the hahndorf academy story



The important contribution to the development of the Colony of South Australia by the German community began in Klemzig, on the Adelaide Plain, and in Hahndorf, in the Adelaide Hills. As the town of Hahndorf and the surrounding district prospered, the need for schools to educate the children of the area became apparent. The Hahndorf Academy was the second school to be established in Hahndorf.

Traugott Wilhelm (TW) Boehm

Traugott Wilhelm (TW) Boehm

The first building on the present site of the Academy was a single roomed cottage dating from 1855, built for schoolteacher Traugott Wilhelm (TW) Boehm (pictured) and his wife Maria. This building was extended to become a school, as well as a private residence, in 1857. Boehm’s determination and vision saw the steady growth of the school to become a major educational institution in the Adelaide Hills and in the Colony. The collection of buildings that became known as The Hahndorf Academy was built over a period of forty years.

The property remained a school for the first fifty-five years of its life but since 1919 has been adapted to other uses. It served as a nursing hospital from 1919 until 1947 when it was divided up into residential flats. Sections of it had also been used as council offices and as a betting shop. Since 1960 its main use has been as an art gallery and heritage museum. In danger of demolition in the 1960s, most of the buildings have survived to the present day. The property is now owned by the Mount Barker District Council and has been administered by the Hahndorf Academy Foundation Inc since 1988.

The township of Hahndorf has undergone a transformation in the last twenty years. It has become the major tourist attraction of the Adelaide Hills, notable for its long association with German culture and traditions. A great number of heritage buildings have not only survived but they have survived without being altered irrevocably over the years.


The cultural significance of the Hahndorf Academy

The town of Hahndorf was established in 1839 by German immigrants escaping religious persecution in their homeland. Between 1838 and 1841 Lutherans from the Prussian provinces of Brandenburg, Posen and Silesia emigrated to South Australia under the leadership of Pastors Fritzsche and Kavel. Tradesmen, farmers and traders established their premises in what is now the township, with their church, St Michael’s, being built in the town on Balhannah Rd, close to the site of the Academy.

Education and schools were important to the Hahndorf community. With their strong conservative religious convictions, the community made sure that their religious and cultural preferences were carried on to subsequent generations. In 1854 TW Boehm began as teacher at the Lutheran School attached to St Michael’s Church. In 1855 he purchased land in Main Street, the present sit of the Hahndorf Academy. At first a one roomed cottage was built. However, in 1857 Boehm had a disagreement with the elders of the church over religious education being part of the curriculum. At the time schools that were government assisted were not permitted to have religious instruction. As the Lutheran elders insisted on religion being at the core of their school’s curriculum, Government assistance was not forthcoming. Boehm began his own school with a state subsidy as an essential part of the budget. A new timber framed schoolroom was added to the existing cottage to conform with the required standards. This room still exist although it has been altered somewhat over the years. Low timber beams and low doorways are the evidence of the original structures, built by a local German carpenter, Friedrich Bruse.

Boehm’s school was opened in September 1857, with 71 students enrolled. Withstanding opposition from the Lutheran Church, the school was a success and by 1862 there were 160 students and by 1870, 209 were enrolled. The increase in numbers soon put a squeeze on the available space. Additions were constructed during the 1860s, with a new, larger schoolroom and new rooms for the Boehm family. The residential extensions were built closer to Main St of substantial Macclesfield sandstone. The characteristic pink/purple of this sandstone is till visible on the old residential single-story structure, which has higher ceilings, larger doors, windows and fireplaces. Most of the structure and fittings of this period have been little altered since they were built.

By the late 1860s there were sever accommodation problems. “Descendants of old scholars from this period have memories of vivid tales of overcrowding which forced boarders to sleep in the school’s ceiling”[1] In 1871 another extension was opened. This was a two-storied building facing directly onto Main Street. The ground floor consisted of a junior classroom and a smaller office for the headmaster and a senior classroom above. A section of floor different from the main floor upstairs suggests the probable location of a staircase connecting the two levels.

At the grand opening of the extension in January 1871, The Register newspaper pointed out that Boehm’s “Academy is the first Government School in which, in addition to the ordinary education required by the Board of Education, the higher branches of knowledge are taught.”[2]

Boehm could employ a greatly expanded staff to teach secondary subjects, as well as provide specialist lessons for primary students. The school was financed not only by students’ fees and government subsidy but also by private patronage, particularly by prominent Mount Barker auctioneer and farmer, Frederick Stone. The school continued successfully until 1874 when the state subsidy was withdrawn due to the school not providing a sewing teacher. The subsidy then passed on to the neighboring Lutheran School. Boehm decided to expand facilities for boarders, no doubt to earn extra fees. New dormitories and a bathroom were added in 1874.

Surviving as a private boarding school proved to be difficult. An economic decline in the colony didn’t help matters. TW Boehm sold the premises in 1877 to the South Australian Lutheran Synod which had decided to expand its educational interests. The Academy became a teachers’ college for the Lutheran Church, as well as a day and boarding school for boys. Boehm was employed as Headmaster and soon the school, in its new format, was flourishing. In 1878 the name of the school was changed to Hahndorf College, heralding pretensions higher than a mere academy. This name was retained until its closure in 1912.

As the Synod lost its enthusiasm for education, TW Boehm rediscovered his. He bought the building back from the Lutheran Church in 1883 and once more launched into building improvements. The Mount Barker Courier of June 29 1883 said: “The college buildings have been made by far the most commodious buildings of their class outside of Adelaide, while greater individuality has been given to the appearance of the establishment by the enclosure of the whole within strong stone walls and secure iron gates.”[3]

Both the classrooms were now downstairs, while junior and senior dormitories occupied the upstairs. Appointments included an infirmary for sick boys and a drying room with labelled shelves for a boot boy to clean and sort boarders’ footwear. More vigorous chores for the boy included milking the college cow and chopping wood for the big double kitchen range and open fireplaces in the classrooms. TW Boehm’s horse had to be fed and groomed in the stables to the rear of the college.

“Much admiration attended the tower rising to a height of 35 feet surrounded by a railing and a flagstaff . . . From the top of the tower a splendid view is obtained of the surrounding country. From the tower, on a clear night, uninterrupted work can be done by the juvenile scientists who incline towards astronomy . . . It appears that a large clock once graced the tower to tell and show the time of day to scholars and villagers alike”[4]

Upstairs next to the tower were Boehm’s bedroom and personal library, with entrances both from the top of the inside stairs and the outside balcony. Visitors usually approached the library by the outer door through the tower. Here also were the spiral steps leading to the tower top. Boehm’s school office remained where it had been since 1871, opening out onto the main street and also, from 1883, into both classrooms.

Below the tower and against the Balhannah Rd wall was another educational novelty – a large gymnasium of brown weatherboard rising atop a foundation of stone. A section of this wall remains with built-in bolts still intact. These bolts would have held down the bottom plates of the timber superstructure. The gymnasium must have been removed to make way for the widening of the Balhannah road sometime in the early part of the twentieth century.  Another quote from Butler’s book gives further insights into the running of the college:

Between four and five young women washed, cooked and cleaned for the Boehms and their forty college boarders . . . The maids had a hard routine. Apart from the boarders’ bathroom, no running water existed at Hahndorf College, which meant that every drop for washing and cooking had to be pumped by hand from large underground tanks and then boiled in coppers and kettles.

In 1886 a bad drought and financial depression led to the closure of Hahndorf College. The Boehms sold out to Douglas Byard and HS Steer, and retired to a farm in Victoria’s Wimmera district. TW Boehm died in 1917 aged 82. DJ Byard became Headmaster of Hahndorf College from 1886 to 1912. Byard had been born in India but educated in England, gaining an Arts degree at Oxford. He emigrated to South Australia in 1884 and taught at various schools in Adelaide before taking on the Hahndorf College. His fluency in German no doubt reassured the staunch Germans of the district but the college took on a more Anglican flavor than before. The huge Linden tree in the backyard of the Academy was planted by Byard soon after he arrived in Hahndorf. Byard was a staunch supporter of St Paul’s Anglican Church which opened in 1886.

Notwithstanding the different emphasis from Boehm’s Academy days, descendants of the original German immigrants still sent their children to be educated at the Hahndorf College. Prosperous German farmers and tradesmen wanted their children to speak and write English as fluently as the rest of the community in order that they could succeed in life.

Beginning with the establishment of the Adelaide High School in 1908, state secondary schools proliferated throughout the denser settled areas of South Australia. When a state secondary school opened in Mount Barker in 1908, the writing was on the wall. Many of the College’s students transferred to the new school, obviously because it was subsidised by the state. 1910 was the last year that the College operated with a full curriculum. DJ Byard’s failing health and the falling numbers of students led to the closure of the college at the end of 1912. The family continued to live on the property until 1918 when they moved to Reynella.

Nurse Bertha Shmidtke

Nurse Bertha Shmidtke

In 1919 the building was bought by Harry Hirte to be converted into a maternity hospital, run by Nurse Bertha Shmidtke (pictured). Over a thousand babies were born in the hospital. The former college bathroom was converted into an operating theatre. Prior to an operation, Nurse Schmidtke sterilised surgical instruments in a huge cauldron on the kitchen stove. In 1926 rooms fronting onto Main Street were leased to the Echunga District Council. An important decision emerged from that office in 1932 when the name of the town was changed back to Hahndorf. The name had been changed to Ambleside during the anti-German hysteria of World War 1.

In 1934 a betting shop was established in the former front schoolroom. This ceased in 1942 during the war when all horseracing and betting was suspended. During this time Nurse Schmidtke began to reduce her activities. Some of the premises were converted to flats. There were two families living in the former headmaster’s room, one in the former boarders’ sitting room and another in the former betting shop and council office. Remarkably, there were no taps or running water inside the buildings in the 1950s. In 1958 the Hirte family sold the old college premises to old scholar Otto Haebich who began to modernise the buildings for use as flats. Otto died in 1959 and work ground to a halt.

For the first Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1960, an exhibition of the work of Hahndorf’s most famous citizen, Sir Hans Heysen, was organised by Walter Wotzke. In less than a fortnight 17,000 visitors had seen the exhibition in the old academy. Heysen was 82 at the time but still producing paintings. In November 1960 a group of people met to form the Hahndorf Academy Museum Trust with the aim of purchasing the building to establish a museum of local and South Australian significance. Adelaide businessman and art dealer, Karlis Lidums, bought the building and kept it unchanged until the Trust could take over financial control. Sir Hans Heysen made the first of several gifts of art works to raise public awareness.

The Trust had difficulty in raising sufficient funds and the building deteriorated. Eventually the Mount Barker Council issued a demolition order in 1963. Public meetings and continuing controversy resulted in the sale of the building to Walter and Elva Wotzke. The council lifted their demolition order and restoration work began in 1967. On 8 October 1967, another Sir Hans Heysen exhibition was presented in the Academy to celebrate the artist’s ninetieth birthday. Two thousand visitors came on the first day, including the German Ambassador, the Premier and notables from public life and the art world.

Artist, Lobbyist and Conservationist Walter Wotzke OAM

Artist, Lobbyist and Conservationist Walter Wotzke OAM

The reopened Hahndorf Academy soon became a major art gallery with exhibitions by artists John Dowie, Pro Hart, Ruth Tuck, Mervyn Smith, Albert Namatjira, Robert Campbell and Arthur Murch, amongst others. A German Heritage museum was also incorporated into the gallery.

In 1984 Walter Wotzke (pictured) decided to retire so he put the property up for sale. No sale was made however and Wotzke remained owner until 1988 when the revived Hahndorf Academy Foundation, under the Chairmanship of Sir Hans Heysen’s grandson, Dr Peter Heysen, took over as owner. In 1998 the building was purchased by the Mount Barker District Council.


Extract from

Conservation Study and Management Plan for The Hahndorf Academy by Jim Stratmann, February 2002

[1] A College in the Wattles by Reg Butler, 1989

[2] The Register, Jan 21, 1871

[3] Mount Barker Courier, June 29, 1883

[4] Mount Barker Courier, June 29, 1883