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St Peter's in the 1960's: Mark Eyre's 75th Jubilee Dinner Speech
Alumni Editor

By Alumni Editor
Published on 14/06/2011
By the time I arrived as an 11-year-old in 1967 it was a very different school than my father had experienced at the same age in 1936.  On his first day at St Peter’s the school was brand spanking new, built with the very best of fittings imported from the UK.  Even the staff had been imported.  It was state of the art with seemingly no expense spared.  Take the Chapel for example with its beautiful mahogany floor, or the magnificent organ which in today’s money would cost over $1m to replace. How extraordinary for a man to cash in his inheritance and spend it on an indulgent folly on the other side of the world.  Even winning a Lotto Superdraw today I could not imagine anyone doing a similar thing. It is not my intention to give you a history of my time at St Peter’s in the post-Broadhurst era – that has been done by the Hamilton brothers.  I highly recommend their newest book which gives a revealing account of this school and makes for fascinating reading (if Caxton Press can dig it out of the Chch rubble).  The history of St Peter’s is, I think, their sixth NZ school history – and Bruce tells me it is their last!  It has been a monumental effort but a superb result. I would like to share with you a snapshot of what it was like to be at St Peter’s in the mid-60s. 

If St Peter’s was gleaming in magnificence in 1936 it was a stark contrast in 1967.  The school was only thirty one years old (it seemed so much older to us) and it was tired.  The main block underneath the present paint scheme is a pink-coloured stucco which turned a drab colour when it rained – it absorbed moisture like blotting paper. Combining a concrete building with warm moisture-laden Waikato air the corridors became treacherous as water condensed on the walls and ran down onto the linoleum corridors.  The dormitory floors which had looked so pristine in gleaming cork in 1936 were crumbled and porous with thirty years of use.  Beds were still wire-wove and there were no curtains or heating.  The only thing that showed any individuality was your personal blanket folded at the foot of your bed.

The school was bursting at the seams with boys.  The dormitories were named by colour: Red, Orange, Blue, and Green plus Coronation and Crow’s Nest on the top floor.  There used to be a bathroom next to the Linen Room – an open room filled with baths!  In my time it was used as the choir robing room, then the baths were removed and turned into Ems dormitory.  It was for junior boys – the youngest being John Stein at just six years old.

Like the dormitories the classrooms had no curtaining but there was a single electric fan heater in each room which were ineffective for Waikato winters.  The central-heating system that had been installed in 1935 was deemed too expensive to run and had largely been removed.  The big pumice-insulated heaters were located under each of the wings of the Main block and also the Chapel.  There was little carpet in the school – the library (a favourite warm and sunny haunt) or the TV room nearest the Dining Hall.  There was also a carpet square in the Housemaster’s Study with two worn-out parallel lines which were believed to have been caused by Mr Hanna running up when administering the cane!  However there were lots and lots of lino tiles – they will still be there today hidden under the carpet – a reddish/orange on the bottom floor of the main block and green on the next floor all with a black border.

We were governed by bells and clocks.  The Master clock stood at the front door and every thirty seconds went “ge-donck” and progressed every clock in the school half a minute.  There were clocks (with roman numerals on the faces) in every classroom, dormitory, music studio, the gym, the dining hall and even one on the end of the pavilion that could be seen from anywhere on the main field - all controlled by the Master clock at the front door.  ”Ge-donck”.  We were punctual!  I am very pleased to hear that the Master clock has recently been resurrected.

We had Chapel twice every day – once before school, and then again after dinner before we went to prep.  The Chapel bell always tolled Mr Broadhurst’s age – I think it was about 77 when I was a boy.  If you were playing on the monorail, say, you started counting the dongs and could get to chapel and in your seat before the last one tolled. Remember no running or talking on the Chapel path.  It was pretty ‘high church’ with crossing ourselves, genuflecting as you found your pew, acolytes and all the trimmings save the incense.  Gerald Coney was the Chaplain.  He would tick you off in his roll book for confession.  The long typed confession list had all the misdeeds little boys might get up to.  You read aloud those things you wished to confess.  “I have used the Lord’s name in vain”, “I have not been kind to others,” or the real biggie, “I have been impure in thought, word or deed”!

The bell outside the Prep School rang relentlessly telling us when to get up, when to go to meals, when to go to school, when to go to sport, when to go to prep, and when to go to bed.  If it went at any other time it usually meant that there was a free swim.  Togs were only allowed at Swimming Sports!  In summer the day always began with a compulsory length of the pool.  We would charge down the stairs in dressing gowns and slippers, slippers would be scattered along the Red Path on top of the bank, dressing gowns flying to reveal bare bodies, fling them off to dive into the pool, dry yourself with your pool towel, and then head back up to the dorms to make beds and dress before getting checked off by your prefect.

Before each meal we had Fall-in in the Changing Room which is the present-day Staff Commonroom.  We had to line up in Houses (Light Blues and Dark Blues had evolved into Red, Blue and Green the year before) and get checked for hair, hands, fingernails and black roman sandals.  When the gong sounded outside the Dining Hall we would parade single file around the cloister into the Dining Hall in silence, stand at our places until grace had been said, then sit in silence while the meal was served by the head of the table (usually a member of staff).  Plates were passed down the table in Oliver Twist fashion.  When the meal was served we had to wait until the head of the table began eating before we could begin.  Silence was still kept until a bell was rung by the Master on Duty so in the interim we had a sign language for passing the milk or teapot or whatever.  Once you were allowed to talk instead of asking for the butter you were supposed  to ask, “Would you like the butter?” and hopefully the boy next to you would say, ”No. But may I pass you the butter?” 

A few treasures from that era remain.  Here is an excerpt from a letter I wrote home to my parents…

“We (table 1) had a caotic (sic) meal on Friday night.  I took the table as it was Mr Hanna’s half day and he takes our table.  Ewen was at one end of the table and Barclay at the other.  They built barricades of cups and then catapulted (sic) the salt and pepper to each other with their forks.  I told them both to stand up… Barclay refused to and Ewen stood up and tipped the pepper upside down and it went all over the table.  THEN… Farquhar got a spoonful of custard and shot it up the table and it went all over Fryett!!!  So since then I have toughened up!!”

Mention must be made of the meals.  Lumpy porridge, burnt porridge, dried up meat, grey mashed potato, black silverbeet – it’s all true I assure you.  At one meal we had a jug of tomato sauce to share which must have been picked up on special or watered down with vinegar or something.  It was truly awful.  When we complained to Mr Thornton, who was sitting at our table, he calmly stated, “Variety is the spice of life.”  At the end of the meal we all stood again to thank the Lord for what we had just received.

From the present Thornton Block down to the main road used to be an apple orchard leased to the Watts yet we never got fruit in the Dining Hall.  If your parents wanted to give you an orange then they had to provide one for the whole of your table (14) – sounds like communism in retrospect!  Raiding the orchard was a favourite past-time for the daring.  I remember one particular incident when I was a House Tutor in the 70s.  The Matron was Mrs Oppenheimer.  One night she said there were two very unsettled boys and thought they were probably off to raid the orchard.  I told her to let them go, and snuck down to the steps outside the Headmaster’s office with my torch.  Sure enough a short time later there was a hurried rustle as two figures dashed across the Quiet Zone.  I flicked on my torch to reveal two startled boys.  “Where are you two going?”  “To raid the orchard, Sir!”  Off to the office for two of the sandshoe then back to bed.

We were all known by our surnames only, initials being added if there was more than one with the same surname.  Our other identity was our locker number.  I was number 68.  My toilet bag hung on hook 68, clothing in the Linen Room was 68, shoes in locker 68, etc, etc.  I could probably still remember most boys’ numbers as well as their names.  There was a rumour that the lower your number the higher your IQ.  Lipscombe was number 1 and RD Barclay was number 2 so it’s probably true.  I’m sure I should have been number 2 like my Dad.  Poor brother David was number 86!  The ‘Daybugs’ numbers began, I think, at 120.

These were the olden days of three terms a year – known as Easter term, Trinity term and Christmas Term – and 12-14 weeks long.  At the beginning of each term we got a small folded calendar that fitted into your top pocket.  Listed were the permitted leave Sundays, Athletic Sports, visiting preachers and other major events including a film every second Saturday night.  We saw things like “Lassie Come Home”, “Beau Geste”, and our favourites were war movies like “The Guns of Navarone”.  After showers on a Saturday night we would line up for tuckshop and be allowed to spend 10 cents (remember 1967 was decimal currency year!).  Bars of peanut brittle or honeycomb were five cents (high value) and aniseed balls or jaffas were five for a cent (much better value and would last the whole film).  The only problem was that you were not to have any lollies left by the end of the film.  Fifty aniseed balls was a lot to get rid of!  Wrapped in our rugs we sat on the floor of the gym, Senior Division being allowed to sit on the forms.  The projector regularly broke down and we would always applaud at the end. 

Also in your calendar were the dates of when Form Orders would be published.  These happened three times a term and were simply an aggregate percentage mark of tests and assignments for each subject.  For me they were an academic incentive that I valued highly.  However for two years in Divinity I always seemed to come 6th with 68%. 

We were permitted three Sunday Leaves per term leaving after morning Chapel and having to be back to school in time for Evensong fall-in.  We didn’t even have mid-term break.  Labour Weekend would include the Athletic Sports on the Saturday, a Leave Sunday after Chapel and return in time for Evensong, and the School Fair on the Monday. Living two hours away in the north-west of the Waikato there wasn’t time to go home for the day so Leave Sundays were usually trips like a picnic to Karapiro or the Matamata Hot pools with the family.  If it wasn’t a leave Sunday you were allowed to have a picnic in the grounds with visitors.   My grandmother was a terrible driver with much engine revving and riding of the clutch.  I wouldn’t wait expectantly at The Triangle for her like the other boys but wait until someone found me and said, “Eyre, your nana’s here!”  Boys who did not get visitors would hopefully get asked to join someone else’s picnic – a bit like the current KFC picnic advertisement where the mother asks, “Who’s your friend?”  Her son shrugs his shoulders, “Dunno.”

Some of you will remember Old Boy Urqhart ma. who would occasionally turn up for a weekend with his home movies of his world trip.

If you didn’t have family coming alternatives on a Sunday were activities like ride your bike or go on Farm Leave.  The bike sheds were in Big Yard on the south side of the present Prep classrooms.   The bike racks were all numbered – yes, mine was 68!  We were permitted only to ride along the top of the bank on the Red Path, around the Quiet Zone (where the driveway to the Thornton Block goes), around the Chapel, the Dining Hall, and back to the bike sheds.  Around and around and around…  To alleviate the boredom we could change and do it clockwise, or alternatively get a dry leaf off the magnolia tree and stick it between the back wheel and mudguard for a satisfying and annoying ‘motor’ noise.

Farm Leave was popular.  You had to be in a group of at least four boys, change into PE gear, and report to the master on Duty with your names on a piece of paper which also indicated which two boys were wearing a watch.  We were free to roam the farm but hay barns were out of bounds and we were not allowed within one paddock of the river.  The kahikatea stand was popular too.  As we were not permitted to climb trees we made huts by digging ‘rooms’ in the ground, ‘borrowing’ timber or tin from the maintenance sheds to use for a roof, then cover it over with leaf litter off the trees.  Rumour has it that there is a tunnel from the Chapel to the kahikateas – I think you’ll find it was the remains one of our huts!

There were also lots of clubs to join – modelling, printing (we printed all our school letterhead on the old press), camera club, rock hounds, and canework club where we would soak the cane in the fishpond in the Fountain Courtyard before it could be used.  We had things like the monorail to play on, marbles, kites, balsawood planes, the boat pool – whatever the latest craze we filled our time with fun.  I remember getting sycamore seeds and running up the stairs to drop them from outside Crow’s Nest and racing down trying to beat the helicopter seed to the bottom.  Or at the bottom of the stairs putting your nose up against the glass case of the Spanish galleon. We would raise an arm and a leg and the reflection looked as if you were jumping – it never ceased to amuse young boys. 

I loved my time at St Peter’s and it is no wonder that I returned in 1973 to learn the organ, and then go to Teachers’ College before leaving to teach in Auckland.  When I left one of the boys said to me, “Sir, when you leave tell us which tunnel you use so we can come too!”  If we ever took the boys out to some event in Cambridge – as the bus returned into the school gates they would start the chant, “Deeper, darker, deeper, darker, deeper, darker, …). We were going back into the hole! 

The most special highlight for me was the music.  Another letter home…

“Yesterday the choir went to Southwell to sing.  There were about five choirs there all crammed into their tiny little chapel.  We were in one of the classrooms practising the psalm and anthem with Mr Wells conducting.  After two hours of that we went and found our seating in chapel, then… afternoon tea!  We had Evensong at 4pm and went home in the Rolls.  Before I forget I saw the little Upton boy!” 

These were the days before mini buses and trips to the Founders’ Theatre in Hamilton would be in staff cars – Miss Swears’ two-tone MG, Mr Mellalieu’s ex-ambulance camper-van, and Mr Thornton’s 1953 black Rolls Royce.  Caps and blazers on we were armed with our short-scores to follow the music.  Did I mention that we were called St Poofters?  I can’t imagine why!

The choir had reached its dizzying heights in 1966 under Guyon Wells.  Guyon put St Peter’s on the educational map with a superb choir and a level of excellence that was almost unbelievable.  Altos practiced each day before school upstairs in Mr Wells’ house, trebles practised at lunchtime, and we had a full combined practice during prep on Thursday evenings.  The choir toured the country, was on national television, released records, the Cambridge Summer Schools at St Peter’s are still talked about, and under his leadership the Waikato Branch of the Royal Schools of Church Music began right here at this school fifty years ago – celebrated just last month. 

I remember little of individual lessons but I clearly remember the teachers – playing marbles on Saturday mornings on the floor in Maths with Mr Davis, French with Miss Swears “taisez-vous!” or Mr Hanna’s drawings of heffalumps with bared teeth and a “grrr!” when marking your work.  When Mr Muffet marked your maths he would make you stand beside him while he firmly gripped your buttock cheek and gave you a hurtful squeeze when you made an error.  Staff were addressed formally as “Sir” or “Matron”, domestic staff were “maids” (today it seems a rather derogatory term) but Miss Swears was “Miss Swears”!

I remember the plays – I was the court usher in “Toad of Toad Hall” and an asthmatical gentleman in “Emil and the detectives” sitting in a railway carriage while the stage hands shook the carriage to simulate movement!

David Thornton was revered by us all – a true gentleman.  It was a relatively small school in those days and he was involved in every aspect of our lives – taking a sports team, singing in the choir, maintaining the pool, teaching Maths and French.  His nickname was taken from his initials – DJT which became ‘Digit’ or the more familiar ‘Dij’.  We tried to copy his beautiful handwriting or forge his signature on the blackboards.  My school reports are full of encouraging comments from him.  To David Thornton the most important endeavour is to live your life in the service of others.  It is not what you can get from life but what you can give. 

St Peter’s has shaped all of our lives, and for some of us we have helped shape others’ lives.  It was always said of St Peter’s that it had such huge potential.  From its rather grandiose beginnings in 1936 it has continued to develop and evolve through fortunate and daring decisions to become a leading school in New Zealand.  When I decided that it was time to retire from teaching I was asked what school I was going to next.  My reply?  When you have taught at the best school in the country where else could you possibly go?

I am a proud son of St Peter’s and our children have both said that there is only one school for their children when the time comes – St Peter’s, of course.