I started at Whangarei Boys High School in 1953, at the start of the third term, after having to suddenly leave my Maungaturoto school because of stress. I loved the new school (as you can see from the photo).
Because Whangarei was more than an hour’s drive from Maungaturoto, I boarded in Carruth House, which is the hostel associated with the school. In those days, the school had about 700 pupils, but most of them were town boys. Only 100 of us were boarders.
I was eleven and in form 1. The hostel didn’t normally take pupils until they were in form 3, but they made an exception for me because of the trauma I’d been through (and because dad had been to Carruth House himself, when he was a boy). So that meant that during the day I was in a class with eleven year olds, but after school I was mixing with my hostel mates who were all thirteen or older.
Now, you’d think that living in the hostel with older boys might have been a recipe for disaster, with the possibility of loneliness or bullying. But, as it turned out, I had a wonderful time at Carruth House. I can only assume that the staff did a pretty remarkable job of preparing the boys for my arrival, with the result that everyone was really kind.
I do have one unpleasant memory, though. A few days after I started at the school I woke in the morning to find that I’d wet the bed. As you can imagine, I was absolutely horrified and embarrassed. But my new friends dealt with it wonderfully, quietly helping me strip and remake the bed. No jokes and no bullying; instead I was treated kindly, like a younger brother. Even bed wetting wasn’t dealt the normal cruelty of children.
I’m still grateful for the kindness of those boys and teachers. New Zealand in the 1950s wasn’t famous for being sensitive to young boys, but everyone stepped right up to the mark on this occasion.
There was a lot to learn in my new environment.
Whangarei Boys was a single-sex school (which most secondary schools were in those days), so we didn’t often mix with girls. However, some of us still managed to see girls often enough to get a girlfriend. There was the occasional dance with Whangarei Girls High School (which was only a few hundred metres away), and we sometimes met girls on a Friday when we were allowed to go into town.
And, there was church. Our family wasn’t religious, so I’d never been to church before (apart from my neighbour Maureen Houghton’s funeral), but someone decided I would go to the Presbyterian Church. Later, when I was a hostel prefect, I would march my group of boys down to church, but then I’d just sneak off and go and see my current girlfriend. Much more fun!
There was very tight discipline in Carruth House. Most of the house masters had been in the Second World War, which had ended only eight years before. They were used to army discipline and thought that we boys would benefit from a similar regime.
“Naughty” boys were given “detention” (where you had to do jobs like cleaning up litter) or “the strap” (which involved being hit on the palm of your hands, or on your bottom, with a heavy leather strap) or “the cane” (the same thing as the strap, but using a flexible stick made of the supplejack vine). Some of the naughtier boys would boast about how often they’d been strapped by cutting one notch in their leather belt for each stroke they received. (One of the boys’ notches went all the way around his belt!!!)
The most serious punishment was “six of the best”, with a cane, in your pyjamas, in front of the assembled hostel. I only saw it happen once and I must say I found it very frightening. It scared me so much I didn’t do anything naughty for at least another day or two.
But, despite all the discipline, I still had a great time. It wasn’t that I was never naughty, but I was pretty good at not getting caught, and I just loved all the sport, and the camaraderie, and even the school classes were interesting!!!