Fort Street School: Captain Wesley Powell Mulholland (1842–1928) and the Cadet Corps
Fort Street School was opened in the former Military Hospital on Observatory Hill in 1849. It was one of the first government-run schools in Australia, pioneering educational techniques that would be adopted throughout the colony.
The Australian Army Cadet Corps grew from the introduction of ‘drill’ into the school curriculum from the late 1850s. Cadet corps had been established at several prominent English schools, such as at Eton and Rugby in 1859, largely in response to the Crimean War. Australia followed suit, with military training for young men at school.
Although 'drill' was initially intended more for the physical benefit and discipline of the boys than for military instruction, it was a very small step to expand it and set up cadet corps. Fort Street School was the first Australian public school to create a cadet unit, in 1871. The boys at the school had been instructed in 'drill' since 1856, and indeed an anthem "Rifle Cadets" had been sung by the boys since it was written for them in 1861.
Wesley Powell Mulholland became Cadet Master at Fort Street School in 1871. He had previously served in the Anglo-New Zealand wars in 1863–64, and was also the recruit trainer for the South Sydney Volunteer Rifles unit.
The Fort Street School Cadet Corps first paraded in June 1871, and was complimented by Lt.-Col. John Soame Richardson, Commandant of the New South Wales Military, for their development after only six weeks of training by Sgt.-Maj. Mulholland.
At a time when sentiment for the British Empire and its military might was growing in Australia, the NSW Council of Education decreed that “Every male Teacher and Pupil Teacher in the Sydney district shall instruct the boys under his care in the rudiments of military drill.” As a result male teachers had to attend drill practice at Fort Street School on Saturdays, under Mulholland’s tutelage.
Mulholland remained the Cadet Instructor at Fort Street School while continuing to serve in the Volunteer Rifles. He became a commissioned officer in the Colonial Forces in 1874, and five years later was active in the restructure of the NSW Military, while continuing to advise the Department of Public Instruction (as the Department of Education was then known) on drill matters.
With the outbreak of war in the Sudan in 1885, NSW offered troops to assist the British Army. Mulholland was promoted, and appointed as the Commander of ‘B’ Company of the NSW Infantry Battalion. As Captain Mulholland he was warmly farewelled by the students and teachers of various schools in Sydney, with a presentation held at Fort Street School.
In March 1885 the NSW Contingent, made up of an infantry battalion and an artillery battery, set sail for Africa. They arrived too late to see any real combat, although the NSW Infantry Battalion was involved in several skirmishes before returning to Sydney.
The Member for Bathurst, Francis Suttor, accused Mulholland in the NSW Parliament of cowardice during the Sudan campaign. Suttor, who had opposed the sending of troops to the Sudan, could not (or would not) name his sources, and with the support of other MPs plus soldiers who had served with Mulholland in the Sudan and New Zealand campaigns, the charge was dropped. The people of Bathurst subsequently twice invited Mulholland to contest the seat against Suttor, but he declined.
Mulholland retired as a captain in 1890 at the age of 48, but remained a staff officer for the school cadets until 1909, by which time he had been promoted to the rank of major and awarded the Volunteer Officer’s decoration.
Fort Street School was split into one primary and two secondary schools in 1911, and the Boys’ High School moved to larger premises at Petersham in 1916, with the Girls’ High School joining them in 1975. The Cadet Corps continued to be a feature of the Boys’ High School, and girls were admitted from the early 1980s.