Alfred Deakin Prime Ministerial Library


'School Day Memories': School exercise books from the 1920s and 1930s

front cover - Australian Air Routes exercise book, 1937 back cover - Australian Air Routes exercise book, 1937

The Australian Schools Textbook Collection within the Special Collection of Deakin University Library houses a considerable variety of student exercise books, as well as textbooks and other items related to curricula. Some of the exercise books have been used and some are blank, but they date from the 1890s through to the 1960s. The used books in particular are filled with interest as they contain the student's own work, often corrected by a teacher and generally include the name of the student, the school, the subject and the year.

One set of fifteen exercise books in the collection is particularly interesting as they have all been used by one boy, thus making it possible to follow his progress through primary school and beyond. His name was Jack and his school workbooks date from 1928 to 1938. Although there may have been other books used by him, the ones that have been acquired by the Textbook Collection do provide a continuous overview of ten years of his schooling.


pastel drawings of fruit, 1928

Jack was an eldest child who was born in country Victoria in 1921 (he has circled the date of his birthday in one of his books!) and went to primary school in the Wimmera between 1928 and 1934. There are five exercise books from this time, containing pastel drawings and simple exercises in grammar, composition, spelling and arithmetic. Jack's father was a Methodist minister (again, Jack has written his father's name in one of his books), which is probably the reason the family moved as much as they did - they lived in at least five different Victorian country towns whilst Jack was growing up and Jack went to a number of different primary and secondary schools. The exercise book from his last country high school is for science.

In 1936 and 1937 Jack attended Wesley College. He was probably a boarder, as his father remained in his rural parish until 1937 and then moved to Melbourne. Whilst at Wesley Jack was in the fifth form and studied technical and scientific subjects (Bookkeeping, Chemistry), as well as 'Compo' and History. It was fairly common at this time for boys to be enrolled at good private schools for the last year or two of their schooling, in order to give them the best possible preparation for university or the work place and Wesley would have been the natural choice for the son of a Methodist minister.

The last three work books in the Collection are from 1938, when Jack attended a university coaching company who had an office in Melbourne. He received tuition in English, History and Physics. Unfortunately it is not clear from Jack's workbooks whether he continued his education at university. He did however enlist in 1943, and his background in technical subjects was utilised by the Army, as at the time of his discharge in 1947 he was a Craftsman in a military workshop in Victoria.

The school exercise books within the Special Collection provide a fascinating window into schooling from the point of view of those being schooled, particularly as many of them contain enough information to provide historical and social context for the schoolwork within. Anyone researching education or life before World War II or indeed, the effects of a peripatetic lifestyle on children or other similar issues, will find a great deal to interest them in the school exercise books of students like Jack.


nature study, 1931arithmetic homework, 1933chemistry experiment, 1934composition homework, 1936page one of a chemistry experiment, 1937page two of a chemistry experiment, 1937arithmetic workings and doodles, 1937poetry composition, 1937page one, history - the Hebrews, 1937page two, history - the Hebrews, 1937bookkeeping workings and doodles, 1937physics - working of a micrometer and sketch, 1938

A selection of pages from Jack's exercise books.

Click on each page to see more detail, including doodles, corrections and comments from teachers, and even some burn marks on the chemistry pages!

Kristen Thornton is responsible for the contents of this page.

Deakin University acknowledges the traditional land owners of present campus sites.

29th August 2012