Canning Mills School 1936-1941

By BERT FOREST Headteacher

Canning mills was once a very big mill town with the timber mill, a hotel, a blacksmith and a school that I know of, and probably other facilities. The mill had been closed long before I got there and Canning Mills had been without a school. At the beginning of 1936 there was no school building, but the area had market gardens and orchards being developed by families with school-aged children. Another group of market gardeners lived a few kilometres west of Canning Mills, not very far from the South Western Railway and they too had children of school age.. Kelmscott school was the nearest to them but it was beyond the compulsory distance of three miles (5kms). The Education Department decided to re-establish a school at Canning Mills and I was appointed there as Headteacher.

I’d been told by the education Department that accommodation was available with Mrs. C. McKay who lived at the north end of Canning Mills where there was a small grove of pine trees north west of the siding. Her husband, Charles McKay worked for the Forestry Department. He was in charge of a group of forestry workers.

As there was no school building, Mrs. McKay offered the Department the use of a rather large room on the north west corner of her house as a temporary school room. The house had originally been occupied by the Mill Manager when Canning Mills supplied much of Perth’s jarrah.Approval had already been given for a new school to be built on a site due west of the railway siding and it wasn’t long before we moved in to it, maybe a couple of months.

The school building consisted of a schoolroom with a verandah on the north side. Besides the verandah and parallel to it was an access ramp, running from the downhill side up to the far end of the verandah. The school ground sloped and there was a fall of about a metre from one end of the school to the other. The ramp was built so that the slope was exaggerated and was therefore far too steep.


I complained to the Education Department about this. The Director of Education, Mr. Klein, visited the school over this matter, which was very unusual. He was not at all friendly and in fact was quite aggressive. I met him at the foot of the ramp and he said in a belligerent manner “What is the meaning of this complaint I’ve received?” I feel sure that he came to reprimand me for daring to complain about a new school that had just been built.

I invited him to come into the school so that he had to climb the ramp. It was so steep that he had to drag himself up by holding the handrail. It was a very short visit and he left almost immediately without even going into the classroom. He did not show me the courtesy of agreeing with the complaint nor did he tell me what he intended to do about it. However, almost immediately the ramp was extended to make it useable. Better planning, taking into account the slope of the school ground, could have eliminated the need of a ramp at all.

After I had been at Canning Mills for three months, there were big bushfires and Mr. McKay had a nervous breakdown and I had to shift to new accommodation with Mrs. Hanbury.


At this time, a friend of mine from Teachers College, Percy Stanbury, was headmaster of Carinyah, another one-teacher school, which was about fifteen miles east of Canning Mills, Carinyah was a forestry station and it was near Smailes Mill (a timber mill) so the school drew pupils from forestry families and mill families. Percy’s wife, Jean, had also been in college with us, so I knew her too.

Smailes Mill was owned by Syd Smailes whose two sons, Bernie and Ted, and his son-in-law Wally Stevens, also worked at the Mill. Syd, Ted and Bernie all boarded with Mrs. Hanbury. Sometimes Syd would invite me out to the Mill to get “picket points” which were good firewood. These were the two little triangles cut off pickets to make the point. As most suburban blocks had “picket” fences, pickets were made in the thousands at this time. I would fill up the back of the car and take the picket points home for Dad. I had a Model B Ford single seater at this time with a lift-up boot.

Ted was courting Trixie Jorgenson who lived in Kalamunda and he would come home from work, get spruced up and go off to Kalamunda on his Douglas motorbike. When they got married they went to live at the mill. I think they built a new house for them.

Every Tuesday night for years, I went to tea at either Ted and Trixie Smailes’ or Percy and Jean Stanbury’s. Through them I got to know another couple, Tom Sullivan and his wife Bernice (but I always called her Mrs. Sullivan, and eventually we rotated and all seven of us would gather at one house or another, on a Tuesday night, for tea and cards.

Mrs Hanbury had a large “family” to cook for. There was: herself, two daughters (Dorothy and Kathleen) and a son (Maitland), and several lodgers: myself, Syd Smailes. At times her adult sons stayed there too – John, Charlie, Oliver and Ernie. Charlie worked at the Mill. He rode horseback on a track that started at the back of the house and led through the bush to the Mill. The others sons spent most of their time with their father who was gold-mining at Marvel Loch in the Southern Cross Field. They came home at irregular intervals, and the house was filled to bursting point. I slept on the front verandah and dressed in a spare bedroom. It was only for four nights per week as I went back to my parents’ house in Fremantle (3 Stirling Street) on Fridays for the weekend.

Occasionally, Mr. A.C. Harris, a senior officer in the Forestry Department, was also squeezed in for the night.

Evenings were always full of interest as we all sat round the lounge fire and many interesting stories and experiences were told. One funny incident comes to mind:

Syd Smailes went out of the room on some pretext and made an invisible “prick” in the skin of one finger. When he returned he said he would show us a trick. He said he could draw blood from his finger by just rubbing the back of a knife across the skin. So he tied a hanky round the bottom of his finger and said to Maitland, “Get me a knife from the kitchen!” Maitland came back with a large carving knife which just happened to be a double-side one (it was sharp on both edges). Syd rubbed the back of the knife on his finger, let out a shout as blood poured out! Poor Maitland got the blame.

Syd Smailes had lived with “timber” all his working life, and was always able to recount incidents connected with the timber mills in earlier times. It had been a hard life – full of interest. I wish I could remember some of the stories he used to tell.

A friend of Syd’s “Togger” Curtis, also the owner of a small mill like Syd’s, and the two men used to co-operate when large orders for a sawn timber were received.

NOTE: For years Millars tried to buy these small mills, but the owners resisted all offers for a long time.

But eventually sales were agreed to. I have the impression that outputs were increased tremendously for

a time, merchantable logs were cut out and both mills were closed.

At the time of writing about, the Upper Darling Range Railway was still running. There were three trains per week – on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. They terminated at Karragullen, which was one station beyond Canning Mills and the last on the line. The train arrived at Karragullen at 8.10p.m. and the mail was taken to the Store cum Post Office and sorted. We sometimes went to Karragullen on Monday and Wednesday nights to collect it.

I Join The Freemasons

Some years before, I had mentioned to Uncle Jim Kair that I would like to join the Freemasons’ Lodge. Uncle Jim and Uncle Phil Leach had been members for years. Uncle Jim’s father, a man with one arm, was caretaker of the Fremantle Masonic Building and lived in a small flat in the building. He was a member and a Past Master of Lodge Thistle, No 889 Scottish Constitution.

Uncle Jim contacted my father, who agreed to propose me, and arrange for another Past Master, Enos Dyer, to second the proposal. I was informed of the requirements for membership, and purchased the necessary dinner suit. I was initiated on Thursday 24th August 1939, and attended the monthly meetings regularly as soon as I had taken the Third Degree.

After tea on the monthly meeting night, I used to drive down to Stirling Street (my parent’s home) where I changed into my dinner suit, attended Lodge, changed out of my suit again at Stirling Street and returned to Canning Mills.

Most times I took two school boys with me – Wally Sharpe and Ilio (Silio) DiMarco – who were able to have a night at the Oriana Theatre – their only outing to a picture show, By the time Lodge had concluded and I had changed to ordinary clothes, it must have been close to midnight when I picked up the two boys. It was a late night for them but they had so little entertainment that they always looked forward to the fourth Thursday of the month.



There were three groups of children attending the school:

a. Those who came from nearby homes where English was spoken,

b. A group who came from a westerly direction where Yugoslav was the language of the home, and

c. A small group where Italian was the language at home.

All the school children spoke good English, and as new families came to Australia (always relatives of someone in the district), the children at the school were very helpful in getting the new ones proficient in English. It seemed no time before they talked naturally and fluently in their second language and were fully assimilated to school life in a W. A. school.

The children – Australia, Italian and Yugoslavian – formed an ideal group both at play and at learning. At least two School Inspectors, Mr. Hatfield and Mr. Morrison, were very impressed at their mastery of everyday English and their standards of work. I think the Children read every book I was able to provide them.

In fact, I remember an occasion when Mr. Hatfield was inspecting the school. One of the pupils, Louis Ghilarducci, was talking to him and used the subjunctive “If I were ….”. Mr. Hatfield asked Louis why he had said “IF I were ….” and not “If I was …..”. Louis replied, “I don’t know why, but it just sounds right,” And of course it was.

One of the new arrivals was a Mr. DiMarco who brought his wife and only son, Ilio (Silio) who was about 11, to Australia. He loved to play cricket with a few of the other boys after school but he had to do his chores first. When he had only been at the school a week or two, as Ilio went for water, he met Wally Sharpe, a boy who lived near the school. The boys stopped and Ilio said, “Me – water – home. Come back – cricket”. Wally excitedly told me about this the next day. It really impressed him. And me too!

I should explain how cricket became so popular. The school had bush on two sides of it, a road on another. On the east side there was a fairly large expanse of clear ground that sloped down to the main road. This was the only clear land available for the children to play on. I marked out a strip about 20 metres by 2 metres, and we set to work making a level strip suitable for a cricket pitch, with earth removed from one side (leaving a terrace), used to bank up the other side. Cricket was “in”, before school, at recess times and after school. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game “catch on” as cricket did at Canning Mills. I can’t remember how we financed the purchase of cricket bats but I do remember how those bats became “treasures”. Children sometimes brought a tin of sardines for their lunch. After the contents were eaten, the oil was applied to the bats. This was a regular occurrence and apparently it was very successful.

The girls played cricket too which was usual in small school when numbers were small. The younger children were treated well when it came their turn to bat, but I don’t think they did any bowling. One of the older girls, Andjelina Irsich, was our best bowler and she was “fast”. She could land the ball on the edge of the small bank on the higher side of the pitch. It always turned sharply, with devastating effect. We sometimes played Carinyah School and their batsmen dreaded Andjelina’s bowling.

Looking back, I realise how dedicated the Canning Mills pupils were to every aspect of school life, both in the classroom and outside it. Everything they did was done to the best of their ability.

For Nature Study I used Dr. Leach’s “Australian Nature Studies” as my source of information. Once we were observing scorpions and centipedes and the children brought specimens to school. They made notes and drawings of them and in between times would keep the creatures in enamel wash basins on the ground. The basins had steep sides so the specimens couldn’t escape. However, a lot of suspicion arose when the children found their specimens disappearing.

One of the older boys, Maitland Hanbury, moved his desk close to one of the side windows so that he could keep a watch on the basins. Suddenly the quiet of the classroom was shattered as he gave a yell …. and the mystery was solved. He had seen a couple of Kookaburras at the basins having an enjoyable meal!

As most of the children came from market gardens, I was surprised when they came to me and asked if they could have school vegetable gardens. It was gravelly ground and was on a slope – the last place one would choose for growing vegetables. But it was all we had and they set to work and made small plots where they grew lettuce, peas and other vegetables. On arrival at school, their vegetable plots were the first thing they inspected.


In a one-teacher school the Junior Section, Infants,Standard 1 and Standard 2 (now called Years 1, 2 and 3), sometimes had to work on their own while the teacher was fully occupied with the Senior Section. Plasticine was a very useful medium and I remember the pleasure the little ones got from Plasticine modeling. They grew quite skillful with it. In winter the Plasticine would be very hard so they would place it near the free-standing wood-burning stove to soften it. Sometimes it got too hot to handle!

One day, at lunchtime (noon), I said to the children “Let’s all go into the bush for lunch”. So we went just outside the school fence on the western side and sat around the logs to have our lunch. After they had had their lunch I asked them to get onto a large stump and count the tree stumps they could see around them. They did this and counted thirty-three or thirty-four. I pointed out to them that these were cut when Canning Mills was a big mill town and the number of stumps showed just how many big trees had stood in the forest before the timber was taken. They were amazed and I still find if difficult to realise the density of the forest that used to surround Canning Mills.

The wealth of timber there in the early years of the State justified the construction of what must have been a very expensive railway. I have in mind the construction of the Zigzag section between Bushmead and Gooseberry Hill. Even in 1946, a train of just a few trucks and one carriage took forty minutes to climb that section, a distance of 9 miles. The return Distance also took forty minutes. What a pity it was not preserved for coming generations to see!

Reference: Article: Bert Forest

Images: 1, Tom Price
2, Ted Smailes
3, Silio Di Marco
4, Kalamunda & districts Historical Society