Long before the idea was conceived of establishing a school for orphans or other children in need, the Freemasons in Sydney had established a charity devoted to those children in 1852.
In 1918 William Thompson thought that the wide open spaces of Baulkham Hills would be a good location to establish a school and garden village for children who had been orphaned or left in poor circumstances following World War I. The project was funded by the Masonic Lodges who bought a 168 acre run down dairy farm on Seven Hills Road. On 11 November 1922 (Armistice Day) the William Thompson Masonic School was officially opened. At its peak the school was home to 364 children, most of whom lived on the property.
The Masonic School was under the superintendency of Rubert and Beatrice Cropley who lived in a house on the property and devoted their lives to the children from 1922 to 1939.
The School House was a brick building located near Seven Hills Road containing 7 classrooms registered under the Department of Education as a Primary and Secondary School to Intermediate standard. 9 teachers were employed by the Masons to teach both boys and girls in the same class. After 6th class boys were transferred to the Senior House (now Cropley House) and then attended Parramatta High or Granville Technical School. The girls were found work in local factories, shops and offices.
The Cottages were double brick with high patterned ceilings and polished timber floors. There were 5 girl’s cottages and 5 boy’s cottages separated by the Assembly Hall (now Thompson Hall) and the Administration Building. Each cottage had a central sitting room and matron’s room. Either side of the sitting room was a dormitory with 12 beds and a bathroom, so that each cottage contained accommodation for 24 children.
A gymnasium, dining room, senior house, superintendent’s cottage, hospital, staff and teachers cottages, steam laundry, tea rooms, tennis courts, playing fields and swimming pool were surrounded by well maintained lawns and gardens. Fruit and vegetable gardens were located away from the main buildings.
The Daily Routine in 1938
6am: Reveille followed by a cold shower. Get dressed in the school uniform. Make the bed and do special duties in the cottage for half an hour such as clean the bathroom, sweep and polish the floors, dust the furniture.
7am: Do tasks outside the cottage such as sweep the pathway, sweep and polish the front verandah floor, weed the garden.
7.30am: Gong sounds and children march to the dining room for breakfast. Stand beside their chair at the table and sing the grace, then sit down to oatmeal porridge, bread and butter with jam or honey. Finish with a cup of milk from the local dairy and then sing another grace and march back to their cottage.
8am: Bell rings and children gather their books and march in line to the Assembly Hall where a prayer is said by a senior boy or girl who also gives a speech on a subject ie. early rising, honesty, obedience, sport or a famous person. Mr Cropley then read out the default marks for the previous day and gave a brief address before the children leave the hall and march off to the school rooms accompanied by the boy’s band of drums and bugles.
8.45am: School begins under the guidance of 9 teachers. The children study English, History, Maths, Geography, Business Principles, Shorthand, Typing and Needlework.
12noon to 1pm: Lunch break when children march to the dining room for a hot meal of meat, vegetables and sweets.
3pm: Finish school and return to their cottage to do sewing or work in the gardens or play in the paddocks or read library books.
5.15pm: March to dining room for soup, bread and butter with jam, cake, fruit and hot cocoa. The wireless is usually played during tea time.
6.15pm: Return to cottage to do homework
9pm: In bed and lights out.
On Saturday afternoons the children were free to amuse themselves with sports or to meet friends or relatives who would come to visit. Senior girls would work in the Tea Rooms where they would wait on visitors for luncheon or afternoon tea.
On Sunday morning boys and girls over 10 years would attend the Church of England service on Windsor Road.
The Masonic School closed in December 1973 and was sold to The Hills Shire Council with payment over 3 years. The site, now on 16 hectares at 92 Seven Hills Road, was renamed Balcombe Heights Estate and has since provided community use and care to many diverse groups. The Hills District Historical Society Museum and Research Centre opened in Building 10 (formerly a girl’s cottage) on 12th November 2010. The Museum features a Masonic School display in the former sitting room including furniture, honour roll boards, magazines, minute books and photographs from the Masonic School period. Opening times are 1st and 3rd Saturday of each month from 10am to 4pm.