stories, photos, anecdotes….. sharing the past
There are many towns and villages within the Parkes Shire LGA (local government area), Wongalea is just one of them. Wongalea was one of many country towns to have a one-teacher school. That school was the first in the area to be on film, with Wongalea School being used as the fictitious school at Kookaburra Springs in the 1972 film Sunstruck. While its legacy is preserved on film, Wongalea still holds a special place in the hearts and minds of former residents. The one teacher bush school provides memories for former students. The Wongalea school building still exists, preserved and part of the Parkes Visitor Information Centre complex on the Newell Highway.
Despite extensive research, any definition of the word ‘Wongalea’ could not be found. However, it is a popular location name, with farm properties having the name in Hay, Bourke and Queensland. There is also mention of a homestead called Wongalea in Western Australia (Gazetteer of Australia) .
The first mention of Wongalea, as a town in the Parkes district, occurs in 1913, where Mr H.R.M. Pigott, M.P. writes that a receiving office will be established at Wongalea “…for the porterage of mails three times weekly…” (Western Champion Thursday 21 August 1913 p.16) Prior to this there is a mention of Wonga Lea at Gunningbland Siding, a property belonging to Percy V. Johnson (The Farmer and Settler Tuesday 29 August 1911, p.8)
As to the exact location of Wongalea, in cadastral maps it appears in the parishes of Gunningbland and Milpose. Milpose parish itself is divided, with part of the parish in the country of Ashburnham, the other part in the county of Cunningham.
Wongalea wasn’t included in the list of towns and villages in the 1947 Census – the residents would most likely have been counted as part of the 267 residents of Gunningbland. However the 1954 Census includes Wongalea (67 residents) as well as nearby Cooks Myalls (63 residents) and Gunningbland (206 residents). With the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics (pre-cursor to ABS) constantly changing collection criteria, Wongalea again disappears from the 1961 Census – Cooks Myalls (58) remains as does Gunningbland (203).
Wongalea and Cooks Myalls have a long association, with both sharing a World War II Honor Roll (this is situated in the Wongalea school building at the Henry Parkes Centre)
Photograph of six volunteer bush fire brigade members acknowledging their long service.. Source: Bush Fire Bulletin Vol. 9 No. 1 and 2 (1987) pp. 30-31
Six district voluntary bush fire fighters with a total of 224 years of service between them received long service awards at a recent meeting of the Parkes Shire Council.
The awards were presented to the men by the President, Councillor Robert Wilson with the Bush Fire Council’s Regional Officer, Jim Saunders, attending as a special guest.
The six men who received awards were:
* Gerrard Reilly of the Wongalea South Brigade who has had more than 32 years active service, 13 years a secretary of the brigade;
* Robert Aitken, Wongalea South, who has had 30 years service including stints as brigade deputy captain and captain;
* William Dunford, Wongalea South, has had 42 years service with time as deputy captain and captain of both the brigade and Group 2;
* Donald Buchan, Wongalea South, has been an active member for 50 years with many years as deputy captain;
* Robert Westcott, Alectown East, has had 40 years service and came through the ranks to position of captain which he held for many years until recently;
* Kenneth Raymond Morris, Bogan Gate Village, 32 years almost all as secretary of the brigade.
Local historian, Roseanne Jones, researched and published History of Wongalea School and Teacher’s Residence. In her book, she describes the location of Wongalea Public School:
Wongalea Public School was located in the land district of Parkes, Parish of Gunningbland, County of Ashburnham. It had an area of three acres, three roods, thirty seven perches (3ac, 3r, 37p) and was bounded by portion 65 of the Gunningbland State Forest No. 251, portion 59 and public road from Trundle to Parkes, approximately twelve miles (20km) northwest of the Parkes township.
R. Jones (2005) p.1
Roseanne Jones describes how the village of Wongalea was established:
The District was one of the many settlement areas which had arisen out of the Crown Lands Act of 1885. By the establishment of smaller settlement areas, the government was attempting to break up estates which had become far too large. As a general rule, the settlement areas were established only on land which was considered suitable for agricultural development by settlers with small holdings. By 1912 Wongalea had been a closer settlement area for a period of ten years, during which time the population had grown to fifty settlers, including fifteen children of school age, and in need of proper education facilities.
Patrick Cunningham, Albert Hawke, S.H. Dunford and C.A. Johnson made the appropriate representations for the establishment of a school on behalf of the six families that were in need of one.
R. Jones (2005) pp.1-2
The men who wrote their letters were successful. On 17 June 1912, approval was given for the establishment of Wongalea Provisional School. The Department of Education contributed £85 towards the cost and also provided furniture from Sydney.
Table of school teachers at Wongalea School. Source: R. Jones (2005) pp.15-49 with some corrections made after consultation with Education: The Journal of the NSW Teachers’ Federation and the autobiography of Janis (John) Vovers called I Remember…. and Western Champion July 3, 1919 p.16
In Education: The Journal of the NSW Teachers’ Federation it is listed that Mr J. Fraser has been appointed from Wongalea to Gladesville and that his replacement at Wongalea is Mr J. Mason who is coming from Cobar. Source: Education: The Journal of the NSW Teachers’ Federation Vol. 7 No.4 (15 February 1926) pp.111-112
While towns and villages require schools for the children in the area, school buildings are amenities for the whole community. Roseanne Jones notes that in 1927 the Wongalea Parents & Citizens Association undertook the building of a teacher’s residence in the school grounds. In addition they built a tennis court adjacent to the teacher’s residence. With the school having the only suitable building in Wongalea it “…became the meeting place for local associations, such as the Parents & Citizens Association, the cricket club and tennis and football clubs.” (R. Jones 2005, pp.19-20)
Harry Secombe – best known from “The Goon Show” with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers – was picked to star in a movie where a Welsh school teacher heads to the Australian outback. A joint British-Australian comedy, the producers wanted authentic outback locations. Wongalea Public School’s building and outhouses were purchased by the production company, Immigrant Productions Ltd and moved to Brolgan, near Nelungaloo. The production company also received permission to use a home in Brolgan – “Braeside” – which was converted into the pub that was adjacent to the school. The town name in the film was to be Kookaburra Springs. The Parkes district was filled with excitement at the prospect of an overseas film crew coming to their part of the world.
Locals were required by the film crew on a number of occasions. Local tradesmen helped build and paint the “Braeside” home and turn it into Mayfair Hotel, Kookaburra Springs’ pub. The art director, David Copping, also appealed to Parkes locals to provide the following props for the film:
[David Copping] asked if any local persons can help with the provision of the items they should be left at the Coach House Motor Inn.
Among the items required are: – For the Hotel – four old wooden forms (seats), four round old laminexed tables, scoop lamp shades, Tolley’s clock, old bar pool table, old electrical fan (which could be made to work), old bar posters; and for the school – very tattered old Australian flag and old thermometer.
Mr Copping explained that while the movie is set in the present era, it should be remembered that the “pub” has been in ‘Kookaburra Springs’ for about 80 years.
Parkes Champion Post January 5, 1972 p.3
While the main aim of films is to make a profit, this didn’t stop the stars of Sunstruck helping out the Parkes Advancement Corporation raise funds to develop Rosedurnate. A charity concert was staged at the Parkes Leagues Club on January 30. Harry Secombe, Maggie Fitzgibbon, husband and wife team of Bobby Limb and Dawn Lake – all stars of Sunstruck – were willing to take part in the charity concert. (Parkes Champion Post Wednesday, January 12, 1972 p.1)
The director – James Gilbert – was very experienced having featured as executive producer on The Two Ronnies, and producer on The Frost Report as well as directing many episodes of various British comedies. Gilbert is best known as the person who told John Cleese that Fawlty Towers’ scripts were “full of clichéd situations and stereotypical characters” and that the show would be “a disaster” – Gilbert was Head of BBC Comedy from 1973 – 1977 before moving on to Head of BBC Light Entertainment (Source: Internet Movie Database). The main contributor to the screenplay, Stan Mars, was a competent writer having written for The Dickie Henderson Show, The Private World of Miss Prim (with Dawn Lake starring as Miss Prim), The Harry Secombe Show and Dave Allen At Large.
Stanley Evans (Harry Secombe) touches down in Kookaburra Springs and meets publican Mick Cassidy (John Meillon). Source: Sunstruck [Motion picture; DVD release] England: Studiocanal, 1972, 0:08:29 – 0:09:54 accessed via YouTube
In Stephen Glynn’s The British School Film: From Tom Brown to Harry Potter he describes the genesis for the plot of Sunstruck:
Leaving the country rather than visiting the countryside was the plot-line for Sunstruck (James Gilbert, January 1973), a vehicle for ex-Goon Harry Secombe. Inspired by the real poster (shown early in the film) of a teacher on Bondi Beach wearing shorts with academic garb, financed by New South Wales’ state government to encourage UK teacher emigration, Sunstruck follows shy single schoolmaster Stanley Evan (Secombe) from the Welsh Valleys to Australia, where instead of sun and fun, he is seconded to the dead-end town of Kookaburra Springs.
Glynn (2016) p.187
Publicised as ‘Goon Down Under’ the film had a working title as The Immigrant. It eventually became Sunstruck but is also known as The Education of Stanley Evans.
Trailer for Sunstruck which is quite lengthy for a trailer (over three minutes). This trailer is also one of the special features on Network’s DVD release of the film. Source: YouTube
Stanley Evans’ (Harry Secombe) first day at Kookaburra Springs Public School. Source: Sunstruck [Motion picture; DVD release] England: Studiocanal, 1972, 0:17:15 – 0:19:24 accessed via YouTube
Despite the enthusiasm of the Parkes residents, the film did not do very well critically or commercially. Writing in the cinema section of The Canberra Times, Dougal Macdonald comments that “Sunstruck spoilt by script” (The Canberra Times Tuesday 13 February 1973 p.16). While Macdonald laments the lack of tension in the script, he does state that the film has “undeniable charm”.
Over forty years later and the fan reviews of Sunstruck on IMDb are more positive:
“Well-loved little film that has stood the test of time. Rare dramatic performance from ex-goon, the late Harry Secombe……Best described as a fish-out-of-water comedy, the film plays it for laughs, pathos, romance and light drama.” – uds3
“A very popular family comedy of 1972 sees the They’re A Weird Mob formula apply again with pretty good results……The film is very funny and was a big hit for a month or so in 1972 with school holiday audiences.” – ptb-8
“A real gem of a movie starring Sir Harry Secombe as Stanley Evans, a Welsh choir master emigrating to Australia to escape his past in Wales to teach kids in the Australian outback.” – pete-rogers-email
“A must see Australian classic.” – uspats
“This is the last feature film of that much loved actor Harry Secombe…It is an adequate time filler.” – malcolmgsw
Source: IMDb website
Parkes Shire Library would like to thank the following people and organisations for their assistance in making this post possible:
If you have stories, photographs or memories that you are willing to share about Wongalea (or the film Sunstruck) please contact Parkes Shire Library via firstname.lastname@example.org so that they can be shared and kept for posterity on this blog. Alternatively you may leave comments on this page.