Being the VSL “historian” 2012-2015 – Catherine Bryant


Dr Catherine Bryant at graduation

As many people know, the VSL celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2015. Some may also be aware that for the past four years, I researched the VSL history for my PhD project at Swinburne University. This was a special project that was initiated by the VSL. It was supported by a three-year scholarship called the VSL PhD scholarship in memory of Professor Michael Clyne.

Throughout this research project, the VSL gave its full support, and gave me full access to materials, documents and personnel for the purpose of this study. Indeed, the VSL community supported this research project enthusiastically.

I was thrilled to be the chosen candidate, because I knew that this project was a special opportunity. While some people might wonder why anyone would want to pursue such a project, a PhD was something I had always wanted to do. I came to this project as an experienced secondary teacher of both Japanese and history, and it enabled me to pursue research in three areas of my own expertise and interest; languages, education and history. Prior to becoming a teacher I had completed a Master of Arts by research in Japanese, so I was familiar with what was involved in research, I had written a thesis before, and I felt confident that I had the skills to do it. I resigned from my teaching position so that I could work on this project full time from 2012 until the end of 2015. I submitted my thesis for examination in December 2015.

Early on, I was struck by the enormity of the task. The VSL teaches 49 languages in 40 centres and it has an eighty-year history. My PhD thesis needed to be between 80,000 and 100,000 words. That sounds like a massive document, which it is. But my research needed to have a clear focus. I wondered how on earth I should approach such a mammoth topic within the limits of a PhD?

I soon became convinced that my focus for this project should be firmly anchored in the discipline of history. I had found several old newspaper articles and government reports. But the most exciting discovery was at the Public Records Office of Victoria (PROV) in North Melbourne , where  I found a box of archived education department papers that document the first decades of the school’s history. Dating back to the 1930s, the papers were dog-eared and fragile, and many were written in copperplate handwriting. These kinds of primary sources represented a goldmine of original material for my project.


Among the documents, I discovered some original attendance rolls from the school’s first Saturday classes in Japanese, Italian, Dutch and Russian in the 1930s and 1940s. When I saw this, I realised that some of the early students or staff of the school may still be alive and be able to meet me for an interview.

But there was a problem. For the first fifty years of its existence, the VSL did not have a name. It was not an official school. It did not have a building or a headmaster. It was not like a “normal” school. There was no database of alumni that I could consult. So how could I track down these ex-students? I noticed that in the margins of the old attendance rolls, education department officials had written the names of the day schools that the students had come from. This represented a vital clue. Many students had come  from MacRobertson Girls High School, Melbourne High School, and University High School. I reconstructed the lists of names and approached staff at these three schools and asked them to help me contact these ex-students. This was a long process and it depended on the goodwill and generosity of people who patiently trawled through their databases for me.

Through this process, I was able to meet several VSL students from the 1930s and 1940s. Meeting them was an absolute thrill and hearing their stories brought the box of archived documents to life. It enriched the information that I had found, and I was able to include snippets of their stories in my PhD thesis. This experience highlighted the valuable opportunity that this PhD project had brought. Without this special research project, the chance to meet these interesting people and hear their fascinating stories would have been lost.

In the next few blog posts, I will write about some of the people that I met and some of the stories that I discovered from the early decades of the school’s history.

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