History and images of an historic Hunter Valley homestead

Monday, March 14, 2011

The history of Skellatar House - the Education Era

At the time of Hunter Bowman's death the Skellatar estate comprised about 3,000 acres. It was subdivided into a number of parcels for sale, and the Skellatar homestead and the surrounding 650 acres of land were bought by the Catholic Church at an auction conducted by Edward Higgens Parkinson & Company on 15th November 1952.

The current owners of Skellatar House were very fortunate to be given an original 1952 auction poster, in perfect condition, by Mr Tony McTaggart of Edward Higgens Parkinson First National in Muswellbrook.

Here it is. 'The Noted Skellatar Estate - on the famous Hunter River - at Muswellbrook.'

You can see, in the centre of the first site plan, the large 650 acre homestead block that the Catholic Church purchased. The church quickly sold off a large part of the 650 acres for housing development, but retained some areas for later projects such as St James School on the Skellatar Stock Route, and the Mount Providence Hostel for the Aged in Tindale Street.

Father Fitzgerald, the parish priest, renamed the portion retained by the Church 'Mount Providence'. In 1953 St Mary's High School for Girls was opened in the Skellatar homestead, with an enrolment of 18 pupils, and it was run by the Sisters of Mercy. No-one lived in the house, except the caretakers, the Oakes family, in the flat at the rear created out of the servants' quarters.

In the 1960's the Federal Government introduced the Wyndham Scheme, which set standards for secondary school education and led to today's Higher School Certificate system. To meet the demands of the new curriculum, a science classroom block was constructed on the site in 1964.

However, not long after the building was opened, the science courses were abandoned and it was later used as a chapel. Remnants of the confessional box are still visible in what is now a garage and workshop. The school was forced to close in 1968 as a result of the inability of the existing buildings and staff to meet the growing demands of the new secondary school curriculum, and most of the pupils were transferred to St. Catherine's High School in Singleton.

Although the school had closed the Catholic Church retained the property, and in 1977 the church made Skellatar House available for the establishment of the Upper Hunter Teachers' Centre. It was an equipment and resource library with a full time adviser, for all schools in the Upper Hunter, not just Catholic schools. In 1985 the centre moved from Skellatar House, or 'Mount Providence' as it was known at the time, to the recently vacated old St. James Convent School building in Sowerby Street, Muswellbrook.

Between 1981 and 1983, and possibly at an earlier time in the 1970's, the overcrowding at St. James Convent School made it necessary to relocate the infants' classes to the Skellatar homestead, sharing the building with the Teachers' Centre. But when the new St. James School on the Skellatar Stock Route was opened in June 1983, all the Skellatar pupils were transferred to the new school. From 1985 to 1996 the homestead had various intermittent uses loosely connected with education, such as a ballet school, in the old science block, and a pre-school playgroup centre.

It's probably fortunate that the period of ownership by the Catholic Church coincided with an era in which many old houses were ruined by misguided attempts at renovation. The Church did not renovate, it simply used what was there as best it could. It did not paint over the glorious red cedar, or not much of it, anyway, and it did not rip up the Minton tiles and replace them with lino. The fact that there was no family living in the main residence from 1953 to 1997 may have saved Skellatar House from some of the horrors of modernisation.

In 1997 the church decided to sell Skellatar House and two acres of land around it, and it was sold to the Birnie family, who were already residents of Muswellbrook. The house was in a fairly dilapidated state by this time. There were pigeons nesting in the roof and some of the ceilings had collapsed. The upstairs verandah needed its flooring timbers replaced, and some sections of the cast-iron decoration were missing. Mr and Mrs Birnie took on an enormous task, and during the seven years of their ownership they restored the original beauty of the interior of Skellatar House.

So, to conclude, and to bring us back to our starting point: Mr and Mrs Birnie moved to Queensland in the early part of 2004, and some months later Granville and Yvonne Taylor came along and saw Skellatar House on that very rainy day just before Christmas. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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