Mackillop, Mary: Common school teacher

Victoria, 1863-1866

Mary Mackillop is the only Australian to be deemed a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. She has been widely recognised for her involvement in education; particularly her work with schools conducted  by a religious order she co-founded with the Rev. Julian Woods in 1866: the Institute of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. But before travelling to Penola, South Australia, to teach at the Institute’s first school, Mary had been involved in other educational ventures.

During the early 1860s she was employed as a governess by relatives at both Penola and Portland, Victoria. Then, in 1864, she and her sisters established (a financially unsuccessful) private school: ‘Bay View House, Portland, Establishment for Young Ladies, Conducted by the Misses Mackillop’. Also, from late 1863, while still involved with the private school, Mary held the position of assistant teacher at a government-aided school in Portland. Her experience at this school was not a pleasant one. In 1865 she resigned when an incident, in which she was directly involved, resulted in the dismissal of the head teacher.

The government-aided school at Portland

The government-aided Portland school, originally known as ‘All Saints’, had been established by the Catholic Church in 1849. It was one of several schools conducted by various religious denominations in the town. It was associated with the Denominational School Board (DSB), one of two bodies charged with the distribution of government grants (the other being the National Board). These grants were used to provide buildings, furnishings, books and other requisites, but primarily to fund teachers’ salaries.

Portland from the bay, 1857.Victoria. [J. Tingle engraver, State Library Victoria, cat. 1684551]

Portland from the bay, 1857.Victoria. [J. Tingle engraver, State Library Victoria, cat. 1684551]

After the passing of the Common Schools Act in 1862, the two existing boards were replaced by a single Board of Education, and schools became known as ‘Common Schools’. Henceforth, All Saints was known as Common School no. 510 Portland. While the central board, located in Melbourne, issued rules and regulations including the course of study, attendance and employment of teachers, local boards were responsible for the day-to-day management of the school, including the selection of teachers.

The local board at Portland appointed John Cusack as head teacher on 1 January 1863, and nine months later Mary was employed as his assistant. The following year, Annie Mackillop, Mary’s younger sister, was engaged as a pupil teacher.

The pupils were organised into five classes for instruction in the subjects prescribed by the Board’s program, and lessons were conducted in one large schoolroom. The infants were taught by the pupil teacher, while Cusack primarily instructed the fourth and fifth classes, and Mary, the second and third. The word ‘primarily’ is used because according to a copy of the school’s time table, the pupils in the four highest classes were organised into different groups for various subjects. For example, Cusack taught reading to the fifth and third classes, while Mary taught the fourth and second. All the girls were instructed in handwriting by Mary, and the boys by Cusack.

Nothing is known of Mary’s teaching prowess, as she was not assessed on the ‘art of teaching’ but the district inspector examined her on two occasions to determine whether she had sufficient qualifications to become a classified teacher. Mary failed both times. Initially she passed in reading and geography but not in writing and spelling, grammar or arithmetic, and at the second attempt, passed two subjects and failed three.


In 1864, the Board of Education issued a new set of rules that fundamentally changed the way schools operated. These regulations introduced a system of examination, colloquially known as ‘payment-by-results’. The term referred to the fact that teachers received a per capita monetary payment for pupils who had passed certain examinations. It was based on a scheme introduced in Britain, though not Scotland, the previous year. In Victoria, the scheme had been modified after much debate and controversy, to ensure that teachers received their allocated salaries, with the results component comprising an augmentation, which usually represented ten per cent of their total income.

The regulations specified that pupils aged seven and above were to be examined twice a year by the school inspector. Each pupil was tested in reading, writing (from dictation), and arithmetic. If successful in all three subjects, pupils were then examined in geography and grammar. Payment for each successful pass in reading, writing, or arithmetic was 2 shillings(s.) 8 pence(p.) per pupil, plus a further 2s. for pupils who succeeded in passing grammar or geography.

Pupils were examined according to six graded standards: at the same standard for two successive examinations, and then at the next higher standard at the two following examinations, and so on. This progression occurred whether or not pupils passed at the lower standard.

Before payment was made for pupils who had passed the examinations, they were required to have attended at least 100 days in the six months prior to examination. At a time when attendance was not compulsory, and often curtailed by illness, adverse weather conditions, need for assistance at home, and various other factors possibly including parental indifference, this requirement was regarded as a severe impost on teachers.

Examination of pupils at 510 Portland

In August 1865, Henry Venables, the Inspector-of-schools, made one of his required twice-yearly visits to 510 Portland to report on the general organisation of the school and to examine the pupils in the prescribed subjects. As he had held the position of inspector for the western district since April 1863, he was familiar with the school and had access to voluminous records from previous examinations. On this occasion, he tested 67 children in six standards over a period of two days. A further 30 pupils aged below seven years of age were not examined.

Remains of old Catholic Church and Common School No. 510, Portland. [Photo: Laurie Burchell, copyright SLV, Accession No. H2006.165/306]

Remains of old Catholic Church and Common School No. 510, Portland. [Photo: Laurie Burchell, with permission, SLV,
No. H2006.165/306]

The performance of the pupils in the three compulsory subjects was mixed: nearly all passed the examination in reading (54), but less than half passed the test in writing (31), and only a third in arithmetic (22). After the elimination of those pupils who had not attended for the required 100 days, the total number of passes was 77: reading (38), writing (20), and arithmetic (19). At the rate of 2s 8d per pass, this amounted to a payment of £10-5-4, plus 12s for six passes in grammar and geography, and £4-5-0 for 17 pupils aged below seven who met the attendance requirements. The total ‘results’ payment was £15-2-4, representing 10.49 per cent of the teachers’ income.

An ‘incident’ at Portland

During the examination of the pupils, Venables caught Cusack in the act of ‘coaching’ the pupils. According to the Board’s annual report, he had ‘by holding his hands, behind his back, [provided] the solutions to the questions’. For this misdemeanour, the Board ordered he forgo the ‘results’ augmentation to his salary.

Inspector Henry Venables [Public Records, Victoria, 14517/P0001/1, A224, no date.]

But this was not the sole accusation made against Cusack. Venables reported that the assistant teacher (Mackillop), had suggested to him that the head teacher had falsified the attendance rolls. As the payment was only granted for those pupils who had fulfilled the attendance requirement, this was an important factor when calculating the ‘results’ payment.

The attendance rolls were supposed to be marked daily but laxity was common, with one inspector claiming that 70 per cent of the rolls in his district were inaccurately marked. The problem for inspectors was that it was difficult to determine whether errors were deliberate. Venables was fortunate in having an informer.

In late September 1865, the Board of Education wrote to the local committee, asking it to investigate the accusations made against Cusack. While accepting the charge that the head teacher had acted improperly during the examination, the committee refused to accept the allegation that he had falsified the rolls. The correspondent (Rev. Patrick Riordan) wrote:

there is not sufficient evidence to satisfy the Committee that the Rolls have been falsified: the only evidence being a book kept by the Assistant [Mackillop] which they have no more reason to believe was correctly kept than the Rolls had been falsified by the teacher [Cusack].

So, if it were a question of believing Cusack or Mackillop, the members of the committee chose to believe the former and refused to dismiss the head teacher. It was also noted by Riordan that the assistant had ‘daily opportunities’ of reporting ‘any irregularities she might have observed’ but had not done so.

This response of the local committee did not satisfy the Board of Education, and it insisted that Cusack be dismissed. When the local committee gave him a month’s notice of his dismissal, he left immediately on 15 October. Mary had resigned three weeks earlier.

Riordan was not pleased, and he was especially not pleased with Mary, whom he held responsible for the whole debacle. Such was the priest’s annoyance, that according to Mary, he refused to administer the holy sacrament.

The people … treated me as an imposter and a traitor … My Pastor [Riordan], whom I much loved, disappointed me and this I had to hide from them [family members]. The charge of our dear Lord in the Most Holy Sacrament … was taken from me. [Letter written to Monsignor Kirby in Rome,1873. (Lyne, 1983, p.99)]

As indicated in the passage above, members of the Portland community showed animosity to Mary and to her family. It is most likely that this influenced her decision to move from Portland to Penola, despite having promised her mother that she would not leave Portland until the family’s financial debts had been settled.

Depiction of the ‘incident’ by Mary Mackillop’s biographers

Mary’s biographers have provided accounts of what happened at the Portland school; described variously as the ‘Cusack affair’ (Gardiner, 1993, p. 51) or the ‘disastrous affair in the classroom’ (O’Brien, 1994, p. 39). All mention only one aspect: the accusation that before the inspector’s examination, Cusack rearranged the pupils so that the more able were in his classes, and the ‘backward’ placed in Mary and Annie’s classes.

These accounts rely solely on the reminiscences of Annie Mackillop, Mary’s younger sister, who provided the information some 60 years after the events took place. The main problem with this scenario is that any rearrangement would have been extremely difficult to achieve without being detected by the inspector. Also, it would have served no purpose, and appears to be based on the misunderstanding that Cusack stood to gain financially from such a rearrangement. But the ‘results’ payment was calculated on the total number of passes achieved, the amount to be allocated in proportion to the teachers’ fixed salaries: the head teacher received two-thirds and the assistant one-third. No consideration was given to the number of pupils who had passed in classes taught by Cusack or Mary.

By contrast, all the biographies omit any discussion of the reported facts, as outlined in the Education Department’s records: the cheating by Cusack and the accusation that he had falsified the rolls. It was for the latter that he was dismissed, and this followed from Mary’s accusation.

The aftermath

Mary Mackillop represented herself as the victim in the affair, and this claim has been echoed by her biographers. A few years after the ‘incident’, she wrote to Monsignor Kirby, expressing no regrets about what had happened at Portland, but rather interpreted the episode as one of divine intervention. She claimed that the crisis had enabled her to leave the school where she was (self-reportedly) ‘too much loved’ and go to Penola to teach at the first Josephite school. But she was certainly not loved by the priest, Riordan.

Riordan was but the first of a series of priests who managed to ‘disappoint’ Mary. Indeed, conflict with members of the clergy could be said to be her leitmotiv. One biographer has suggested that her troubles could be attributed to ‘the intransigence and sheer bull-headedness of Irish clerics’, but in this instance Riordan appears to have had just cause for his annoyance at her actions and the consequences it had for the pupils at the Portland school.