14 June 2022

The mystery of the girl beneath the floorboards

| Chris Roe
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portrait of a girl

A surprise find beneath the floorboards of a Wagga home. Photo: Chris Roe.

Wagga resident Sam Ryan was getting to work renovating his heritage home on Crampton Street in Wagga Wagga when he made a remarkable discovery.

“I grew up here in the 90s and purchased the house from my father,” he explained.

“We started doing some renovations out the back and I moved this old cabinet that had been there since I remember.

“There was a lot of wood rot there and underneath the floorboards was an envelope.”

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old photo of a woman

The tattered portrait was found alongside a Mt Erin report card from 1929. Photo: Mt Erin Heritage Centre.

The battered packet lay among a collection of old milo tins and household rubbish.

“It was really ripped up and had been eaten by moths or something, but I opened it up and it had the photo and the report card.”

Inside was a tattered sepia photo of a young woman and a report card from the Mt Erin Wagga Boarding School for Young Ladies, dated 10 May 1929.

“I was pretty excited,” said Sam.

“I went to Kildare [Catholic College] so I knew what it was straight away and then when I saw ‘1929’ – it was a big surprise that it was almost 100 years old.”

The photo captures the likeness of an elegantly dressed young woman, her hair combed back, impassive face staring to one side.

“My Mrs was a little freaked out about the photo; she thought it was a bit scary,” Sam said with a laugh.

The report card, less damaged than the photo, belonged to Kitty Burgess, who it seems was a very good student.

Overall conduct and order earned her the “Very Good” mark of 8/10, while writing and needlework were an “Improved” 6/10.

Unsure of what to do with his find, Sam reached out to the lost Wagga Wagga Facebook group who connected him with the Mount Erin Heritage Centre.

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Susan Bradley manages the Centre on the site of Wagga’s first Catholic school and said it was a delight to receive such a “priceless donation”.

“I got in contact with another chap [Chris Cleary] who has a genealogy business and he found out a whole lot of information,” Ms Bradley explained.

“He found out that the family had lived there only until 1930, the year after the report card because the father had been killed in a tin mine in the Malay states.”

According to Mr Cleary’s research, the widowed mother and the children moved several times to different houses on Crampton Street.

Kitty Burgess married, becoming Kitty Smith. She had two daughters and two sons and was buried in the Wagga Lawn Cemetery in 1978.

old report card

The Mt Erin report card rates students from “Excellent” to “Bad”. Photo: Mt Erin Heritage Centre

As for how and why the report card ended up beneath the floorboards, Ms Bradley could only speculate but doubted it was hidden.

“Well, it was actually quite a good report card. It wasn’t too bad,” she laughed.

“According to the legend at the bottom, the marks went from “Excellent’ to the bottom mark that was was’ Bad’. You wouldn’t get that on report cards today!”

old report card

The report card found under the floorboards. Photo: Mt Erin Heritage Centre.

Sister Barbara Webber was a boarding student in 1953 and later joined the Presentation Sisters Congregation.

She remembered the implications of receiving a “bad” mark on your conduct card.

“If you got ‘bad’, you weren’t allowed to go home for the home weekend,” she said with a sad shake of her head.

“We sisters who were working in the building had to spend the weekend spoiling them and getting them nice food.”

Nun with several habits

Sister Barbara Webber poses with some of the habits she has worn through more than 60 years with Wagga’s Presentation Sisters. Photo: Chris Roe.

After more than 60 years serving the Riverina, Sister Barbara treasures the momentos collected at the Mt Erin Heritage Center.

“I wore that very archaic-looking outfit down there, believe it or not,” she said, indicating a classic black nun’s habit.

“We did everything in that, played tennis and basketball,” she chuckled.

The Wagga Wagga Presentation Sisters congregation dates back to 1874 when five Sisters left Ireland to establish a ministry in the growing colonial town.

“They came to educate really, and that’s what we did,” Sister Barbara said.

“We educated and we opened schools right around the Riverina and Australia.”

When it comes to the mystery of former boarding student Kitty Burgess, Ms Bradley said it is difficult to know if she is the girl in the portrait.

Both she and Sister Barbara are pleased to include the items in the collection where they work to preserve the story of the Presentation Sisters and the thousands of students that form part of their legacy.

Original Article published by Chris Roe on Region Riverina.

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