In the mid 1840s, within a few years of first European settlement, a Cornishman named James Bailey Bassett arrived in Willunga and shortly afterwards set up one of the first day schools in the area. Over the next thirty years the Bassett School was responsible for educating a large proportion of the town’s children.

James Bailey Bassett, his wife Ann and their two young children arrived on board the Diadem from Plymouth in November 1840. James was born in Cornwall about 1810. Ann had a third child soon after they arrived in South Australia. In September 1843 James advertised in the South Australian that he had taken a commodious house in Nairne, with the intention of opening a boarding school for young gentleman ‘whose education morals and comfort will be assiduously attended to’.

By about 1847 the Bassetts had moved from Nairne to Willunga, where they set up a day school in the home they had built [in St Luke’s Street] next door to the Lincolnshire Inn. The ‘Buckland House Academy’, as it was called, accepted local children as day pupils and later advertised boarding accommodation for young pupils.

Buckland House Academy, c 1875.

On 31 December 1851 Ann died of consumption (TB) and is buried in the Willunga Methodist churchyard.

In August 1852, James Bassett’s school at Buckland House had an enrolment of 43 children (27 boys and 16 girls). It was at the time the only licensed school in Willunga.

In 1853 James married Mary Murrell Farmer, and they went on to have several more children. Mary took an active role in the school, taking over the tuition of the girls. By 1857 there were separate schools for boys and girls with 42 boys being taught by Mr Bassett and 34 girls under Mrs Mary Bassett.

The Bassetts contributed to the development of the district not only through educating its children, but also by promoting and participating in various cultural and civic activities. James was an enthusiastic and talented musician: he sang, played the violin and taught music to his pupils as well as contributing to concerts and musical evenings in the town. He was for a time Clerk of the Willunga Local Court, served on various local Committees and was a member of the Rechabites and Good Templars, and was responsible for the establishment of the ‘Band of Hope’ and Juvenile Drum and Fife Bands.

Enrolments at Buckland House Academy continued to grow, even though by now there were several private schools catering to the expanding population of the town. A small schoolroom had been built alongside Buckland House, but more room was desperately needed.

In 1862 James built, at his own expense, a small slate-roofed stone schoolroom alongside Buckland House and this became the Bassett Boys School. This building inaugurated in September 1862 was described by a contemporary correspondent of the South Australian Register as ‘an ornament to the east end of the town’.

Bassett Boys’ School, 1865.

Mrs Mary Bassett now had full responsibility for teaching the girls in Buckland House. In 1873, James applied for a separate school license for his wife. Pupils of both schools excelled in the annual examinations, and the schools were highly regarded. In 1870 the Chief Inspector of Schools Dr Wyatt described them as ‘second to none under his inspection’.

At the age of 65 James contracted bronchitis, and after a short illness he died in February 1875. He is buried in the cemetery of the Willunga Wesleyan Methodist Church, where he had been a foundation member of the congregation for some 30 years. Mary continued Buckland House school, with help from her nieces Misses Charlotte and Edith Nesbitt. Mary Bassett died in 1889, aged 69 years, and was buried alongside her husband.

During the 1890s the schoolroom was operated briefly as a Church of England school, with Miss Ella Hawkens the very popular teacher in charge.

The school building and land were purchased by the Willunga District Council in March 1896. In the early 1900s the land alongside the school building was the site of the Council pound, where stray animals were impounded until claimed by their owners. The building served as a Council Chamber and meeting room until the new Council Offices were constructed at the corner of St Peter’s Terrace in 1962. The Bassett School then became the Council Depot, with petrol pump and vehicle storage. Library books for the Mobile Library were stored here in the early 1980s. The old building was by then in need of some tender loving care, and in the late 1980s it was leased to the National Trust of South Australia.

The building underwent major restoration in 1988, and the Willunga Branch of the National Trust has looked after the former school room ever since. It has been used for a variety of purposes over the years, including as a music studio and art gallery. Recently the Branch has launched a new program especially developed for primary school-aged children, offering an opportunity to experience a taste of what school was like in times past.

Once again the Old Bassett Boys’ School is filled with the sound of children’s voices.
(Contributed by Deborah Morgan, Willunga National Trust).

“Remembering Mr Bassett in Music and Words” was performed to an appreciative audience at Waverley Homestead in October 2012 to celebrate 150 years since schooling began in this iconic Willunga building at 17 St Luke’s Street. The performance of “Six Little Marks from School” by Grades 3 and 4 students from Tatachilla Lutheran College (pictured) was a fitting highlight of the afternoon’s entertainment.

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