Port Melbourne Primary School, state school number 2932, has traditionally been a focal point for the educational needs of the children of Port Melbourne. Established on the current site close to station pier on Port Phillip in 1889, it continues its long and proud practice of providing a broad quality education to meet the needs of our culturally diverse mix of students. Its historical aspect has resulted in a very strong community links spanning generations.
The current enrolment is 780 students and this is likely to decrease slightly over the coming years as new primary schools open in South Melbourne and Docklands. The school was originally known as ‘Graham Street Primary School’. It then became ‘Port Melbourne Primary School – Graham Street’. In the year of the schools’ centenary (1989), the school reverted to ‘Graham Street Primary School’. In 2000, once again, Council decided to change the name from ‘Graham Street Primary School’ to ‘Port Melbourne Primary School’. Each name change reflected the school asserting its identity in the area, and ensuring that it was clearly distinguished from the other schools in area. In the year of the schools centenary, 1989, a short history of the school was written by Sue Hodges (copies available from the office and the Port Melbourne Library), entitled ‘Graham Street Primary 1889-1989’. “The story of Graham Street State School is the story of Port Melbourne in general: of the hardship, struggle and tenacity which mark the town.
The need for a school west of the railway line was recognised as early as 1875, when a site of 2 acres and 16 perches for “Primary School No 2932” was mentioned in the Government Gazette.” “Graham Street Primary School was opened as an annexe to Nott Street (Primary School), on Monday May 6th 1889, by William Webster, M.P. Its opening followed two years of extensive lobbying by the Port Melbourne City Council, who argued that Nott Street’s enrolment of 1194 children was 200 over the limit and that a new school should be built to house the extra students”. The history recalls the many hardships faced by the school in the early decades of opening. Overcrowding marked the years between 1889 and 1920. The school also suffered because of its isolated location – 100 years ago the place looked very different from today ! Behind the area where the school stands today (west towards the beach), was nothing but flat sandy wastelands.
The school was subject to high winds and frequent sand-drifts. The students and teachers also suffered through the extremes of hot and cold with little comforts. And like many Victorian style schools, the building soon became dilapidated. Appeals for renovations and extensions are a constant theme of the school’s history. By 1918 the situation of the over-crowding and unsanitary conditions of the school reached crisis point. So from 1920, until today, the school enjoyed some major renovations and improvements to the facilities of the school. School routines were very different from today – and Port Melbourne Primary School students, mostly from working class families, often had a hard time at the sometimes ‘tough’ school. School hours were much longer, teachers could be mean, and gangs often dominated the playground. Each morning the students would salute the flag and swear allegiance to “King and Country”. Boys playing the bugle and tin drum would provide the music as the rest of the children marched to class ! Students were instructed in singing, drawing, arithmetic, music, needlework, grammar, dictation, writing and geography.
“Moral” lessons and “Military Drill” were also taught in 1892, and physical education did not become part of the curriculum until the early 1900’s – along with callisthenics, cricket and football. Slates, dusters, ink pens, were used in place of biro pens, pencils and computers of today. By 1920’s, students were ‘streamed’ into “academic” and “non-academic” groups, and remedial classes were offered at the school as one of the first in the state. The depression was felt badly by Port Melbourne working class families, and conditions at the school were pitiful. But it was not all doom and gloom. A great event was the visit by the Duke and Duchess of York to Port Melbourne in 1927. One ex-student remembers giving a gift to the “baby Betty” (the current Queen Elizabeth) – a wooden workbox inscribed “to the Princess Elizabeth – From the school children of Port Melbourne”. Another highlight of this era was the ‘greening’ of the school. In 1938 children planted cypress and poplar trees around the perimeter of the oval to keep the wind, sand and rain at bay. In the 1940’s each tree was named after a student. In 1988 this tradition was continued when children planted 20 peppercorn trees around the school.
The second half the twentieth century saw many more improvements to the school – especially a very prosperous decade of the 1950’s. New plantings and a cricket pitch were created, and the curriculum introduced a number of reforms. In the 1950’s and 1960’s the school also introduced a number of charitable programs, following on from the War Service efforts of the previous decade. These reforms had a positive effect on the school – the school became a happy place. The school also saw many improvements in the 1970’s decade of the ‘hippy generation’. School routines and lessons ‘loosened up’ – reflecting the freedom of the era. ‘Child-based’ learning was the central premise of the school’s syllabus. Past teachers and staff remember these highs as times of high morale at the school. The 1980’s and 1990’s saw the school experience continual improvements and changes – from the influx of multicultural students, the introduction of progressive philosophies about teaching and learning, and to the new curriculum of the 1990’s.
Because enrolments has decreased considerably, the Nott St (Port Melbourne) Primary School site was closed in the mid 90s and the students and staff were amalgamated with the Graham St PS school community. Other local primary schools in Dorcas St, Pickles St and Eastern Rd were also closed due to falling enrolments. The name of the amalgamated school in Graham St was later changed to Port Melbourne Primary School to better reflect the nature of the school community. In 2000 a Port Phillip Community Grant of $5,000 provided for an artist, Nicole De Gruchy, to help the students of the school create a “Hiss-story Snake” – a tiled look at the school’s history, on the west wall of the main school building. There was some urgency about the project as many local residents feared that the Graham St school site might also close.
The twenty first century has seen major change. Enrolments, which bottomed out at 122 in 2002, increased, slowly at first, but with gathering momentum. In 2002, a classroom block which was surplus to requirements was converted into the Port Melbourne Family Hub, and until 2012, accomodated an occasional care facility, playgroups, the school’s Before and After School Care Program, and consulting rooms for health professionals. With the growth in enrolments, the building was converted back into classrooms and a Student Welfare Centre for the 2013 school year, and was demolished in 2018 to make room for a new gymnasium.
As enrolments boomed, the original school building (“A” Block”) was completely refurbished in 2008, with internal walls demolished to create open plan learning spaces. Also in 2008/09, a new Library/Open Learning Space complex (“B” Block”) with seven new learning spaces and a new Art Room was completed along with a new multipurpose hall and two more open learning spaces (“C” Block). The new facilities were insufficient to house the burgeoning enrolments and, in recent years, four double storey relocatable buildings (each housing four classrooms) and two single storey relocatable buildings (each with two classrooms) were installed on what was formerly open space on the oval. The four double storey classrooms were relocated into a cluster on the Walter St side of the school in 2017 (“D Block), and in 2018 work commenced on the construction of a new gymnasium along the Clark St frontage. In 2019, the existing Multi-purpose Hall will be reconfigured as an Arts Hub. School Council is lobbying for an extension to C Block incorporating a new administration/student amenities wing and three addition double classroom spaces. If this submission is successful, the two single storey relocatable buildings on the oval will be surplus to requirements and will be removed. At present, the school runs a “split timetable” with two recess and lunch breaks to reduce congestion on the oval. If the C Block extension goes ahead, the school will have sufficient playground space to revert to one recess and lunchtime.
In 2018, the school is hardly recognisable from the school that opened in 1889.