Clifton House School was one of the smallest schools in Whanganui. Located near the corner of Victoria Avenue and Dublin Street, it opened during World War I and remained operational for less than 20 years. The following is the edited transcript of a speech made by Nancy Hales at the 1992 reunion of Clifton House School pupils:
… I want to set the scene of my own early years when in 1918 [when] I started school in Miss Ashcroft’s little two rooms in Upper Avenue. My memory pictures a pretty blue carpet and Mrs Ashcroft playing Shall we Gather at the River for us to sing.
Suddenly all was changed. School closed and the word EPIDEMIC meant that Stewart-Karitane home opposite became an Emergency Hospital. Carts sprayed disinfectant in the streets and killed our hedge. The Bank Manager urged his staff and family to cut raw onions to good effect as more of them fell ill with this plague.
Unfortunately Miss Ashcroft, with many others, became a victim. When all possible chance of a germ reaching me had ended, I was sent to Clifton House School – no blue carpet but my old friend Shall we Gather at the River and I met at morning assembly.
We talk of Clifton House as a small school but it was not so little. In 1919 there were 60 pupils, and in 1920 there were 80 children.
Clifton House School, undated; the uniform now includes blazers
Miss Currie had opened her school during World War I in a house owned by her family who all gave her help and support. It was known as Miss Currie’s but as it grew and prospered she felt it should have a proper name so she asked her pupils for suggestions. At that time they were learning to recite a poem about Clifton College, a public school in England, and they thought Clifton would be a good name. So Clifton House it was known. Black & white check frocks for uniform, green headbands with a silver CHS badge. The checks gradually changed to grey.
Staff and Students of Clifton House School, 1925; girls wear a mix of grey and checked uniforms
As the school grew, the music mistress Miss Russell and her aunt Miss Holman lived across the road in a two-storey house complete with a turret. They arranged to board country girls from Monday to Friday. The turret became Miss Currie’s domain. So Clifton Lodge was founded and used until Miss Russell was married to Judy, Alison and Lesley Burnett’s uncle. What excitement!! The Misses Stanford then had the girls in their own home.
Again I bring a personal piece. I was no scholar – my report tells me “I was a quiet and good little pupil”. I was just so thrilled when Miss Lance announced she was taking six girls for a picnic to Castlecliff – not the tops of the form but the best behaved! Off by tram, down to the sand hills until suddenly the heavens opened and we sought refuge in a large concrete culvert lying near, where we played “I spy” and ate the goodies Miss Lance had provided. It was the nicest picnic I’ve ever been to and it comes to mind as a warm glow when people speak of the highlights of their lives.
Tram terminus at Castlecliff
Once we practised marching in patterns for hours and singing God Bless the Prince of Wales making ourselves into the rays of a rising sun – I was expecting full Royal regalia but this pleasant smiling man just waved a straw hat – (I wonder how he could have waved a crown?) and after he passed I sat down in a patch of wet tar in my new raincoat! That was one of the low points.
Civic Reception at Cook’s Gardens for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of York, 1927
Back to school. For sport, in season, there was hopscotch, skipping and a basketball ring in the gravel playground until Miss Currie had a volley board erected to improve our tennis. For most of us this meant five or six hits before the ball sailed over the fence into Miss Spillane’s garden, from where it could not be retrieved until a senior rescued the lot after school. Soon it was arranged for the school to use part of the Technical College grounds twice a week, for tennis, rounders and netball, the highlight, of course, being the netball [and] School v Fathers with the A team resplendent with green shoulder sashes over the uniform. The Fathers always lost as they forgot the rules but made amends for their sins with a huge feast afterwards.
Daily visits to Victoria Avenue School Baths provided a flurry of water wings and poles with slings on to lure the beginners into the art of swimming. The older girls progressed well with lifesaving while other swam lengths for their certificates. remember swimming the 72 lengths (a mile) for the drink of hot cocoa at the finish.
The Scarlet Pimpernel was read aloud by pupils in the queue waiting for help with their sewing from Miss Craig who had a “mean thumb” to slide down a seam to find any weaknesses. I even produce my year’s sewing (show apron). I can’t imagine how I managed to escape with it unfinished. You will all remember the panic at end of year for garments to be completed. I feel that even a few days’ work could finish this apron – just 70 years late.
The weekly gramophone sessions were held to help our Musical Appreciation but I have memories of girls asking to leave the room and returning with a mouth full of water to see how long they could keep it there. We were allowed to bring special records from home for all to enjoy. Betty Montgomerie bought Yes, we have no Bananas. Miss Currie said not a word as the record played but gradually became right[eous] with eyes aglow while we sucked in our breath in horror. Miss Currie had piercing eyes and needed nothing else for discipline – she would open the door to a noisy classroom, gaze at each child in turn, then depart leaving us all quiet mice for the session.
We all had Barnado boxes and Margaret and two friends thought up a bazaar which they ran themselves and divided the spoils into three lots to put in their own boxes. What a sensation at the box-opening party, but this success meant that the School ran a school bazaar each year afterwards for a charity.
A group of Girl Guides in uniform in the 1920s
In 1926 Lady Marjorie Dalrymple, headmistress of Woodford House, introduced Girl Guiding to a packed His Majesty’s Theatre and 25 of us became an active Clifton House Girl Guide Company, among the many formed at that time. Miss Merewether & Betty Hutton were our leaders – a good company with fun and service in a movement that still holds my interest. Our first Public Outing was to be part of the Guard of Honour to the Duke and Duchess of York while the rest of the school joined in others making the White Rose of York in the centre of Cook’s Gardens.
Formal proceedings of the visit of Duke and Duchess of York, with children in formation at Cook’s Gardens, 1927
Also in 1926 we felt we should produce our own School Magazine so Bugg Justin organised a council to raise the £60 to print it. Alas, alack! A burglar stole the money so a new programme and performance was necessary before we could manage this effort (show magazine).
The school prospered and older girls stayed or passed Proficiency, Intermediate & Public Service, indeed a few to Matriculation. I was 16 before I left for boarding school for two final years and was happy to find that I could fit so easily into the subjects and standards there.
The Depression years came with lower numbers and suddenly in 1935 Miss Currie felt it was time for a change and left for England to help Archdeacon Creed-Meredith with parish work among the less fortunate.
So ends the story of Clifton House School. I remember with gratitude my years there. The fact that so many of you have come here nearly 60 years after, to honour Miss Amy Currie and her school, is indeed a wonderful tribute.
Grace for Clifton House School Reunion 1992, from Judy Burnett (Davies)
Loving heavenly Father, we give you thanks for Miss Currie’s School, for friendships made and for happy childhood memories.
We thank you Lord for the teaching we received there, for the principles of love and service and the opening of our minds to the interest and wonder of your world.
We pray for those unable to come, especially the sick, and we remember with sadness those who have died.
We ask you to bless this day and we give thanks for this they creature of food before us now.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.