Life for Charlie and Mary’s children would be better than it had been for their parents, better yet for their grandchildren and better beyond imagining for their great-grandchildren. Within four generations family fortunes would move from extreme poverty to comfortable middle and upper class lives.
Mary was probably illiterate, although she could write her name as evidenced by the shaky signature on her marriage certificate. Perhaps her mother or father had given her some basic education but it would not have been much. And Charlie may well have been only semi-literate, but their children would receive a basic education and, while most of their grandchildren would leave school by the age of 13, all of their great-grandchildren would would have the opportunity to complete primary and secondary education and many would go on to university.
Whether this would have happened if Charlie had remained living on Ithaca one cannot say with certainty, but it would have been unlikely and in the new land which Australia was becoming there were opportunities for the poorest to rise steadily and surely with each generation. This is always the hope of the immigrant and the poor but Australia has proved to be one place where it happens more often than not. But when Charlie and Mary had their children in the 1890’s there was still a long way to go in terms of helping the poor to rise above their situation and in providing a good education for all children.
However, the 1890’s were a pivotal point in Australia’s history and by the time of Federation in 1901, barely three years after Charlie and Mary were married, the new colony would be well on the way to earning its reputation as the ‘social laboratory of the world.’ After the rapid spread of trade unionism in the 1880’s the 1890’s saw unprecedented levels of industrial strife, which, when combined with drought and depression created a crucible in which social and political experimentation would foment.
Was this something Charlie and Mary talked about at night over dinner, or as they lay in bed listening to the whispers of the black night? Or were they too tired to talk after long days of physical labour spent running a shop, running a home and running a family? Given the ‘rebellious’ elements which seem to trail down through the family I like to think that they did talk about what was at work in their world and what sort of future their children would have.
And there were changes at work, changes which would lay the foundation of a brighter future for Charlie Ross’s children and their descendants. One of the most important changes was a growing commitment to education. Perhaps the convict past of the new colony pushed people to think differently. South Australia was in fact one of the few States which did not have a convict past but had been founded with free settlers. However, the attitudes of South Australians would have been affected by the attitudes of Australians in general. As early as the 1830’s there was a growing belief that crime was the result of ignorance and ignorance was the result of a lack of education. Therefore, education would decrease crime and help the penal colony of Australia become an organised and law-abiding society. This society would be based upon the existing British system but would be an improved version, it was believed. Governments were therefore committed to setting up schools so that children could be taught not only the three R’s but to be moral, law-abiding citizens.
Interestingly, having begun as a penal colony, Australians have evolved to become one of the most regulated and law-abiding of societies. But balance is created by the larrikin streak which runs through the nation’s soul and the belief that ‘Jack is as good as his master.’ Australians are more than happy to abide by the rules, if they think that they are fair. If it isn’t fair they won’t do it. Egalitarianism is still a powerful force in the Australian psyche, forged perhaps as it was in the pitiful circumstances of those hapless prisoners who first brought the nation to birth and the struggle which was required to succeed in a land so alien to those from which they had come.
There were of course those who opposed universal education, arguing that a blacksmith’s child or a farmer’s child .... or no doubt a fishmonger’s child, did not need an education to follow in their father’s footsteps. Luckily for the Ross children and for Australia as a whole, common sense prevailed and the government poured money into education to pay teachers, erect and fit out schoolhouses and provide children with textbooks. There were of course church-run schools but it was the government education system, both at State and later Federal level, which ensured that the great majority of Australian children could read, write and do their sums.
One of the strengths of the Australian system, was and remains, the universal curricula and guidelines which the government laid down. Whether it was a tiny, one-room building in the bush with less than 20 students, or a big city school with classrooms holding dozens of students, the curriculum and the rules were the same for all.
Every child, regardless of gender, received instruction in basic subjects. Girls spent an hour a day at least learning to knit, sew and darn while the boys learned geography and arithmetic. Charlie and Mary’s daughter, Georgina and Anastasia would not get as good an education as her brothers, but she would get an education.
Each day would begin with an inspection to ascertain that face and hands were clean, hair was combed and clothes were neat. Singing was also a requirement, as were lessons in the need to be organised, punctual, polite and clean. Discipline was strict because it was believed that this taught children order. No doubt it does. There were rules as to how one entered a room, how one sat down, bowed to a teacher, posture for reading, writing and holding pens.
Most of the learning was by rote with tables, dates, cities and poems memorised by repetition. To be honest, it was a lot like this when I went to primary school in the mid fifties and changes only began to happen in the following decades. And the records show that the system remained basically unchanged for more than half a century beyond slight changes to how long was spent at primary school and how long was spent at high school. Sitting on hard wooden seats which grew sweat-slippery in the heat and writing with pen and ink, the metal nibs cutting into grasping fingers, staining the skin blue, is a memory I am sure my grandparents and parents could share with me. We may well have had more and better textbooks but some things had not changed much.
But from the 50’s on, change seemed to be a constant. Some of the changes were positive and some were not. I doubt there are many under the age of 50 who can calculate in their heads. These days, if a calculator is not to hand, young people will count on their fingers. And I doubt that few if any of them would know a poem off by heart. There is a lot to be said for rote learning and recent research shows that it is invaluable in helping children to create more and better synaptic connections in the brain. Rote learning has been around for millennia so it is hardly surprising that it should be more beneficial than was appreciated by those who sought to revolutionise education in the sixties and seventies. Perhaps it will return, as soon as the education system decides that the evidence in its favour is too strong to ignore.
There is no doubt though that attitudes toward children generally changed for the better between 1890 and 1960. When the Ross children went to school there was a belief that play was character building .... but only certain kinds of play. Running, jumping and shouting would not assist self-discipline and obedience, it was reasoned. Cricket was approved, as was rounders, but marbles was frowned upon. I can’t see why marbles were frowned upon. It’s a game which was always classed as a ‘boy activity’ even though girls loved it as well, but it is quite an organised, reflective and focussed game. Although it did get noisy when someone made a great hit! And given that marbles were often swapped, bought or bartered it probably led to arguments and fights.
When a child reached the age of 13 they could apply to become a pupil teacher and begin training to become a teacher. But this was an option open to only a few, and I doubt any if them were the Ross children, because most families needed the money their children could earn as soon possible. This was common even in the 1930’s when my parents completed primary school. Both left at the age of 12 - my mother to train as a sewing machinist and my father as a carpenter.
An update note from my brother Ken says that dad did not start his apprenticeship when he left school, but after he left the army. Family memories recall Sydney Charles Ross as a ‘bit of a lad’ who spent a lot of time leaning on lamp posts smoking cigarettes. He lied about his age and joined the army when he was 17, serving in the jungles of the Philippines as a dispatch rider. I’m not sure he ever recovered from his war experiences but there are plenty of men who were older than 17 who didn’t either. He did his carpentry apprenticeship post-war at the old School of Mines in Adelaide. His Army discharge papers have him completing Grade Seven at Parkside Primary School in 1938 when he was thirteen years old.
Further education was for the few who could afford to support their children through advanced education and who could afford to pay the fees if they opted to go to university. It was not until 1974, too late for me, that the then Prime Minister of Australia abolished university fees and made further education available to everyone, regardless of their circumstances. University education is no longer free in Australia but it is still one of the most economical and accessible in the developed world.
Education was compulsory by the time Charlie and Mary’s children went to school but it was difficult to enforce. Families were large and mothers often needed the help of their older daughters if they were to manage and sons were often much-needed backup for fathers who were more likely to be working for themselves, as Charlie was. Absenteeism was high and many children got as little as three or four years schooling. It was better than nothing but hardly enough. And for most it would only be to primary school level. The first free High School in South Australia, Adelaide High School, would not be established until 1908. By the time regional high schools were established in the Mid-North, Charlie and Mary’s children were well and truly in the workforce.
I don’t know how much of an education Charles Vangelios or his siblings got but my grandfather went on to become a stone-mason/plasterer. It is likely that he was apprenticed at an early age. After Charlie’s early death in 1907 Mary would have needed the financial support of her children if the family was to survive. The eldest, Constantinus, known as Jack, was 17 and no doubt at work, as would have been my fifteen-year old grandfather, Charles Vangelios. Thirteen-year-old Georgina Anastasia would also have completed basic schooling and would have been helping her mother and possibly working as a servant or helping her father in the shop. Ten year old Chrysanthous Christie and six-year old Spiros Andrew would still have been at school. Chrysanthous, or Christie may have completed another year or two of schooling, but no more. Spiros went on to join the South Australian police force and rose to superintendant level so there is a good chance that he had a better education than the rest.
But, however limited it may have been, Mary’s children would have had an education of which she could only have dreamed. That may have been the case for Charlie Ross as well, or it may not. I have yet to find out enough about his past to know if he was illiterate, semi-literate or educated reasonably well for a young man born on Ithaca in the mid 19th Century.
If he was a Rossolimo, then he was a member of a family which boasted wealthy shipowners. His uncle’s ship may well have been owned by his uncle instead of a ship on which his uncle served. These are the questions which need to be answered before I have any hope of really ‘finding Charlie Ross.’