The Unpaid Work of the Mothers of Ashburton
On 10 November 2023, Ashburton Primary School announced that the final proceeds of their first Grand Fair in five years was over $116,000. It was a phenomenal result. Not only did it show the great affection for the school among its community and the strength of parents’ ongoing support, this amount represented the tireless commitment and months of unpaid work of the three women behind it (pictured here from left): Binita Kapadia, Yuen Theng, and Paula Cheung.
Nobody keeps records of how much school fairs make from year to year but according to a 2023 Age article, around $100K is a very decent amount. But it took an extraordinary amount of work. Gone are the days of a handful of stalls, a dad roped in to dress up as a clown, and a Punch and Judy show. This Fair was nearly a year in the planning and included fairground rides, stalls, food trucks, entertainment, a bar and the great luck of one of those rare magical Melbourne spring days that made everyone remember why we live here. To raise well over $100K was even more of an extraordinary accomplishment because unlike the old days of School Fairs and Mothers Clubs, many of the fair volunteers worked full-time, professional jobs.
According to the notice I received from the school, 85 per cent of the primary volunteer organisers of the school fair were women, myself included. With all due respect to the Dads who volunteered and turned out on the day to lend a hand, the bulk of the planning, organising, cajoling for sponsors, and intellectual labour was performed by the school’s mothers. This ensures they join a very long tradition of Ashburton's mothers supporting school fundraising efforts.
Like most of women’s history in Melbourne, this is not a particularly well-documented area. So I'll rectify that. I'll also briefly describe the countless hours of time Ashburton's mothers have donated to raising money for our local schools in the last century.
Mothers Clubs and the Federation
Mothers Clubs began as a very simple concept in November 1916 in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Princes Hill (near Carlton). Miss Horder, the teacher at the new kindergarten, realised her children’s mothers were interested in seeing their children at work. After all, this was the first generation of children to benefit from mandatory schooling in Victoria.
The mothers would come in and tell or read stories to the children, then stay for a cup of tea with their teacher. Miss Horder decided to organise them into a Story-telling Club. Since there can’t be a story-telling club without books, the Princes Hill mothers began to fundraise to buy the children new ones. It did not take long for them to build an extensive library for the children. Miss Horder's initiative attracted the attention of other schools and other Story-telling Clubs began to form. They then became known as Mothers Clubs.
Mothers Clubs recognised quickly that the Government and the school committees – run entirely by men – tended to not think teachers and children needed anything more than a building and a desk. So they began fundraising for supplementary materials and items to help them work efficiently; school supplies, books, medical items and grounds improvements being a few examples.
One woman recognised the importance of the Mothers Club movement. Miss Ida Body, a teacher at Albert Park State School and the president of the Albert Park Mothers’ Club, hit upon the idea of forming a Federation of Mothers Clubs. Miss Body thought that by coordinating the activities of the Mothers Clubs, together they could seek departmental recognition for their work that would place them on par with the decision-making school committees. On 26 November 1925, she convened a meeting of 17 of Melbourne’s Mothers Clubs.
The Education Department proved uninterested in supporting the Federation. At worst, they considered the organisation a threat. They particularly did not like female teachers being involved in the Mothers Clubs. But this did not stop the Mothers Clubs joining the Federation. By its first anniversary, the FMC had a membership of 50 Mothers Clubs across Victoria. Miss Body, now the president, had created a lobbying force. At the first annual general meeting, she invited Mrs A K Wallace to speak. Mrs Wallace, also known as Lizzie Ahern, was a socialist, an active trade unionist and a delegate to the Labor Women’s Central Organising Committee.
The FMC, although not officially a political group, realised that more women in government would help them secure more government funding for their children's educations.
They supported the successful campaigns of Enid Lyons and Ivy Weber to become the first federal female member of parliament and the first Victorian member of parliament respectively. Although not officially aligned with the Labor Party (the 1940s version, not the one we have now) the FMC attracted many women that way inclined.
Ashburton Primary School Mothers’ Club
The Ashburton Primary School Mothers’ Club commenced within three months of the school opening, holding its first meeting on 11 July 1928. Mothers needed to pay a small fee to join and bring a cup, saucer and spoon if they intended to drink tea at subsequent meetings. The first item the Club raised funds for was a First Aid kit costing over £3.
Ashburton’s Mothers’ Club decided on a series of fundraisers centred on Eucre (a type of card game), dances, picnics, and fancy-dress parties. Empire Day celebrations (held on or around 24 May) became a key event in the Club calendar. The tradition of a school fair emerged early (although the school history does not say exactly when) and flower shows also proved popular fundraising events.
A strong tradition of mothers’ clubs was to celebrate the anniversary of its foundation. The mothers of Ashburton were not inclined to skip a celebration of their accomplishments for the year, even during the War. In 1945, with rationing still in place, each mother donated one teaspoon of butter so that a birthday cake could be baked for their anniversary party.
The War years also saw much fundraising directed towards the War Effort rather than the school. The mothers sent food parcels to Ashburton in Devon made from funds raised at card parties. This was no doubt appreciated, despite Ashburton’s namesake being the one in Ireland, not Devon.
In 1975, the Federation of Mothers Clubs, led by future Labor premier Joan Kirner, decreed that Mothers Clubs should become Parents Associations. They should also try and hold meetings and functions in the evening so that both parents could attend. The Ashburton Mothers Club complied but a year later, withdrew from the Federation. The school history does not say why but it can be speculated from Ashburton’s right-leaning voting record that perhaps the parents of Ashburton Primary did not agree with the political leanings of the Federation, now called the Victorian Federation of Parents’ Associations.
The Alamein State School Mothers' Club
Over in Alamein, the only Labor voting area of the entire Higgins electorate, the mothers at the new Alamein State School were all in.
Alamein School opened on 3 July 1950, in the form of three imported pre-fabricated classrooms ‘constructed’ like a giant Lego set on the land where Sky Lane and Sun Rise are now. 166 students arrived for the first day of classes. But on opening day, the school lacked electricity, drainage, a boundary fence and was later described by one parent as ‘a desolate mud-dump unfit for children to play on.’
Alamein encountered every problem of any new school: settling children into their new environment, unifying the staff, setting up the rooms, gathering support from the families; and most importantly, trying to turn a building site into a playground. The School’s Acting Head Teacher Mr Trudinger organised the first School Committee (comprised entirely of men) and the mothers came together to form a Mother’s Club.
Despite its less-than-ideal surrounds, Alamein School gave significance to the Housing Commission community bereft of any public meeting place and united new residents around a common goal. The mothers of Alamein dedicated themselves to hosting stalls, carnivals, fairs, dances and other events to raise funds to improve landscaping and other site works. Over time, a strong culture of fundraising and community arose around the school as everyone in the Housing Commission estate pulled together to try and improve the school for their children. The mothers raised money for everything from pencil sharpeners to books, trophies, furnishings, sports equipment, musical instruments, filing cabinets, clocks and later, a television set.
One year, someone even donated a boat for the Mothers Club to raffle. ‘The Mothers Club would do any mortal thing to raise money for those children,’ said Dorothy Prestegar in The Alameiners, from Mud to Palaces. ‘But we would also take the ladies to the factories for tours and shopping, or go into the city for a walk along the Yarra. In those days women were not allowed to work. We not only earned money for the school, but we also provided a social outlet to the mothers and women in the area.’ Many of the women remained friends until their deaths.
By 1980, 75 women from Alamein’s Mothers Club had received a certificate from the Victorian Federation of Parents’ Associations honouring their service. School reunions organised by the Mothers Club attracted former students from as far afield as Western Australia. Joan Kirner noted, ‘you cannot beat the Alamein Ladies, they are on their own, they know what they are doing and they go about it!’ She had been president of the Croydon North Primary School Mother’s Club, then of the Federation of Mothers Clubs before leading the Labor Party as Victoria’s first female premier in 1990.
In 1993, when the School fell victim to Jeff Kennett’s education reforms and closed down, the mothers of Alamein mourned its demise. ‘It was a sad day for us all,’ Dorothy Prestegar said. ‘Most of us at the closing had been with the school for those 43 years. We all lived for the school.
We spent most of our time trying to raise money for those children. When the school was built they didn’t even give us chalk. We had to buy the chalk. We started with nothing.’
The Solway Primary School Mothers Club
Like the other mothers’ clubs of Ashburton, the Solway Mothers Club fundraised tirelessly for their school. In the 1960s, they prepared and sold bread rolls on Mondays, and held regular hat parades and cooking demonstrations. They organised tours of the Billy Bunter Pie Factory in Carlton and the Peter’s Ice Cream factory. Unfortunately, their history (published in 1982) is rather dismissive of their efforts throughout. It was published in a lean time for the school, when there was great uncertainty about whether the School would survive. From the mid-1970s, staffing levels dropped so low that the Mothers Club stepped in to assist with day to day school activities. Not only were they fundraising, mothers helped in the library, with the reading scheme, PE and swimming and provided secretarial assistance.
The history notes, ‘the spirit of our school remains larger than ever and future children can look forward with pride to continuing the traditions that its forebears have started.’
This is most certainly true. Not only did the school survive but it thrived. Solway has run numerous successful fairs and election day cake stalls. And that’s just the ones I know about from living here, I’ve no doubt there’s much more.
A Final Word
Eventually, the school committees and the Education Department came around to the FMC. In fact, they came around a little too much; the Department began to see the Mothers Clubs as the way to fund vital health and medical services in schools that they really should have been doing themselves.
As the decades passed, Mothers Clubs and their immense fundraising capacity became a prominent force in schools. This diagram from a 1974 Age article is tongue-in-cheek but it still shows their significance in an 'unofficial' power structure of a state-run primary school.
By the 1990s, budget cuts coincided with more sophisticated fundraising needs for computers and associated equipment. Today, parents still work to fundraise for school improvements. With the cost of materials and labour significantly higher an ever before, it creates an endless fundraising cycle. The $116,000 raised by the APS Grand Fair will go towards replacing the prep playground.
For all we know now, it may not be enough.
So to the present day and past mothers of Ashburton, I wish there was a way to recognise your amazing contributions to our schools more than just writing about you on my humble blog. But just know you follow in a long line of incredibly dedicated and motivated women across almost a century.
Unfortunately, your children will probably not appreciate any of what you’ve done until they become parents themselves. So let’s hope the tradition continues with them!
NB: The Victorian Federation of Parents’ Associations is now known as Parents Victoria
A note about St Michaels Parish School: I have no doubt at all that the mothers and parents remain instrumental in fundraising to support the school. Unfortunately, as it is fee-based and Catholic, there’s no real public information on this and its not mentioned in their very old school history. But feel free to put what you know in the comments!
This article prepared with the help of Trove and these texts (available at Ashburton or Camberwell library):
Bridges, R.D. Ashburton Primary School no. 4317: Golden Jubilee 1928-1978, 1978.
McGrath, Francis J. An Australian Catholic Parish: The Story of Saint Michael's Ashburton. 1996
Unknown author, Alamein Primary School No. 4649, 1950-1980, 1980. (this one is at PROV)
Unknown author, Solway Primary School, 1950-1982, 1982.
Grace, Robyn and Cara Waters, "The High Stakes School Fetes Being Supersized for $100,000 Profits," The Age, 28 October 2023. Based on personal communication I received as a parent at the school.  "Mothers Club Afternoon," Narracan Shire Advocate, Moe, 15 December 1944.