Early women educational leaders in Blue Mountains

In earlier centuries a woman who was single through choice or circumstance had few respectable employment choices.

For women with a modicum of education, opening a school meant independence.

Many women in the Blue Mountains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did this. The bracing climate and air purer than Sydney's also encouraged the establishment of many private boarding schools.

Mrs Rosa O'Reilly, widow of Canon T O'Reilly, grandmother of Eleanor Dark, had a family to support. Encouraged by her late husband's cleric friends, she opened 'Hayfield' in Parramatta as a preparatory school for The Kings School.

In 1888 she advertised in the Sydney papers that she had "secured premises at Medlow (elevation 3400ft), on the Blue Mountains, where she (proposed) sending each form in rotation, with Master and school appliances, for one month at least during each of the summer quarters". Schoolwork continued normally, the boys travelled on a Saturday, missing no lessons. She noted that the changes involved "the parents in no additional cost".

Mrs O'Reilly's experiment did not last long but other schools continued to enjoy the space, tranquillity and invigorating Mountains air.

That space attracted Miss Violet Gibbins who moved her successful Osborne Ladies College from Epping in 1923 for "more room", according to former pupil and governess, Miss Victoria Everingham. She moved two kilometres west of the village of Blackheath to the old Centennial Hotel.

Osborne, named after the Royal Naval College, Osborne, Isle of Wight, followed its traditions. Miss Gibbins believed girls should experience the same sort of education as boys enjoyed.

Girls studied for the public examinations where they were very successful. Physical fitness was emphasised. Bush walking, golf, swimming, tennis, vigoro, rifle shooting, eurhythmics, classical dancing and physical culture occupied the girls outside classes.

Rooms were named after ships; the girls drilled and paraded each day; they enjoyed hot water in the bathrooms and coke heaters in the classrooms.

Going into Blackheath for church, the girls marched in twos. Their full-dress uniform was naval- inspired. Fraternising with the locals was not permitted. However, the girls at Osborne were also taught that "it was not what we do but how we do it that matters", according to Violet Everingham.

Girls travelling to and from school by train with students from other small boarding schools were forbidden to converse with anyone except other Osborne girls. Such was Miss Gibbins' influence that they mostly obeyed this rule.

Osborne closed in 1958 following the illness and death of Miss Gibbins. She had not wished it to outlive her but her girls were resilient, responsible, public-spirited young ladies.

Running such schools had made these women independent.