In a concrete quadrangle packed with cars a posse of upset parents parted from their sons. I was among them, a 12-year-old country hick alone in the crowd.
This was St Bede’s College on check-in day, 1960. I became one of 250 boarders, one of 600 students, possibly the youngest, certainly a loner. I was there because of family problems.
The college’s 3-storeyed brick building sited north-south with wings projecting westward was a well-known feature in Christchurch. Other buildings stood behind – a grotty row comprising library, locker room, tuckshop and prefects’ room, extending to the swimming baths. Opposite, and in strong contrast, was the lovely chapel.
Next was the wooden “science block”. I attended chemistry classes there but never saw a practical experiment. Then came the new gymnasium-assembly hall, half-hidden by the east end of “Bradman’s Row”, a line of poplars equalling in number Don Bradman’s top score in cricket tests. Two new classroom blocks (one not quite finished) were next. Beyond them was “The Army Block”, a collection of surplus army huts used as classrooms.
Further back, an aromatic drain, known by all as “The Dirty Mary”, ran through the college property. Discharge from the nearby Ovaltine factory gave it a chocolate odour.
A large part of the property was a dairy and pig farm, with an old house for domestic staff. Fr Cleary, the bursar, ran the farm with a hired-hand and a few boarders with more interest in farms than in Shakespeare. Fr Cleary also ran a little shop at lunchtimes, selling pens, toothpaste etc.
St Bede’s still had a Form 2 class (Year 8) in1960. I was in that class. Most of the boys had come from convent schools. I came from a State school but somehow won the Christian Doctrine prize that year.
Secondary students were streamed according to learning ability. I was placed in Form 3A in 1961. Subject options were nil. 3A did Christian Doctrine, English, Latin, French, Mathematics and Science. In 1964 I was allowed to swap Maths and Chemistry (to Fr Bernard Vella’s relief) for History.
About 30 Marist Fathers, led by the Rector, were our teachers. Some were adequate, some not. Frs John Roberts, Kevin Maher and Gerard Gill, were wonderful English teachers. The Rector, Fr Leo Evatt, was our Maths teacher in Form 5M. He relished throwing our homework books to us with a disdainful backhand flick. We made sure the windows were open. Many a book flew to freedom. He was good teacher and spurred me to 50 marks in the School Certificate exam. The least adequate teacher (name suppressed) once thumped me violently across the head, knocking me off my chair and leaving me dazed. The priest I most admired was Fr Vince Curtain, though he never taught me.
Most of the priests coached sports teams. Rugby was compulsory, with few exceptions. The lower teams played on Thursday afternoons against other high schools. I started in the lowest of all, the Flyweight 3Bs. The following year I locked with future All Black Vance Stewart in the Bantam 2s.
1st XV rugby was the Holy Grail. I played one game with them and was reserve for the “college matches” (against major high schools) in 1965. On the morning of college matches, boarders in the 1st XV got bacon and eggs for breakfast. The rest had the usual porridge and bread. Hypocrite as I am, I felt the unfairness but accepted the treat.
I started cricket in the bottom team, Under 14Bs. We played other schools on Saturday afternoons. In our last year Bill McKay and I played in the 4thXI. We enjoyed cricket but the real motive was to get away for a few hours. As captain, I always chose to bat first. Bill and I opened, hit out and were soon dismissed. We had no coach, so were free then to have some fun. One day the sportsmaster, Fr Jack Loft, came to watch. He ignored evidence of misconduct. Good man “Lofty”!
Everyone was expected to take part in athletics. Fr John Goulter was a hyper-active coach, always dressed in a tracksuit with a stopwatch hanging from his neck – even when teaching. For competition the school was divided into Houses: Grimes, Brodie, Regnault, Dowling, Collins. I was in Grimes House and ran in its relay team most years.
Priests in officer uniforms ran School Cadets. A few ageing soldiers trained us in mortars, artillery, field radios and shooting at the rifle range. Mostly we just practised marching. “Barracks Week” was given entirely to cadet exercises. On Thursday afternoons through the year we dressed again in khaki and went through the military drills. Was war-mongering appropriate for a Catholic school? Hmmm. I enjoyed it, though I never ranked higher than Corporal.
The priests had single rooms in the main building. Each of the six over-crowded dormitories was managed by a priest – the Dormitory Master. I fell out of my top-bunk in 1960 and hit my head. Delayed concussion two hours later caused me to vomit. I was whisked to the infirmary and missed a day of school.
A priest supervised the refectory at every meal. Teams of boys were rostered to washing-up duty. An outbreak of food poisoning produced mass vomiting late one night. The sight of sick boys pushing through the retching multitudes to reach the basins was gruesome.
St Bede’s was a dedicated church school. A priest led Mass in the chapel each morning and prayers in the evening. A few miniature chapels in the main building were used by priests for their daily Mass, with boarders rostered to serve them. On Holy Days all 600 students attended midday Mass in the hall. Once a year we went on retreat. Visiting priests preached to us. Silence was ordered during breaks, while we read religious books.
Our music specialist, Fr Earl Crotty, trained a choir to sing Mass celebrating the school’s 50th anniversary in 1961. Even with me in it, the choir was good enough to be recorded and played on National Radio.
Stepping out of the school property was a mortal sin. However, the sergeant of our Mortar Platoon ordered us to raid a neighbouring orchard. Every second week we had a Free Sunday. We had to submit names and addresses of people we would visit. Boys with nowhere to go could take a bike ride in small groups.
On Show Day we could visit the Christchurch Show – strictly in school uniform! Four of us once decided to take a quick look at the Show, then sneak to the movies. But, oh the cost! Fortunately, a brass band was about to march into the showgrounds. Four uniformed lads lined up behind the band and marched militarily through the gates. The shillings saved were put to better use at a cinema.
Activities for boarders ranged from compulsory Elocution, to optional Young Farmers Club. Tuition in tennis, boxing and piano was available at cost. A popular pastime was the game of Fives. This was Squash without rackets, on concrete courts with three walls. The library’s book stock was uninviting but The Press newspaper drew a crowd to read the racing page. A couple of pals ran a bookie system, at a-shilling-a-bet.
Each Saturday night a movie was shown in the assembly hall. Once in 1960 Peter Higgins and I sneaked out in the dark for a smoke. A prefect spotted us and “sent us up” to Discipline Master, Fr Spillane. Result – four whacks each with the cane. Caning had little deterrence value. I got another set of four and several other whacks for various incidents. It was customary to exhibit the welts to fellow boarders in the showers.
So, this loner of 1960 grew to like the college. He was even made a prefect in 1965.
Author: Michael Crean