In December 2021 I took a drive down to Katanning with the aim of finding out more about Kobeelya, the school I had read and heard so much about – I was very excited to have the opportunity to learn more about its historic connections with Penrhos. The unique relationship between the two schools was originally established in 1976, when Penrhos College began managing Kobeelya, and it continued for a full decade until Kobeelya closed in 1986. This year, Kobeelya Girls’ School celebrates 100 years since first opening its doors in Katanning and, as I now know very well from my visit, it is obvious there is still much interest and love for this school in evidence in the area even 36 years after its closure.
The foundational footprints of Kobeelya can be traced back to 1917 when, in the home of Reverend William Burbidge and Mrs Mary Eleanor Burbidge, a small group set out with the determined ambition to provide a wide and thorough education for the children of Katanning. The school they founded was formally registered with the Education Department in 1919 as Katanning Church of England Girls’ School. By 1921, the school had 21-day students, including 14 boarders, and was rapidly outgrowing its original home at the St Andrews Rectory.
Kobeelya (an Aboriginal word meaning ‘place of rest’) was the name of the home of former Katanning MLA, Hon Frederick Henry Piesse – it was one of the area’s most significant buildings, with extensive grounds. In 1922, Kobeelya was bought by the Bunbury diocese of the Anglican Church for £5,000 with the purpose of moving the school and its boarding house to this location on Tuesday, 12 September 1922 with 22 students, 17 being boarding students.
Unlike other schools of the time, Kobeelya offered a unique educational opportunity for students, with a purposeful balance between academic, agricultural and physical activities. Horse riding was a special feature of Kobeelya and at one time there were as many as 40 horses stabled at the school.
Although mainly a boarding school for girls, a number of boys did attend the Kindergarten classes in the early years and again during WWII. A small number of boys were once again enrolled at Kobeelya during the Penrhos era, as day students. Students came mainly from the nearby regional farming areas as well as from Perth and areas to the north of WA. A small number of girls from Singapore, Malaysia and other overseas countries also received their schooling at Kobeelya.
In 1976, after a few challenging years with enrolments, Kobeelya became part of Penrhos College, aiming to provide students with the opportunity to enjoy the best of both a ‘city’ and ‘country’ education. After struggling with declining enrolments in a time of economic recession, the difficult decision was made to eventually close the school 10 years later, in 1986.
The Old Kobeelyans Association, founded in 1929, brings together a group of former students and staff (from both Kobeelya Church of England Girls’ School 1922 -1975 and later from Kobeelya Penrhos 1976 – 1986) whose aim it is to keep the Kobeelya story alive. Old Kobeelyans Association president Jill Clarke says the group is this year looking forward to celebrating both its unique history and the special friendships that were formed over the school’s 60 years.
“We are fortunate to have so many Old Kobeelyans who are still very much connected to and passionate about our school – we are equally proud of our continuing connection with Penrhos College,” says Jill.
Our Penrhos Principal, Kalea Haran, spent some time with Association members in 2021 and plans to revisit later this year for the centenary celebrations, further strengthening the links between the two schools.
“Our commitment is to keep the Kobeelya and Kobeelya Penrhos school history, friendships and connections alive,” says Kalea. “In 2021, we invited Kobeelyan alumni to register with Penrhos, giving them access to all the benefits available to our Penrhos alum. There is no doubt that we consider Old Kobeelyans to be part of our Penrhos family.”
The Old Kobeelyans have been working hard on plans for their 100-year anniversary celebrations, including a reunion which will take place in Katanning on Saturday, 10 September 2022. Penrhos College will also host celebrations on campus in Perth.
On my visit last year, I spent some time at the Kobeelya museum where I appreciated firsthand the amount of work that has been lovingly dedicated to preserving the stories and history of Kobeelya by the Old Kobeelyans Association. There are rooms filled with collections of artifacts and memorabilia from its rich history and a replica of an old boarding room; a candelabra which was presented to Kobeelya by the Year 12 class of 1982 was among the items given to Penrhos when Kobeelya closed in 1986, and this is currently on display.
Jill explains the work of the Old Kobeelyans Association:
“We typically have at least three ‘working bees’ each year; on top of that, we are able to undertake refurbishment and restoration projects thanks to the generous support of our former students. For example, the old fluorescent lights in the former Coach House (now the museum) were replaced last year. The old school bell, which was once a distinctive landmark of the Kobeelya grounds, is also currently under restoration in preparation for our September celebrations.”
Jill encourages visitors to Katanning to call in to the museum, which is located at the Coach House within the former school grounds.
“We love sharing the Kobeelya story with both former students and new visitors – our museum is open on Saturday afternoons between 1.30pm and 2.30pm.”
After seeing the museum for herself last year, our Penrhos Principal Kalea Haran also recommends a visit, and says she is looking forward to catching with past Kobeelya students and staff later this year.
“Despite the disruptions to our planned events in the first half of this year, we are very much looking forward to coming together to celebrate significant milestones in the histories of both our Colleges later this year – for Penrhos, it’s our 70th birthday so we are a full 30 years behind the Kobeelya centenary,” said Kalea.
It is evident when walking through the grounds and speaking with students who attended Kobeelya throughout its 60-year history, that the uniqueness of their school experience draws this community together for life.
For more information on both the Kobeelya centenary and Penrhos College 70th anniversary events, please visit www.penrhos.wa.edu.au/events