Continuity and change, Simon Murfitt

Above the City: A History of Otago Boys’ High School 1863-2013
Rory Sweetman
Otago Boys’ High School Foundation, $75.00,
ISBN 9780473247720

It was with some trepidation that I approached this book. It is a weighty hard-cover history, running to 440 pages, about Otago Boys’ High, a school I have no connection with. The cover photo is attractive, a watercolour of the grand school buildings overlooking the city, yet the photos inside are, as you’d expect, mostly a collection of black and white shots of staff, rectors, buildings, old boys and cadets. The book remained on my bedside locker for some months.

I revisited Above the City recently and, to my surprise, found I was drawn easily into the narrative of the school’s beginnings, struggles and progression. Sweetman has structured the history around the rectors (headmasters) of the school and begins the school’s life with the first rector, Thomas Campbell. From Campbell’s establishment of the school in 1863, Otago Boys’ High has now passed the 150-year mark. What is apparent over this time is that the school has had two recurring themes: continuity and change.

A desire for continuity was evident from the beginning. The school’s founders, mostly Scottish Presbyterian immigrants, modelled the architecture of the initial building (described as “Roman Doric” or “Grecian”) on Edinburgh High School. Change, however, was also almost immediately upon the school: Campbell and his family were trapped on board the Pride of the Yarra when it collided with a paddle steamer and sank. A public day of mourning was called, and about 2000 people lined the streets to farewell the victims. Another rector, “from the home country” and educated at Rugby and Oxford, was appointed shortly afterwards. Order was restored, but more change and challenges were often in the air for the school over the next 20 years. As Sweetman notes of the subsequent rectors, “two were forced to resign amidst controversy; one was driven to his death by hostile criticism; another went insane.” These dramatic events and Sweetman’s ability to recreate the school’s story make for compelling reading.

In his coverage of the school’s first 100 years, Sweetman weaves together an interesting dual history of Otago Boys’ High and Dunedin. He covers the gold rush, the flu epidemic, the wars, the fluctuation of the school roll, the vocal critics of the school and the halting development of the buildings and grounds. The foundations of the school’s traditions, too, were laid during this time. The most obvious was the impressive old gothic tower overlooking the city and symbolic of the school’s importance in the town. The vital role of sport was embedded in school life, through sports day, inter-school rugby contests (the longest continuous one in New Zealand is played against Christ’s College), cricket, gymnastics, acrobatics and drill. The inspirational master “Jock” Hanna even cycled from Dunedin to Christchurch and back in 1884. The important connection with old boys through the school magazine was established. This was significant during the Boer War and the World Wars when the magazine was a connection with home for the soldiers. Dunedin’s and the school’s responses to these wars, the Exhibition in 1925, the flu epidemic and the depression in the 1930s were closely linked.

It is intriguing that many of the issues faced by the school over the years are still evident in education today. In the 1860s, there were already concerns about the lowering of academic standards and the need to improve examination results, also the desire to broaden the curriculum. A conflict between the status quo of teaching the classics and those who advocated more practical/vocational subjects, such as science and bookkeeping, continued over the years. This conflict reflected a wish by some to include boys from all groups of society and to avoid elitism. Night classes for working-class boys were established, yet the cost of attending the school was a barrier for many. Things change, yet remain the same, it seems, in education.

A similar pattern is evident with the school’s buildings and grounds. The early rectors, especially Hawthorne, fought hard to improve the buildings of the school. Leaky buildings, something faced by many schools around New Zealand today, needed ongoing attention. The cost of earthquake-proofing, again a current problem in education, confronted the school in the 1930s, 60s and 70s. A long-standing challenge for the school was to obtain adequate fields and other buildings. (The neighbouring asylum eventually made way for more school buildings.) The boarding house’s history is interesting in itself, while the ownership and condition of Littlebourne, an important playing field, required constant attention from the rectors. A highlight for one old boy, a friend of mine, was the trip to the mountain hut, Mount Aspiring Lodge, land donated by another former pupil of Otago Boys’ High. My friend’s memory echoes that of another old boy who described it as “the best week we ever had at school”.

The importance of the school’s old boys and staff are a constant. On one level, the old boys have been vital in providing extra funding for the school. They have also influenced the politics of school financing at a local and national level, especially prior to “Tomorrow’s Schools”. On another level, masters and old boys have provided a sense of tradition and are part of the school’s narrative. I enjoyed the nicknames of various masters: Piggy, Barmy, Popeye, Pussy, Blobs, Pig Dog, Grub and Queenie. Notable old boys include Air Vice Marshall Keith Park and mathematician and WWI survivor Alexander “Swotty” Aitken. (Aitken’s violin went with him from Gallipoli to the Somme and is brought out and played every ANZAC Day.) I was surprised, though, that other well-known old boys are only mentioned in passing or not at all. Poet and sportsman Brian Turner is referred to more as a source of information than in his own right, while his world-famous cricketing brother Glenn is absent altogether. As you would expect, some recollections are not entirely rosy. A lack of inclusion and a stifling, bullying sporting environment were the reality for many boys. Colin McCahon couldn’t wait to leave. Sweetman’s “warts and all” approach adds interest to the story, and authenticity.

The same friend, knowing I was reviewing the school’s history, asked whether there is discussion of a sexual dalliance by one rector from his time (“Randy Rector meets Princess Di” read the headline in Truth). There is, indeed, and in fact past rectors shape the structure of the book. This works for the most part, as Sweetman creates an engaging narrative for each time period. Where it does not work is in the final two chapters, written by the two most recent rectors. This is perhaps understandable, as they are educational leaders, not writers; however, it is a shame that the book ends with what reads a little like a headmaster’s report on the year. It is a relief, though, to read in these final two chapters that the school’s leaders and staff have changed with the times. There are now important roles for female staff, and the untouchable authority and power of the rector’s role has transformed to a more co-operative, less autocratic model. This will be a good news to many old boys, I suspect.

Above the City will appeal to old boys, Otago-ites, educationalists, those interested in the history of New Zealand and, perhaps surprisingly, to the general reader. Sweetman has created a school history with links to New Zealand history and a story peopled with talented, flawed and driven characters. Once I started, I read it within a couple of days.


Simon Murfitt teaches at Havelock North High School.

Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category