Geelong’s Oldest Kindergarten

Kindergartens were not unknown in Geelong in the early 1900s – in 1914 the ever generous Howard Hitchcock opened a new kindergarten hall for the Ashby Methodist Church in Wellington Street, and by 1920 what was to become Geelong West Kindergarten was meeting regularly at St Pauls Church and Scots Church. But Geelong West Kindergarten needed a dedicated, purpose built home.

The decision for the building of a Free Kindergarten to cater for the needs of Geelong West residents came about in 1921 when Messrs Hitchcock, Lewis, Shore and Wighton became trustees of the Geelong Branch of the Free Kindergarten Union and bought four blocks of land in O’Connell Street for 173 pounds. The land had been originally purchased from the Crown in 1846 by S. Harding, a storekeeper and squatter, and was subsequently owned by Mr William Budds, an ex-Tasmanian convict, and a Catherine Murphy.

The proposal for the Geelong West Free Kindergarten was carefully planned and took advantage of all the latest amenities and building materials available. A contract was signed outlining commencement and finishing dates of the construction of the kindergarten between the contractor, D. M, Muir, the architects Laird and Buchan and the Committee on 30th November 1921. Works were to be completed by 8th February 1922.

Funds for the building were raised by the Free Kindergarten Union of Victoria, the Kindergarten Committee, the Mayoress’s Committee and public donations.  The building was completed on time and the staff and fifty-five students would have been delighted with their new kindergarten. It comprised of a spacious verandah porch, two smaller class rooms, a kitchen, bathroom and a large circle room, having casement windows at both ends furnished with miniature chairs, tables, toys, mural blackboards, pictures and a new piano.

Geelong West Free Kindergarten was opened on 20 March, 1922 by Earl Stradbroke, the Governor of Victoria. Countess Stradbroke had consented to perform the ceremony, but owing to a slight chill it was deemed advisable not to make the journey. Alderman and Mrs Hitchcock were present, also Mrs a’Beckett, president of the Free Kindergarten Union of Victoria, and Miss Glendinning,  supervisor.  Lord Stradbroke referred to the great benefit kindergartens were to the State. The President of the Free Kindergarten Union of Victoria outlined the uses of the kindergarten which were “to train the child through the medium of its play, to direct the child to obtain self-knowledge, self-reverence and self-control.” The children presented His Excellency with a book of photographs of themselves and their surroundings, and a bouquet to be handed over to Lady Stradbroke. They then sang several charming little songs.

The Geelong West community had a kindergarten of which it could be proud. Twelve new students were enrolled on the day of the opening. In its early days, the kindergarten also revealed its versatility and popularity by accommodating the first baby health care centre in Geelong. However there was a constant struggle for enough funds, with the trustees and community support helping to keep the kinder going.

The Depression brought further challenges, with parents often being unable or unwilling to take their children to the kindergarten. The Director and assistants of Geelong West Free Kindergarten responded by collecting the children from their homes, all linked together with a piece of rope. Five hour programs were introduced so that children could be fed at least one meal during the day, and a babies’ room for children 2 ½ years old commenced for the same purpose. In October 1933 the kindergarten thanked the council for work carried out in the grounds with sustenance money.

The war years saw a drop in enrolments from 75 to 45 children. Until the war years, Geelong West Free Kindergarten had a director, a fully qualified assistant and around 15 local voluntary helpers. During the war, staff comprised of a director, an untrained or partly trained assistant and no voluntary helpers.

After the war, in 1946, the council provided a scholarship for full training at the Kindergarten Training College to girls interested in teaching at the kindergarten.

In 1982 the first alterations in 50 years were made to Geelong West Kindergarten, with architect N. J. Dunstan following the lead of Laird and Buchan by offering his services free of charge. Although the building almost doubled in size, the extensions were designed to match the existing building and even enhanced the whole appearance of the kindergarten as well as making the function of the building more appropriate for modern times.

A further extension and renovation in 2013 has resulted in the Kindergarten we operate in today, where we are able to accomodate 136 children and employ a staff of 13. In addition to improving the size and appearance of the kindergarten, wheelchair accessibility to all areas of the kindergarten was established. This was all made possible with a government grant of $300,000 and the tireless work of committee members, Lyndal Bayles and Alison McFarlane.