Geoffrey Collins – a 1930s Correspondence School Boy

Envelope that contained Geoffrey Collins’ marked exercise books, sent from Blackfriars Correspondence School in Sydney to Geoffrey’s rural home address, 1932

This envelope held the world of learning for young Geoffrey Collins about ninety years ago and before there was a queen on the British throne. 

Every week he would take this envelope, filled with his workbook of completed lessons down to the mailbox at the end of the long track from his house to the main road. For the next five days he and his mother as supervisor – sometimes indoors, sometimes on the verandah or outside – worked with pen and ink together to complete the lessons in time. 

Every week he would receive last week’s marked workbook, ‘Completed Work Books’, plus a new envelope filled with lessons – printed leaflets called ‘Instruction leaflets’ which closely followed the state syllabus – that he would carry up the long track from the mailbox to his home – three workbooks altogether: one to work on, one in the post, and one being graded by the teacher in Sydney.

Geoffrey Collins aged 12 with his dog, aged 6 on his first day of correspondence school, 1929, and Geoffrey’s mother, Jean, at their home at Bevendale

Geoffrey lived far away in the sheep farming region of Dalton, between Goulburn and Yass in south-western New South Wales, with his father, who was frequently travelling, and his mother, who had been a teacher. Geoffrey was the sun and moon to her. She was the one who decided that he should not walk the four miles – six and a half kilometres – into the local school each day – no, she would supervise him herself. 

Extract from memo titled ‘Memo for Pupils Promoted to Third Class’ by W Finigan, Headmaster, Correspondence School, Blackfriars, 1931

Lessons were sent each week from Blackfriars Correspondence School in Sydney. This world-famous ‘School in a mailbox’ had been established in 1916, with the increasing closures of provisional and subsidised schools in sparsely populated areas, as the first correspondence school for remote education in the world. By the time Geoffrey started his 1st Class lessons as a 6 year old in 1929, nearly a third of the children of New South Wales were being taught this way: over 2500 students by nearly forty Blackfriars teachers.

Extract from Geoffrey Collins’ first 4th Class exercise book, aged 9 years, 1932. Exercise book (2000-659-1) 

This was Geoffrey’s life in primary school. He had to write compositions on subjects like ‘The Best Day of My Life” (a visit to Gunthorpe) or “A Portrait” (“four foot five inches in height … My hair is fair and curly and will never stay tidy”), as well as spelling, dictation, memorise poems, comprehension, history, geography and arithmetic. His teachers’ comments included “your writing is a little too small”, “You could tell much more about Brisbane, Geoff” and “splendid”.

The correspondence went both ways – if his work was late because the cows got loose, or the creek rose, it was likely his Blackfriars teacher was the first to know.

Fourth Class instruction leaflet, Blackfriars Correspondence School, 1932. Correspondence school instruction leaflets (2000-665/1-41)

Back in Sydney at Blackfriars School one of a cohort of teachers marked Geoffrey’s work each week. Over the year, or years, that Geoffrey was taught by the same teacher, he would develop a strong bond with them.  They knew him as few other people in his life did – they saw him grow and develop. 

Comment from teacher on Geoffrey Collins’ first 4th Class work, 1932. Exercise book (2000-659-1)

Later in life, when he was a qualified psychiatrist working for the School Medical Service, his favourite teacher, someone he had on a pedestal, became one of his clients and he was thrilled, expecting the response she had given him all those years before – but she didn’t remember him. 

Comment from teacher on Geoffrey Collins’ first 4th Class work, 1932. Exercise book (2000-659-1)

Like many other former ‘corro’ students (like writers Jill Conway Ker, Pat Studdy-Clift, Eric Rolls) Geoffrey used what he learnt in those envelopes to launch himself in life. 

After his primary years, Geoffrey went to the Catholic boys’ high school in Goulburn and from there got a scholarship on to Scots College in Sydney, for 4th and 5th Form (the last years of high school). He was 16 when he went to the University of Sydney for his Bachelor of Arts and by the time he graduated he was conscripted into the army, returning after the war to qualify in medicine and then psychiatry. That could have been an opportunity for a lucrative private practice but Geoffrey Collins devoted his career to serving schools. What he had received, he gave back.

Wooden rulers used by Geoffrey Collins, early 1930s. School ruler (2000-635-1)

Further reading

Correspondence School – NSW State Archives and Records  

Sharing Memories – Early School Days in the Bush – School of the Air – a  memoir from another Blackfriars student 

Correspondence School, Blackfriars New South Wales, 1916-1967 by John Ramsland in Dictionary of Educational History in Australia and New Zealand (DEHANZ), 10 March.

Sydney Distance Education High School history – the current form of the early correspondence schools  


This story was written by Jo Henwood, NSW Schoolhouse Museum facilitator. Jo is also a well known storyteller, guide and museum educator.