The “Girls’ High School” was established under The Public Instruction Act of 1880 in recognition of the need to provide a course of instruction for the completion of the Public School Curriculum and the preparation of students for the University of Sydney. Prior to this there was no provision for females to enter university.
Entry was by examination, with 39 girls commencing at the new school which opened on 8 October 1883 (Foundation Day), including children’s authors Lilian and Ethel Turner. Forty-six boys gained entry to the equivalent boys’ school.
The schools were housed in a two storey 1820 Francis Greenway building surrounded by a high wall previously occupied by St James Church of England Primary School (the site now occupied by David Jones). The boys entered from Castlereagh Street and occupied the ground floor while the girls entered from Elizabeth Street and occupied the top floor. As enrolments grew the site became too small for both schools and the boys moved to Mary Ann Street, Ultimo in 1892 leaving the girls to occupy the entire site. Traffic noise and the further growth in enrolments made it necessary for the school to seek a new site.
In 1916 the Sydney Zoo moved from Billy Goat Swamp to Taronga, and, despite some opposition from people wanting the land to remain as parkland, it became the site of the New School. The design incorporated all the most modern features necessary for the education of girls in the 20th century, and when the move was made in 1921 the girls were quite overwhelmed by the acres of grass and trees and the quiet, although sad to leave the Old School. Since then there have been extensions, replacements and updates to incorporate the changes in learning and tuition methods, subject choices, and new technology. In conjunction with Sydney Boys’ High School and the Department of Education, the School community has raised the funds for the “Governors Centre” a state of the art multipurpose educational facility. Construction commenced in 2019, with opening in 2021 to coincide with the Centenary of the move to Moore Park.
From the very earliest days the School has been a leader in educating young women and encouraging a life-long desire for learning and achievement. Instrumental to this has been the leadership of the School Principals, starting with the first headmistress, Lucy Wheatley Walker (Mrs Garvin) who held office until 1918. Since then there have been 10 principals, only one of whom, Lilian McMahon, was an Old Girl. Miss Florence Campbell (1919-1941), Miss Lilian Geer (1942-1947), Miss Lilian McMahon (1948-1954), Miss Lily Preston (1955-1960), Miss Doreen Wayne (1961-1968), Miss Helena Mary Moore (1969-1973), Miss Elizabeth Mattick (1974-1976), Miss Dorothy Shackley (1976-1991) and Dr Margaret Varady AO (1992-2008). Ms Andrea Connell is the present Principal (2009- ).
Many Old Girls have been pioneers:
Iza Coghlan (one of the original thirty-nine students) who was the one of the first two women to graduate in Medicine from Sydney University in 1896.
Ada Evans, the first Legal graduate in NSW, enrolled in Law while the Dean was on leave. He was furious, but could not persuade her to take up “some less arduous course such as Medicine”. She persevered and received her LLB in 1902, but for 16 years was not able to gain admission to the legal profession until the Women’s Legal Status Act allowed her to be admitted as a barrister in 1921.
Many have been honoured for their achievements, including:
Dr Agnes Bennett, the first female commissioned officer in the British Army in WWI, involved in the evacuation of Gallipoli and the command of a field hospital on the Serbian front for which she received a number of awards. The footbridge over Anzac Parade beside the School is named in her honour.
Dr Elsie Dalyell, graduated in Medicine in 1909 from University of Sydney as the first woman to gain 1st class honours. In 1912 she was the first Australian women to receive the Beit Memorial Medical Fellowship at London’s Lister Institute for Preventive Medicine. She was involved in the establishment of Sydney’s Rachel Forster Hospital and operated a clinic there. In 2018 a key part of the Sydney University Undergraduate Experience was named the Dalyell Scholars program in honour of her courage, creativity and commitment to research excellence.
The Honour Boards at the entrance to the Campbell Hall contain the names of some of the School’s Distinguished Old Girls:
Mildred Muscio (Fry) (Class of 1897) – women’s rights
Fanny Austin (1901) – charity work with sick children
Mildred Brunton (Hoy) (1920) – equal pay for women
Dame Marie Bashir (1947) – adolescent mental health; first female governor of NSW
Eva Cox (Hauser) (1954) – social science
Robin Dunster (1960) – second in command of Salvation Army worldwide
Lee Rhiannon (Brown) (1969) – senator for Greens Party in NSW and Federal Parliaments
Thelma Coyne-Long (Coyne) (Class of 1935) – tennis champion
Pat Norton (1937) – Olympic swimmer
Julie Speight (1984) – Olympic cyclist; first woman to represent Australia
Tracey Brook (1988) – Olympic ice skater
Jane Saville (1992) – Olympic walker
Yvette Walker (Balla-Gow) (1999) – Olympic water polo
Kristina Mah (2000) – karate champion
Jessi Miley-Dyer (2003) – surfing champion
Ethel Turner (Class of 1888) – children’s author
Christina Stead (1921) – author
Gwen Meredith (1925) – playwright
Margaret Fink (Elliot) (1949) – film producer
Libby Hathorn (Krahe) (1960) – children’s author
Patricia Amphlett (1965) – singer, active in entertainment industry organisations
Justine Clark (1989) – actress
Iza Coghlan (Class of 1888) – one of the two first women graduates in medicine