ALLAN
In l936, the Rev Barwick was asked to leave the Kurrajong Parish and to come to Lawson to become the Treasurer of the Stratford Council. In the same year, the Archbishop, the Most Rev HWK Mowll D.D. asked Miss GML Watkins to consider becoming the Headmistress of Stratford School, she ‘graciously consented’ to accept the position as Headmistress.

1936 – 1948 Miss Gertrude Mary Lethbridge WATKINS
Miss Watkins exerted a unique presence throughout the school by her kindly smile, a quiet nature and yet maintaining strong discipline and by her long and saintly leadership, as well as her Sunday evening ‘Devotions’ conducted by her in her lounge for the Boarders with discussion of problems and the sermon of the Rector delivered at the Church that morning.

All helped to ‘mould’ the school together into a ‘more or less’ unified whole. She had been in charge of the ‘Holmer’ School, in Parramatta for about 10 years (1915 -1925) and then there is a break between 1925 and 1935. She may have gone to Bedford College, London to do extra teacher training there. She started at Stratford Girls’ School, Lawson early in 1936.

On her staff were the following:

Senior School: Miss M C Day, Miss Jean Frazer, Mrs A L Gorrod, Miss A. Howard, Miss I A Sawkins, Mr Bernard Schleicher BA Oxon.(languages, mathematics, history, ref. John Low).

Junior School: Miss Blaikie, Miss B M Holt, Miss R Missing and Miss G E Waring (ref. Autograph Book of K H Hooke).

The Assistant Headmistress, House Mother, Music Teacher and Matron was Miss Lilian Murray, from Wellington and Kelso, who was at the school in Miss Wiles’ time and then continued till 1952 and died on 23rd June 1953, age about 24 years.
Miss Watkins wished to retire at the end of 1947 but there was no successor to replace her so she offered to stay until there was someone who would continue her work. All this was done for 13 years without any salary! (ref. Kathleen Hooke)

1949 – 1950 Miss Nina BRENTNALL B.A. died 1984
Miss Brentnall was chosen by the newly elected Stratford Council and warmly congratulated after the first few months of her being in office, in registering the school, reintroducing inter school Sports and for getting a new Playing Field for the girls. Though the girls had to help in the kitchen in making meals, maintaining discipline seemed to prove difficult and the school seemed to be on the wane after Miss Watins left. She extended her time at the school till another
headmistress was chosen. On her staff: were the following Miss Adam, Miss Carnarole, Mrs Eastman, Miss Graham, Miss Daphne Kellet (3rd Class Art and Drama, Shakespearean plays), Miss Parr, Miss Thomson and Miss Nancy Walsh (ex C.M.S. India).

1951 – 1956 Mrs Helen McT WAYNE
Mrs Wayne improved the appearance of the school with painting and new furniture, and the Inspector of Education was impressed with the educational standard of the school, but it was reduced to the Intermediate Certificate Level. ‘A lovely
person’ (ref Miss J. Thomas) Mrs Wayne resigned in Dec. 1955 after being there for 9 as a teacher and 5 as Headmistress, 14 years in all. (ref. Kathleen Hooke)
1956 (1st and 2nd terms) MISS Mary THOMSON B.A. Work greatly appreciated by the School Council, lived out of the school grounds.

1956 (3rd term) Mrs Deirdre HAYTER The Council acknowledged that she had worked untiringly.

1957 (January) 1959 Miss Judith THEWLIS, B.Sc. Dip.Ed.
Miss Thewlis was appointed by the Council. She insisted on the wearing of gloves when girls left the school grounds, she also introduced a new summer uniform, a beautiful cotton frock with a window frame check, in blue and gold, and no white dresses for Speech Day to save expense. She fell down some polished stairs and broke some bones and then died of pneumonia just 42 years of age (1960). She was greatly loved and sorely missed. On her staff were the following: Mrs Baker (Primary 1st to 4th class), Miss Gwen Thompson (English and History), Mr Trask, from Penrith, teaching Etiquette. Stratford almost burnt down. A miracle that it was saved. (ref. Kathleen Hooke)

1959 – Miss Bannerman (Ascot Aggie, her brand of cigarettes, thanks to Kerrie McNamara)

1961 – School closes

Stratford School Song
The mountains are rolling around us,
And the blue sky is arching above.
Stands the old Stratford grammar at Lawson,
The school that we honour and love.
Stratford, Stratford the school of the blue and gold,
Gold for the sunshine and blue for the mountain tops cold.

The future lies glorious before us,
And though we are eager to try -
Its pleasures, we’re all of us ready
For the duties that close to us lie.
Chorus: repeat

Though all of us cannot be clever,
We all can be useful and kind.
Or learning to cherish forever,
The treasures of spirit and mind.
Chorus: repeat

Whether defeated of winning,
Heads high we shall smile and press on.
‘Til at last we shall sigh to remember,
Our school days at Stratford are done.
Chorus: repeat


Fees 1957
Primary per term ₤85.0.0
Secondary per term ₤88.0.0
Laundry per term ₤3.10.0
Yearly linen fee ₤2.2.0
Entrance fee ₤3.3.0


Stratford School Headmistresses, notes by Kathleen Hooke, 2000
Stratford Prospectus, Anglican Diocese of Sydney, c.1950
Stratford Girls School – Local Studies clippings file, Blue Mountains City Library

Images from top
1: Stratford ruins after the fire, photographed by Neil Billington(1983) for Blue Mountains City Library.

2: Advertising poster for San Jose, The Blue Mountain Sanatorium, note Blue Mountain was the earlier name for Lawson from the 1840s until 1879.

3: Stratford girls in uniform (centre) at the opening of the relief map of Australia at Lawson swimming pool 1932, Lawson public school pupils on left and Percy Wilson, Blue Mountains Shire President, in bowler hat with his wife on the bridge; a Stratford mistress appears to be with them on left of bridge. The cement model was constructed by Mr Frank Higgison (1909-1943) of 35 Allen St Lawson, who was to die on the Sandakan Death March on Borneo. Frank may be present in the photo, he would have been about 23 at the time.

4: Stratford about 1960, colour slide by Milton Porter from the Local Studies Collection.

5: Miss Judith Thewlis, photo courtesy Mrs M E Patrick, Local Studies collection.

Note, July 2010: Kathleen Hooke (nee Barwick) died in October 2009 having published her memoirs of Straford as:
Hooke K.H. (2008) Blue Mountains Heritage and Nostalgia including Stratford Church of England School for Girls, Lawson and Memoirs. Self published, Kathleen H Hooke, 2008, Printed by Cliff Lewis Printing, Sydney. 585pp
Thanks for Brian Fox for this reference.
Further helpful information regarding Miss Wiles was supplied by Nancy Donald.

John Merriman, Local Studies Librarian
Blue Mountains City Library 2009

The Plucky Rescuer – the story of Hindman Street, Katoomba

 The origins of the older street names in the Blue Mountains are, in some cases, not easily determined. This is a great shame for, behind th...