Mentone schools: Why Are There So Many?

St Bede's College Mentone showing the original buildings, Joseph Davies on the right and Matthew Davies on the left.

When Mentone was established in the early 1880s there was no school in the town; the nearest schools were in Cheltenham and Mordialloc. After some lobbying by Mentone residents the Victorian Government set up Mentone Primary School in Childers Street in 1889. It is interesting to note that the next six Mentone schools to be established were privately owned institutions, most of them affiliated with churches. We have to go forward to 1955 before another government school, Mentone Girls' High School, was added to the sizeable group of educational centres in the seaside suburb.

In the decade that straddles the year 1900 three private colleges in Mentone began to take students. They were Mentone College (opened in1896), Simpsons' School, later Mentone Girls' Grammar School (1899), and Brigidine Convent College, later Kilbreda, (1904). The St Patrick's Primary School began in 1904 and then came Mentone Grammar School (1920) and St Bede's College in 1938. The Mentone Girls' High School's arrival in the mid‐1950s added another government school after a break of over sixty years.

Private schools dominate Mentone's educational scene. To understand why I contend that the history of this suburb by the bay needs to be examined. The major Mentone founders, led by Matthew Davies (later Sir Matthew Davies), were not people who had lived in the local district for a long period. They came to this bayside area to create a town with a distinct character that would attract wealthy residents. Davies, along with fellow land boomers, notably C H James, John Moodie, Percy Dobson, Charles Potts and Davies' brother, Joseph, all built large, impressive homes in Mentone during the mid‐1880s. All participated in creating a fashionable town near the beach, designed to bring in buyers of land, subdivided with a view to attracting new residents of a prosperous type. Matthew Davies had bought most of Mentone's area from Alexander Balcombe's estate not long after the railway was opened in December, 1881. By 1883 he had changed the place's name of ‘Balcombe’ to ‘Mentone’, giving it a Mediterranean aura which was enhanced by his naming most of the streets in his new town after Italian cities and towns. The new town's neighbours, Mordialloc and Cheltenham, had been growing slowly as fishing and farming villages since the 1840s and they were very different from Mentone, a fact that some of their citizens voiced by referring to Mentone people as ‘aristocratic’ and ‘snobbish’.

Of course the grand plans of Matthew Davies, and those of his fellow speculative land buyers, collapsed in the bank crashes of the early 1890s which sent them into insolvency. Most of them sold their properties at big losses and left Mentone. But some of the wealthier people who had come to Mentone remained and the grand buildings left behind by the developers still stood, awaiting suitable occupation. Mentone did not die. Its prosperity, like that of everywhere in Victoria, plunged into a battle for survival, but a sufficient group of business people, workers and farmers stayed around as the town recovered and the nineteenth century drew to a close.

Primary education at the time was mainly a Colonial Government matter and Mentone children of the 1880s went to Cheltenham or Mordialloc primary schools. Then the Mentone lobby succeeded in winning support for a government school. The Childers Street primary school opened in October 1889, after its pupils had spent some months in temporary classrooms at the Recreation Hall. Catholic primary schools were growing in number in response to the bishops' decree that government schools were unsatisfactory because no religion could be taught in these secular institutions. But no Catholic school existed in Mentone, or nearby. Presumably, Catholic kids went to Mentone Primary School at the time.

It could have been this lack of a Catholic school that began the move towards educational concentration in Mentone. In 1885 Mentone's Catholics had been given land behind the Coffee Palace by the beneficent Matthew Davies. They built a wooden chapel and Father Carey came each Sunday from Elsternwick to say Mass. He was conscious of Mentone's lack of a Catholic school and would have been pushing for one to be established. The first private college of any note began in 1896 under the headmastership of Tom McCristal. Tom was a staunch Catholic who had moved from Benalla where his private college probably disappointed him because of a perceived lack of interest in classical education among many rural residents. McCristal established Mentone College on the site now occupied by St Bede's. McCristal's College for boys was first and foremost one that pursued higher academic standards, but it was also one with a Catholic ethos, though not part of the Church's system. Whether Father Carey had any part in luring McCristal to Mentone is not known, but he would have been delighted he came as his later statements indicated.

Mentone College took students of all religions and they ranged through the age groups from primary right up to those preparing for university. The Catholic atmosphere brought in many boarders of that faith from rural districts as well as those whose parents had city businesses and wanted their sons away from that distracting atmosphere. But locals of all religious denominations supported the school by sending boys there, largely because McCristal was known as a tolerant man who made no attempt to inculcate Catholicism on those of other beliefs. When Catholics were taken to Mass, or said prayers, the others were allowed to attend their own churches or simply withdraw for private activities elsewhere.

Mc Cristal was able to begin his college in Mentone because the large property of Joseph Davies was available at a reduced price due to the collapse of land banks and other companies that Davies had invested in with his brother, Sir Matthew. The house, complete with tower, was suitable for the small initial intake of students.

The other reason that lured an educationist to Mentone was the existence of a group of professional men and their families who would be expected to support a college of the type McCristal was offering. Not all the Mentone land boomers had left. There remained businessmen and others with some means and a desire to have their sons educated beyond primary level.

Cobbalanna, the original Simpson family home where Simpsons' school also known as Mentone High School, now Mentone Girls' Grammar started, c1899.

Photograph from the book Schooldays with the Simpsons 1899-1906: The early history of Mentone Girls' Grammar School, Victoria / Fairlie Taylor A.L.A.A., p. 14; Published by S. Gordon Barnett, Tirau, New Zealand, Printed by Putaruru Press, New Zealand. [1964?]


Very soon after McCristal came, in 1899, a college for girls appeared as well. The Simpson family established a college in Como Parade West near St Augustine's in another substantial brick villa. Its name was Mentone High School but it was often called Simpsons' School until it became a branch of P.L.C. and then ultimately, in 1924, Mentone Girls' Grammar School, still in existence as the oldest of the secondary schools here. The small group of girls whom the Simpsons educated belonged to families that valued learning. One famous family, the Kellermanns, sent two daughters there, Annette becoming world famous as a swimmer and show business personality later on. There were other able female students there too, but it must be said that Mentone supported this type of school because of the character of many residents, people who had financial means and who were often in professions or business.

The third college inauguration in Mentone occurred when the Brigidine Sisters bought the Coffee Palace in the town's centre in 1904. Davies had built the Coffee Palace as a showpiece and a symbol of fashionable Mentone which he had created to embody the wealth of the group who invested in the civic enterprise. The 1890s depression put an end to that dream and the Coffee Palace ran at a loss for years ultimately being taken over by the Mercantile Bank which had financed Davies. Eventually the bank wanted it sold and the nuns were glad to buy it at about a tenth of its original cost as a base for their educational expansion in Melbourne. The Catholic Church also supported the establishment of a primary school on the site, but it was a convent college that the Brigidines saw as the main purpose of the move. Kilbreda, as the college eventually was named, always sought to have a tone that would attract respectable students, those who valued higher education and a social status acceptable in middle class circles.

Kilbreda College in Mentone Parade, formerly the Royal Coffee Palace, with nuns and students in front, c1906.

Kevin Wilson

In 1920 McCristal's Mentone College closed. He was getting older and wishing to retire, and in an atmosphere of suspicion after the Conscription issues of World War One, where McCristal supported Archbishop Mannix's opposition to Conscription, there were those in Mentone who were glad he was going. A group of Anglicans who had a high profile in the town, supported by the Mentone vicar, succeeded in starting Mentone Grammar School for boys. After it began in Moorabbin Road (Warrigal Road) near Stawell Street it moved to Frogmore in Venice Street, another available old home, where it has remained to this day. Its ethos was also based on providing an education that took students into secondary classes and had the ultimate aim of producing tertiary entrants. Mentone Grammar certainly appealed to the families of the upper middle class who saw education as vital for success in career development. That atmosphere remains to this day as the Grammar has grown in wealth and size after some precarious years during the 1930s when finances were very fragile.

Mentone Grammar school students, teachers and parents outside the building originally erected at McCristal's Mentone College, the forerunner of St.Bede's College.

The last private College to come to Mentone was St Bede's in 1938. It was established basically because the Catholic Church wanted a boys' secondary school in the area. Mentone Catholics who wanted nothing other than a Catholic education had to send their sons to inner city colleges, the nearest being De La Salle, Malvern. The old Davies home, occupied by the Mentone Girls' Grammar School in the twenties and thirties, became available when that school's owners could not pay instalments on the loan that had financed their purchase of the property. The Columban Mission Society, that owned the estate, sold it to the De La Salle Brothers who moved in late in 1937. Thus McCristal's old school site became the place for a third college in less than fifty years. St Bede's drew mainly Catholic students from Mentone and surrounding suburbs and its atmosphere was that of a ‘middle of the road’ institution, not one with upper middle class aspirations. Nevertheless, it drew on the desire for secondary education among those who could afford it and could see the post-Depression world as one where this would be highly valued.

Mentone Girls' High School (now Secondary College) came in 1955 as a government initiative to provide for those who could not, or would not, support private colleges. It gave an opportunity for parents who wanted a single-sex school to have their daughters educated at a minimum cost. The school immediately succeeded in providing a high standard of learning, a situation that still prevails when one looks at the academic results it produces. But it should be seen as an unusual government school. It is the only girls' secondary college run by the State apart from MacRobertson Girls' High, the gender balance for the selective Melbourne Boys' High School. Would Mentone have been chosen for such a college if the private counterparts were not here already?

Having examined some of the history around the establishment of Mentone's schools what reasons can be advanced for so many colleges setting up in such a small geographical area? Several possibilities can be presented.

Principal of Mentone Girls' Secondary College, Miss Nina Carr, with four senior students at the school speech night.  From left Sue Fleming, Judy Blundell, Judy Dixon and Helen Isaacson.

Mordialloc News

Firstly, after the land boom crashed with the economic depression of the 1890s there were commodious buildings vacated by owners who could no longer afford them. Several colleges moved into these, the educationists being able to gain accommodation at low cost. McCristal, the Brigidine nuns, and possibly the Simpsons all used buildings vacated by ruined investors. J B Davies' home, on the present St Bede's site, was used by three colleges in turn. It should be remembered that the colleges a century or so ago were quite small, so these old homes, or the Coffee Palace, were ample in size for the student numbers.

Secondly, from its very beginning, Mentone attracted quite a few people who were professional in both their working lives and also in outlook. They were likely to support secondary education which a century ago was quite uncommon for most people, with only a few per cent of the population going beyond primary level at school. Mordialloc and Cheltenham were very different in this regard. There were never any private colleges in those towns and the government secondary schools came much later when post-primary education was becoming more prevalent. Mordialloc High School dates from the 1920s while Cheltenham High came after World War Two. Mentone had the fashionable atmosphere in the period around 1900 and was seen to be a likely place for an educationist to found a successful private academy. On the other hand some Mordialloc and Cheltenham people were more likely to be market gardeners, fishermen or working class people who looked upon the Mentone neighbours as snobs. For them education almost always ended with the Merit Certificate, usually gained at fourteen.

Combined with the two factors just discussed there was the Mentone beach attraction. In the late nineteenth century and beyond, good health was thought to be sustained by outdoor activity and, in particular, breathing ozone that was known to be part of the sea air in small quantities. Seaside schools and holiday providers often used this in their promotions. Mentone was the first bayside town the traveller reached when coming south on the Frankston line, so its relative nearness to the city and its beach air offered another advantage to those who wanted to promote the town or its facilities. It is a fact that all five Mentone private colleges were boarding schools from their beginnings and the seafront location must have appealed to country folk who sent sons and daughters to board near the bay. Apart from the health aspect it was exciting to come to the beach and enjoy its pleasures for the whole school year. It should be remembered that in the early twentieth century cars were quite rare and many country people lived out their childhood and youth before even seeing the ocean. Mentone offered a delightful destination for these rural people. Once these private colleges had established themselves and attracted country students they tended to develop a relationship with certain districts as the word passed around to new parents each year, bringing in the numbers. It is true also that in the first few decades of last century there were not many government high schools in country towns. Rural folk who valued secondary education needed to patronise private boarding schools, mostly in the city. The exclusive and expensive colleges of inner Melbourne or at places like Kew might have been out of reach, but Mentone’s less prestigious boarding colleges offered a viable alternative.

Whether the points I have made in explanation of Mentone's school prevalence are satisfactory or not, it is true that the suburb has become an even greater educational hub in recent years. The five colleges now have a total enrolment of over five thousand students. Perhaps the original reasons for the schools establishing here have now faded away, but the original popularity of Mentone has remained. Once these colleges reached a certain size a process of inertia has guaranteed their continued success. The colleges all have good reputations and, being held in high regard, they lure large numbers with many hundreds of teenagers travelling into Mentone each day from a large sector of south-eastern, metropolitan Melbourne. None of the schools accept boarders now, so Mentone's colleges attract only suburban students and this looks like continuing for years to come.

Leo Gamble
2 May 2010
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