The Brisbane High School for Girls (BGHS) was established in 1899 by Miss Eliza Fewings who had, up to that time, been Headmistress of the Brisbane Girls' Grammar School. Miss Fewings had disagreed with the Trustees of that school and was subsequently advised to resign. The public outcry that followed included public meetings and numerous newspaper correspondence from leading citizens (heavily in favour of Miss Fewings) and eventually from Miss Fewings and a reply by Chairman of the Board of Trustees, the then Chief Justice of Australia, Sir Samuel Griffith. The Brisbane Courier remarked that no event since Federation had aroused such public interest (1). In the 4 October 1899 edition of the Brisbane Courier, Miss Fewings advertised her intention to start a new school housed in rooms in the Baptist Tabernacle and the next day The Brisbane High School for Girls began classes with 31 girls (2). Many of these girls, and at least five teachers, had followed Miss Fewings from the Grammar School and within two years the School had become the largest girls' school in Queensland with 150 pupils, based on its reputation of sound teaching (3).
Miss Fewings returned to England in 1908, returning only to effect the transfer of the School to Constance Harker who, with her friend Marjorie Kate Jarrett as a partner, had agreed to purchase it (4), assuming control from the beginning of 1910. In 1912 the School moved to leased premises at Erneton on Wickham Terrace, but by 1918 space was at a premium. As the joint principals could not afford to purchase this property, they started to make plans to move on. However, following an offer from the newly formed Presbyterian and Methodist Schools Association to purchase the goodwill, and to purchase a permanent home for the School, the principals agreed to hand over the control of the School to that organisation. A number of properties was looked at and Misses Harker and Jarrett finally settled on Cumbooquepa as an ideal home for the school. The ownership was transferred to the PMSA on 20 December 1919 (5).
It was recorded at this time that the '... unpronounceable name with its references to a chapter in the Aboriginal history of the city, is to give way to a new and dignified one' and the name Somerville House, as an adjunct to The Brisbane High School for Girls, was chosen to honour Mary Somerville, a distinguished Scottish Mathematician of the late 17th and early 18th Centuries (6).
The move to Somerville House was made during the 1919-1920 Christmas holidays, one of the hottest summers on record. The new education block, due for completion in February 1920, was not finished and the day school was temporarily housed in the west wing of Cumbooquepa while a marquee on the lawn constituted the Assembly Hall. It was not until July of that year that classes were able to begin in the education block and the house reverted to a home for the boarders (7).
The next 20 years were ones of consolidation for Somerville House with many fine buildings being added to the site and the School continuing to prosper under the guidance of the 'Ladies', Misses Harker and Jarrett. Possibly because of the circumstances surrounding the opening of the School and the immense loyalty shown to the original Principal, Miss Fewings, and later to Miss Harker and Miss Jarrett, Somerville House has always had a very keen sense of its own identity and while officially the PMSA owned the school, Miss Harker's account of those days '...dismisses the intrusion of the PMSA into the life of the School as a minor irritant to the continuation and independence of the school' (8). After the retirement of Miss Harker in 1932, Miss Jarrett continued as sole principal until 1940, although Miss Harker continued to live in the House. A Vice-Principal was appointed to ease some of the burden and it was this person, Miss E Frances Craig who led the School through the difficult war years after the retirement of Miss Jarrett.
These years, 1942 until the end of 1945, have become part of the folk-lore of Somerville House and Miss Craig describes in the December 1942 school magazine the trying time experienced by the staff. After an initial visit to the School on Saturday 24 January 1942, when it was said that "The yard was full of Generals", the formal request was made on Monday 26 January for the School to become United States' Army Headquarters for 'the duration'. In the space of three and a half weeks a new Brisbane home had to be found for the day school and a country home found for the boarders and the accumulation of more than 20 years had to be packed and moved. Great care was taken to preserve the stained glass windows and these were removed and stored for safe keeping (9). Drysllwyn at Auchenflower and Queen Alexandra Home at Coorparoo became the homes of the day girls and the boarders moved to Moiomindah at Stanthorpe.
It was during these years of occupation that the major changes took place to the appearance of Cumbooquepa. Until this time, the verandahs that had almost completely surrounded the house were open, covered only with blinds; however the Americans enclosed these verandahs with fly screens, changing the open air feel of the house.
The beginning of 1945 saw the School returned to its own premises, now unfamiliar with the verandahs enclosed, to find that some of the furniture that had been left in the house had '... gone missing' and it was some time before the whole of the School was restored to its former use (10). The American forces still occupied the upper floor of the education block with an armed guard at the door (generally known as "Spencer Tracey") (11).
The years since the war have seen more changes to Cumbooquepa. The restoration work in 1980 helped to preserve the fabric of the building and its use as a boarding house ensures that major changes will not occur in the foreseeable future.
The first new building since the library in 1934 was opened in 1960, the MK Jarrett School of Music and Drama. This has been followed at regular intervals with further construction on campus, including the Aquatic Centre, the Seymour Centre, additional classrooms, and culminating in the Valmai Pidgeon Performing Arts Complex, opened in 2000.
In 1986, Old Girls of the School rallied from around the country in protest against an offer to the School Council from an overseas syndicate to buy the School for use as a trade centre (adjoining the Expo 88 site) (12). With the final rejection of the offer, the character of Cumbooquepa and the historic traditions and heritage of Somerville House were upheld.
- Various editions of the Brisbane Courier from 18 September 1899 to 11 October 1899 and Boyling, Janice F., The Contribution of the Brisbane High School for Girls (Somerville House) to the Higher Education of Women in Queensland 1899-1909, Bachelor of Education Thesis, University of Queensland, 1971.
- Brisbane Courier 4 October 1899, p.10, c.7.
- Boyling, op. cit., pp 15-17, 31.
- P. Freeman History of Somerville House: The Brisbane High School for Girls, 1899-1949, Brisbane, Smith and Patterson, 1949, p.10.
- op. cit., p15.
- The Brisbane High School for Girls Magazine, December 1919, p. 5.
- Freeman, op. cit., p. 19.
- Quirke, N. For the Good of the Community, Boolarong Press, Brisbane, 1995.
- The Brisbane High School for Girls Magazine, December 1942, pp. 11,12,13.
- The Brisbane High School for Girls Magazine, December 1945, p. 11.
- Freeman, op. cit., p. 33.
- Various editions of the Courier Mail, April 23-24-28-29-30 1987.