Ferdinand, a school teacher for almost 50 years, and Josephine Papi, a tireless worker for charities, were a well known Brisbane couple in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Details of their lives, accompanied by images from a family photo album, give us an interesting glimpse into this period of our history.
Born in 1851 into an old Roman patrician family, Fernando Papi was a lay graduate in philosophy from the Pontifical Seminary in Rome and in 1870 completed a mathematics degree at the Royal University (now the La Sapienza University)1. What the equivalent of these qualifications would be today is unclear. He completed them by age 19 and the mathematics degree was a one year course. In any event, his education was at a relatively advanced level for the time.
Fernando then travelled to Dublin to study English where he met James Quinn. Quinn had been appointed as the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Brisbane in 1859. The bishop was in Europe in 1870 for the First Vatican Council and also spent time recruiting priests and others for his diocese. He convinced Papi to migrate to Queensland to become a school teacher.
Ferdinand, as he was known in Australia, wasn’t the only of his family to migrate. Brother Federico was a renowned doctor, fever specialist and author in Brazil and another brother Ettore (Hector) was a Jesuit priest and professor of canon law at Woodstock College in Maryland.
Climbing the ladder
A 21 year old Papi arrived in Brisbane in mid 1872. An initial stumbling block was his English, but by the following year it had improved greatly and he was classified by the Colonial Board of General Education as a junior assistant. He began teaching at St. James School in Boundary Street, Fortitude Valley in that year.
In 1875, he made his first step up the career ladder when he passed the examination for Class III teacher and was appointed as headmaster at St. Mary’s Ipswich Catholic Boys’ School. This was a big increase in responsibility with a salary of £205, 147 pupils and 5 staff. The previous headteacher had been unwell for a long time and Ferdinand worked hard to improve the fallen level of the school’s performance.
Josephine Hannah Culleen was born of Irish parents in Inverell in 1859. Members of the Culleen family had moved to Queensland, and Fernando met Josephine either in Brisbane or Ipswich. They married in Inverell in 1876. Later in the year, their first child Bertram was born in Ipswich.
Being married meant that Ferdinand was able to apply for teaching positions in Government mixed-sex schools and he decided that this path offered better career opportunities than remaining at St. Mary’s. Whilst the Colonial Board of General Education managed and paid the salaries of all teachers, including those owned by churches, Ferdinand found he had to resign and reapply for a new job.
The school’s administrator, Father Andrew Horan, refused to accept the resignation. Nevertheless, Ferdinand was gone after a month’s notice and appointed headmaster at the single teacher Walloon Scrub School about 13km northwest of Ipswich on the 1st. July, 1877.
Around 100 pupils were enrolled, but average attendance was far less, especially during cotton picking time. At his request, Josephine was appointed as assistant teacher and worked with the younger children.
Ferdinand’s knowledge of German would have been useful teaching the children of German immigrants. One inspector noted that “German children with the slenderest knowledge of English form the majority of pupils.” The community was later renamed Kirchheim at the request of residents but was changed to Haigslea during World War 1 due to anti-German sentiment.
The first inspector’s report was complimentary to both Ferdinand and Josephine. On the next visit in 1878, the inspector was critical of Josephine, stating that she “does her best but appears to be wanting in energy and perhaps in temperament.” At this stage, Josephine was juggling her work in the school with looking after 2 year old Bertram and her second child, 3 month old Grace Italia. Baby Grace may have been sick at the time of the visit, as just 6 days after the inspection she was dead.
Josephine resigned early in the next year, a few months before her next child Amy was born. Although she never held a paid position in a school again, in the absence of a female teacher, the regulations of the time required the wife of the headteacher to teach needlework to the girls for two hours a week.
Ferdinand was keen to progress his career and the 1877 inspector’s report stated that “Mr. Papi’s expectations are unreasonably great”. However, he received favourable reports, passed the Grade II examination and as a result was regularly promoted. He worked at Bulimba, Goodna and Toowoomba South schools. In this period, Josephine had one more child, Leon Ferdinand, but he lived just a little over 12 months.
” it was queer to find an Italian not long in the country headmaster of one of our big schools.”
Ferdinand’s origins did create some comment when he moved to a new location, but he quickly became well liked, respected and appreciated. On his arrival in Maryborough in 1885 to be headmaster of the Albert School, the “Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser” assuaged the concerns of its readers.
“Mr. Papi is a gentleman of Italian extraction but possessing a first class English education and habituated by a life-long residence in British dominions to the habits and customs of the people to whom it is now his mission to administer knowledge.”
In Maryborough, Josephine became involved in community activities such as the Benevolent Society. In later years, such work would become a consuming part of her life.
At the end of 1888, Ferdinand became one of only a handful of teachers in that decade to pass the examination for Class I teacher. This, along with continuing favourable inspector’s reports, led to his appointment as a District Inspector in 1889 with a doubling in salary.
The higher pay reflected the prestige and importance of inspectors in the Education Department. The work was not easy, requiring constant travel alone by horse over rough roads and bush tracks, dealing with lack of accommodation, floods, risk of disease and theft. In addition, inspector’s visits were usually greeted with trepidation by teachers due to the career impacts of their reports, which often were made public.
After less than a year working as an inspector, Ferdinand found the job not to his liking and his resignation was reluctantly accepted. He returned to teaching at his old salary.
Life in Brisbane
Ferdinand was posted to the role of headmaster of Woolloongabba Boys’ School, which later became known as Dutton Park State School. Apart from a period acting as Inspector, he was there from 1890 until 1912. Ferdinand planned a trip home in 1902 but he wasn’t granted leave of absence. He never returned to Italy. His brother Frederico, a renowned fever specialist in Brazil, planned a visit to Australia in 1904 but died en route.
The family lived in various houses in the South Brisbane area before moving in around 1897 to “Tiaro”, at 54 Brighton Road, Highgate Hill, still standing today, next to the prominent brick house “Mon Abri” (see my post Mon Abri – Brighton Road )
In 1912, Ferdinand became headmaster of the Bowen Bridge Road School. In 1916, a new building was completed and its name changed to the Windsor State School. At the time, it was the largest school in Queensland and cost over £16,000 to build.
The heritage listed building was designed to accommodate the requirements of the most modern of education philosophy in Queensland at the time. It was known as a “model school”.
In 1913, the family moved to “The Knoll” at the corner of Doris Street and Gray Road in Hill End and lived there until 1920. This distinctive house is also still standing.
Ferdinand reluctantly retired in 1921, as he had reached 70 years of age, the maximum allowable at the time.
Josephine in Brisbane
Josephine was very active in Brisbane community affairs. Changes in society through the 1890s had created opportunities for women’s involvement in public life that had not previously been available. In 1897, she was instrumental in the founding of the Brisbane Ladies Bicycle Club. Josephine was the initial president and later secretary and captain of the club.
This was somewhat progressive and reflected a gradual loosening of restrictive social norms. Just a few years earlier, Brisbane women seemed to have ridden bicycles only indoors in halls. It was a pastime for the better off, with even a very basic bicycle costing over £10 when a “living wage” 10 years later was considered to be around £2 a week.
Their first official run was held in July, with 25 members wearing their fawn coloured uniform with white straw hats decorated with red, white and blue ribbons. They were accompanied by an escort of some 100 male cyclists. Curious bystanders stopped to watch them pass. A journalist opined that the numbers were low as some members “rather feared the ordeal of public demonstration”.
The club organised balls to raise money for charity. Common inclusions in such events in this period were “Fancy Sets,” in which groups of women in themed fancy dress costume acted or danced out a scene. In an 1899 ball, for example, Josephine organised a set called “Powder and Patches”. Others on the night were “The Grecian”, “Federation” and “The Geisha”.
Josephine was also a founder of the South Brisbane Croquet Club in 1903. It was active in Musgrave Park until around the year 2000 (see my post Musgrave Park – The Early Days ). Croquet was extremely popular at the time and was one of the few sports deemed socially acceptable for women. Josephine was later made life patron of the club.
With little Government funding for health and the arts, community fund raising played an essential role. Prominent amongst the many charitable organisations that Josephine was involved in was the Wattle League. She founded the Queensland branch in 1912, three years after the first such group began in New South Wales. The initial aim was to provide scholarships for young artists and the first awarded by the Society was won by sculptor Daphne Mayo. For more see my post Daphne Mayo – Brisbane Sculptor .
The Society became a heavy supporter of returned servicemen during and after World War One. They raised the £3,000 required to establish an orthopaedic ward at Rosemount Military Hospital which catered for returned soldiers with limb injuries. Josephine was made a life Vice President of the League in the 1920s.
The association continued to focus on helping people with disabilities as well as on providing art scholarships. The Wattle League is now known as Open Minds and provides mental health and disability support.
Josephine was also actively engaged in fund raising for the Children’s Hospital, founding an annual Juvenile Ball which was very successful as a fund raiser, She was a strong supporter of the Brisbane Industrial Home. Founded in 1883, its mission was initially described as ” the rescue of the erring by giving shelter, relief and Christian sympathy and council to fallen and friendless women”. By the time of Josephine’s involvement from about 1899 to 1907, it provided shelter for women and their infant children.
Painting, poetry and other things
Ferdinand was a keen artist exhibiting regularly and had also taught art in his schools over the years. He was Chairman of the Board of Advice to the Queensland National Gallery, the forerunner of the Queensland Art Gallery.
Ferdinand also played the flute in various amateur groups and wrote poetry. This poem, for example, was published on numerous occasions in Brisbane newspapers.
Ferdinand translated Italian documents for scientific and government bodies and also gave private tuition in several languages. Sir Samuel Griffith, Supreme Court Judge and onetime Premier of Queensland, was a friend of Ferdinand’s and sought his advice regarding his translation of Dante2.
Retirement and final days
In retirement, Ferdinand and Josephine lived in Maud Street (now Audenshaw Street), Highgate Hill. Ferdinand continued teaching with a private correspondence college. Josephine gradually wound down her involvement in innumerable committees and fund raising activities.
During 1923, Ferdinand was unwell for some time. Josephine was visiting their daughter Amy in Dalby when the two women were urgently called back to Brisbane. Ferdinand died the next morning whilst reading a book in bed, after his morning cup of tea. The level of the respect held for both Ferdinand and Josephine can be gauged by the 33 wreathes reported at his funeral as well as a huge list of messages of sympathy.
Josephine went to live with her son Bertram in Warwick and later with Amy in Dalby and died there in 1925.
Ferdinand, Josephine, Bertram and Amy, along with son-in-law Edwin and daughter-in law Bel, are remembered by a monument in the Mt. Gravatt Cemetery.
1 Italians of Brisbane 1, Baggio, Fabio; Brisbane Scalabrini Migration Centre, Rintocchi Brisbane, 2004
2 The Divina Commedia of Dante Alighieri literally translated by Sir Samuel Walter Griffith, Oxford University Press London-Melbourne 1911.
© P. Granville 2021