Cooks Gardens

Memories of Clifton House School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


Whanganui in the Seventies

1. Wanganui City BridgeThe decade got off to a good start with the new Wanganui City Bridge nearing completion. For years the old Town Bridge had served the city well but by the end of the sixties increasing traffic flows made it hazardous. During the opening ceremony on 14 December 1970, an RNZAF fly-over enthralled the crowd of 5,000, all standing on the bridge for the first time. Messages of congratulations came from around the world, and 19 traffic officers, aided by police and Legion of Frontiersmen, kept everything under control.

2. Jerusalem CommuneIt is March 1971 and in a commune at Hiruhārama, or Jerusalem, by the Whanganui River, are followers of the famous poet and guru James K Baxter, on the porch of one of the settlement’s old houses.

3. BaxterThe iconic image of Baxter could well have been one of the last ever taken. He died in Auckland less than a year later on 25 October 1972. His body was returned to the place he loved and his grave can be found today on a hill above the church at Jerusalem.

4. Rob Muldoon1972 was election year and the Deputy Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, came to Wanganui to campaign. He was met with strong local support and a thin line of protesters. A bomb hoax caused some alarm but was largely ignored. Later a youth was arrested and charged with misuse of a telephone. Here Mr Muldoon and the local national candidate, W G Tolhurst, are surrounded by police and well-wishers on the stairs of the Concert Chamber in the War Memorial Hall. In spite of Wanganui’s enthusiasm, success was not to go National’s way in 1972. After the election the Kirk Labour Government took the reins of power.

5. Gillian WeirIn September 1973 world-famous organist Gillian Weir was back in Wanganui to give a concert as part of a New Zealand tour. The Wanganui Chronicle wrote, “Miss Weir took up organ playing in 1957 when Christ Church needed an organist. She won a scholarship to study piano and organ at the Royal College of Music in London, and since then her rise has been meteoric …  Miss Weir said that it was nice to be back in town.”

6. Durie Hill TowerLater that year, the Durie Hill Memorial Tower was fitted with a $3,000 aluminium safety cage as a deterrent to dare-devil youngsters who got their kicks from walking around the parapet. It was also deemed an anti-suicide measure.

7. Castlecliff MoleStormy weather! In this image of 28 January 1976 a local contractor unloads hundred of tonnes of rock to hold back the sea at the mouth of the Whanganui River. The sand spit was under threat and a breach would have meant disaster for the Castlecliff port.

8. Flood in StreetsThe same storm caused flooding throughout the region. For some, though, it was business as usual. Here an Anzac Parade resident waves goodbye to his wife and children as he sets off for just another day at the office.

9. Holly LodgeAlthough unemployment was on the rise in 1976, Norman Garrett and his wife Alza were optimistic. They spent about $250,000 on expanding Holly Lodge and winery. “Imagine this as a wedding reception room”, Mr Garrett told one Chronicle reporter, pointing to the glass house. “Sparkling glass, varnished wooden crates and purple grapes and green leaves overhead.” Here Mr Garrett tests the acidity of a Holly Lodge red wine.

10. Woollen MillsIn November 1977 the Wanganui Woollen Mills installed a compact new gas boiler, seen here on the right. It replaced the old coal-fed units that dated back to the 1920s. The boiler provided steam for the dye house and the piece washing plant.  It was also used for heating and drying. By the following year national unemployment was at a peak of 23,000. But the Woollen Mills managed to keep producing.

11. Peter SnellIn August 1978 Peter Snell returned to Wanganui and the scene of his triumphal race sixteen years earlier. That historic race had attracted a crowd of 15,000, and Peter Snell did not disappoint. He broke the world record for the four minute mile, and beat the other six competitors by 5.6 seconds. This event gave Cooks Gardens and Wanganui a special place in sporting history.

12. Wanganui Stadium MuralThis magnificent mural was hoisted into place in the Wanganui Sports Stadium In August 1979. It was designed by James Kirkwood and six art students from Wanganui High helped him paint it. It provided a colourful backdrop for Wanganui’s athletes and was a reminder of the diversity of the city, with its excellence in sport, the arts and culture and heritage. 12