For the past few days I have been sitting in the “schoolroom”, a late 20th century addition to one of the oldest properties in Dandenong – Laurel Lodge. Added as an external kitchen, it has since been turned into a small classroom, fitted out with desks with lids and slates, chalk and chalkdusters, referencing the fact that the main house was originally a private school for young ladies. Built in 1869 by a Mr Robert Huckson the two-storey building was leased to a Miss Matilda Shaw to run her school there from 1869-1884. Originally for girls only, the school did later include boys - in 1875 there were 13 female and 4 male students.

 There isn’t a lot of information on Matilda, including no photos to speak of which is a little disappointing…it would be deeply satisfying to be able to put a face to a name, to read something that she had written herself rather than the melodramatic recollection from ex-student actor Oscar Ashe whose portrait of her in his autobiography is less than flattering: “The headmistress was a Miss Shaw, a hard-faced martinet who thrashed me day in and day out” “I felt Miss Shaw’s beady back eyes gimleting into me” “Miss Shaw had, I thought, been getting the scaffold ready” “’Go on, or I’ll thrash you,’ cried the inexorable one.”

When her business became too big for Laurel Lodge in 1884, Matilda moved up the road to new premises that she promptly named ‘Merlin’. Not quite ‘Hogwarts’ but it does suggest a fondness for the whimsical, magical and quite possibly romantic – perhaps she was tough and formidable on the outside, but something altogether different underneath?

The school itself had a prestigious reputation however – the Jubilee History of Victoria and Melbourne 1888 states: ‘from a very small beginning the school grew in public favour rapidly, soon becoming one of the leading boarding schools in the colony.’ The school closed in 1889 the year she married. This makes me wonder whether, despite her independent life up to this point, the conservatism of the times meant that once married, she was no longer allowed to work? Or perhaps she was just tired and after twenty years of teaching and running her own business, decided to become a lady of leisure, put her feet up and retire early?

There is something of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in Matilda’s story. Like Meg, Matilda allegedly worked as a governess, like Jo, she established her own school. Coincidentally, Alcott published parts 1 and 2 of Little Women in 1868 and 1869...the latter, the same year as Laurel Lodge’s establishment. In 2012 and just up the road in the Dandenong Plaza, they’re selling paperback copies of Little Women for $1 published by Transatlantic Press.

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