Burcham Collection - Mibalafoto

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Cyril Burcham was the first teacher at the Gogo Station Cave School near Fitzroy Crossing, who with his wife Gladys devoted great energy to this pioneering 1950’s venture in Indigenous education. Cyril had a lifelong interest in the wellbeing of the indigenous people in WA Cyril’s first position as a newly minted teacher was in suburban Perth, but in 1955, after scarcely 6 months in that role he secured a position at the Fitzroy Crossing School in the Kimberleys.

Close friends from their college days in Perth, Bruce and Pearl Smoker, were working at the United Aborigines Mission in Fitzroy Crossing and were desperate for Cyril to accept the position there. Pearl was the only teacher in Fitzroy Crossing but since she needed more time to care for her own children, Cyril steadily assumed more responsibilities within the single class room school.

Not long after his arrival in Fitzroy Crossing Cyril was presented with the opportunity to start a pilot school for indigenous children at the nearby Gogo Station. This cattle station was a jewel in the crown of the massive pastoral holdings of the Emanuel Bothers which extended throughout northern WA and the NT. His missionary friend Bruce Smoker was likely instrumental in suggesting the establishment of a State school on Gogo. Cyril agreed to lead the ground-breaking work, thereby becoming the first West Australian teacher to found a school within a remote Kimberley community. The Gogo school was unusual in that classes were held in caves of human origin dug into the St George Ranges which traverse the station. Cyril oversaw structural modifications to the caves that allowed their use as a classroom with a capacity of up to 30 students, although the number that enrolled initially was likely a little lower. Second hand pupil’s desks and chairs were procured from schools around Perth. Gladys assisted the new venture, working with an Aboriginal woman from Gogo to use an old Singer sewing machine to prepare uniforms for the first intake of Cave School girls. The first classes commenced on the 18th of February in 1957.

The Burcham family lived in an old homestead near the cave that was kindly supplied by the station management. Cyril soon developed a deep affection for the people on Gogo, cultivating a strong rapport with the children and their extended families. While recent articles in The West Australian bemoan the illegible hand writing of today’s school students, the written work from the Gogo Cave School shows that within just two years of service, Cyril taught previously uneducated indigenous pupils how to write in a beautiful, well-formed cursive script. Their simple descriptions of daily life on Gogo were illustrated with attractive drawings in coloured pencils. The fact that Cyril achieved these outcomes within a setting that provided only modest resources to support his teaching endeavours underscores the singularity of his achievements. His period of service at the Gogo Cave School provided many memorable experiences. Although the Education Department was very supportive and commended Cyril’s innovative teaching methods, relationships with the station owners grew frosty. In late 1958 Cyril resigned his position and returned to the southwest.

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