Few places in the Hills could have served the community as well as Balcombe Heights Community Centre, opposite Jasper Road School on the busy Seven Hills Road. During the past 80 years Balcombe Heights Estate (its original name) has been home to a Masonic school for orphans, a rehabilitation hospital for World War II soldiers and then back to a school. Today it is a popular sporting venue and home to community and not-for-profit organisations.
So let us go back. The estate was originally part of acreage given to George Best, an early pioneer in the Hills, in 1803. An architect and Mason, Sir William Thompson, lived in Windsor and often passed the estate when he travelled into Sydney for his Masonic duties. William Thompson was Grand Master of the United Lodge of New South Wales from 1914 to 1924. His son, Horace, was killed fighting in World War I, an event that spurred him to propose to the Lodge the establishment of a school for orphans of Masons who did not return from service.
His proposal was accepted and he started searching for a suitable site for the development, and decided on Balcombe Heights. The land seemed ideal; it had an open, rural feel which he thought would be good for the children and was close to a main road and the train line. It also had ample acreage to plant fruit trees, a vegetable garden and run a small dairy.
William Thompson bought the land in 1918. The original farm cottage-style buildings were renovated and the estate soon included dormitories, a kitchen/dining area, laundry, staff cottages, a gym and an administration block. Over the next few years more staff accommodation, a hospital, surgery and tennis court were built. Several original buildings still exist.
The William Thompson Masonic School opened its doors in 1922 and its first intake consisted of 45 children whose average age was nine. This benevolent establishment was the first of its kind to care for children or families of Masons. The opening was a big event and several thousand Masons and friends attended the ceremonial occasion.
The school flourished for 20 years, and the infrastructure and planning was remarkable for its time. All the buildings had hot water and electricity and a septic sewerage system was installed.
The estate went through an unplanned transition in 1942. The Second World War saw thousands of injured soldiers flooding home and the army’s medical facilities were at breaking point. The existing facilities and infrastructure of the school made it an ideal place for a temporary hospital. The school’s trustees agreed to lend the estate to the army, and in 1942 it became the 103rd Australian General Hospital. The children were sent to private homes.
The military made many changes to the estate to make it more suitable for the soldiers’ rehabilitation, and at one stage it had several hundred hospital beds. After a couple of years new hospital facilities were being built, so the need for the 103rd Australian General Hospital was somewhat diminished, and the school’s trustees were keen to regain the estate.
In 1946 the army handed the estate back to the Masons but the site needed a lot of cleaning up and renovating after the military occupation. A war memorial and a memorial oval were added in 1947. The school flourished for another 25 years, and at one stage housed and educated over 300 children.
William Thompson’s philanthropic dream had certainly come to fruition.
As new laws concerning children’s welfare and education were passed, establishments built on a similar model to the William Thompson Masonic School lost popularity. Group homes for children were developed and at the same time primary and secondary schools were built across the suburbs.
So, the end of another era. In 1970 the school’s infant and primary teaching sections closed, children’s numbers were declining and many of the buildings were in drastic need of repair. The estate soon ceased to function as a home and school.
The Masons funded new group homes for the children and there was a good choice of local schools. Baulkham Hills North and Baulkham Hills West (renamed Jasper Road) opened in 1967, Model Farms High School opened in 1975 and Matthew Pearce High School opened in 1982.
In 1974 the whole estate was sold to Baulkham Hills Council, although the Grand Lodge still had a few students. The council subdivided and sold some land and the remaining buildings and land became Balcombe Heights Estate.
It is great to see that the estate today is still a focal point of the community. The sporting facilities are well used and the Hills District Historical Society houses some fascinating memorabilia of bygone days; it also has a room devoted to the Mason’s first benevolent home. ❐
Balcombe Heights Estate Timeline
1918 – Sir William Thompson (Grand Master of the United Lodge of NSW) purchased the land
1922 – Sir William Thompson Masonic School opened
1942 – Became the 103rd Australian General Hospital
1947 – Site reopened as a school, war memorial and memorial oval built
1974 – Sold to Baulkham Hills Council.
The Freemasons (Masons) came to New South Wales with the British Army soon after the First Fleet in 1788, and the first Grand Lodge was formed in Sydney in 1845 with 39 brethren. Ernest Stowe was the architect for Balcombe Heights Estate, and was also the architect for the Mason’s Grand Lodge in Sydney.