Early in 1894, schoolmaster George Ratten arrived in Parkes, New South Wales, from the Victorian coastal town of Port Fairy. He was accompanied by his wife Eliza and the couple’s six children. Mr Ratten set about building a private, co-educational college in Mitchell Street, opposite the showgrounds. Although the nation was experiencing a period of severe economic depression, George Ratten had been lured to the Central Western town by the arrival of the railway and the prosperity of the Bushman’s gold mine.
His decision to relocate appeared to be vindicated in September that same year. The mine produced a 1,349 oz gold ‘cake’ from a mere 441 tons of stone. The National Advocate wrote; ‘Anyone can judge for himself as to what a beneficial effect such a large quantity of gold being found must have upon the district, which is also very rich in agricultural resources…….It is estimated that over a thousand pounds will be paid out within a day or two to business people in connection with the supply of materials etc.’
As the substantial, brick college building neared completion, a perfect opportunity to promote it arose. Word came that the great statesman Sir Henry Parkes would be visiting the town named in his honour. Never one to miss an opportunity, George Ratten invited Sir Henry to open the new school. The event took place on October 8 1894. Thirty students, including three of George Ratten’s sons, signed an illustrated address to Sir Henry. In the photo of the occasion shown below, a cap and gowned George Ratten stands on the right of the bearded Sir Henry. Lady Eleanor Parkes is standing at the front holding a bouquet. The woman on her left is presumed to be Mrs Ratten, who acted as Lady Superintendent of the college.
At the end of the year, Mr Ratten organized a gala speech night at the local Royal Hall. There was a full programme of theatrical performances, with his own sons featuring prominently.
Problems began for the college due to a prolonged and widespread drought in Australia’s eastern states. Wheat crops failed in 1886 and the pattern of dry seasons continued until 1901. For this reason it would later be referred to as the Federation Drought.
In mid January 1886, Bathurst’s National Advocate published worrying news from the neighbouring town of Forbes ; It is reported that black cholera has broken out in Forbes; judging from the sanitary conditions of Parkes and the state of the little water available, it will not come as a surprise if the dreaded disease breaks out in the sister town.
The prophesy was soon fulfilled, though it was typhoid rather than cholera that struck. On April 18 a Sydney newspaper carried the following report;
PARKES (From Our Own Correspondent)
Typhoid fever is still on the increase in this locality. Five deaths have resulted this week from the epidemic. The local hospital at present is crowded, and admittance, except to those patients who are left entirely without means, has to be refused. At present there are said to be about 100 typhoid cases in the town and surroundings under medical treatment. Strange to say that nearly all the victims so far have been people under 20 years of age.
The fact that young people were so susceptible meant that boarding students from outlying areas would have been removed from Parkes College by their worried parents.
Both cholera and typhoid are bacterial diseases, transmitted by the consumption of water contaminated by human faeces. The problem for Parkes was that many homes had open cesspits in their backyards. During the drought, contaminated dust from the pits blew onto the roofs of houses and when it did rain, bacteria filled water, flowed into tanks used for drinking and cooking.
At the same time, the once prosperous town of Parkes was hit by declining profits from the Bushman’s goldmine. The results for 1896 were described by the Western Champion newspaper as, ‘very disappointing’. The following year was even worse. There was little money to spare for private education.
On September 14 1897 the college’s demise was announced in a single sentence, which appeared in Sydney’s Evening News; The Parkes College is being closed. The Ratten family moved to Forbes, where George Ratten became headmaster of the Lachlan College.
The failure of the school would have profound implications for George Ratten’s eldest son Victor. Instead of attending university and pursuing a professional career as might have been expected, he took up a position in a local bank. But Victor had higher aspirations. By the age of twenty he was practicing as a dentist. His fascination for the field of medicine eventually led to him becoming one of the most highly regarded surgeons in Australia. However, Dr Ratten’s right to practice and the legitimacy of his qualifications would become the subject of a Royal Commission, followed by the passing of an extraordinary act of parliament. His story is the subject of my work in progress……The Self-Made Surgeon.
In 1925 Dr Victor Ratten was created a C.B.E. The honour was noted by the Western Champion, who mentioned George Ratten’s college and suggested that many old Parkesians would remember Victor ‘s years in the town. But significantly, the only educational institution Dr Ratten ever mentioned in Who’s Who or in any other biographical material was his father’s college at Port Fairy.
Just after midnight on January 20, 1927, a cyclone hit Parkes. The unoccupied college building was severely damaged. The roof was torn off and the back wall collapsed. Happily, it was rebuilt, and remains standing to this day.
Victor Ratten’s younger brother Aubrey went back to Parkes in 1937, after an absence of over forty years. He was disappointed to find his old home and school in ruins. Aubrey told a local reporter that his father had been great friends with Mr William Giles, proprietor of the Western Champion. Among his old schoolmates Aubrey listed Jack Medlyn, ‘Bub’ Mazoudier, the McGee boys, ‘Bill’ Keast and Mervyn Seaborn.
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