18 Nov 2015

Big centenary for a little suburb

From New Zealand Society, 3:30 pm on 18 November 2015

You only go to one centenary! - Chris Gaunt, former student, Berhampore Primary School, 1939.

The little suburb of Berhampore and Berhampore Primary School in Wellington celebrated their 100th year in a big and delightfully old fashioned way. The community decided that nothing less than a festival should take place over Labour Weekend, starting with a special open day at the school where students and teachers dressed in period costumes and played old fashioned games, followed by historic walks for the public, evening activities and much more.

There was even a book launch, a finely produced publication by members of the community that covered the last century in this dynamic and diverse little suburb in the heart of our capital city.

When the suburb's first public primary school opened it's doors to students it was on the very same site in 1915. At the school's open day, Principal Mark Potter proudly points to the brightly flowering pōhutukawa trees lining the school grounds, they were planted at the end of W.W.1. one hundred years ago by the very first pupils of the school.

Mark explains that the school and it's community have been part of many firsts in the capital city and in the country; first school to have road patrols, first purpose built open plan schools, first to have social housing blocks, first golf club to have membership for women. American W.W.2. equipment is rumored to be buried beneath the local parks too. The suburb is also home to many colourful episodes of quintessential New Zealand history.

Three historic walks through the suburb were planned over the weekend. Mark tells me he will take the walk through higher end of the suburb, Liardet end of the suburban Park where orphanages were run in the 1920's. A girls and boys home took children from poor families, sometimes without good reason.

Mark tells me that one elderly woman interviewed for the freshly launched publication Berhampore: Stories of a School and Suburb recalls having no name, just a number that she was known by as a very young child of the girls home.

One walk looks at the social housing and historic buildings, and the third walk taken by Alan Chambers looks at the history around Athletic Park and the bloody clashes between protestors and riot police during the historic Springbok Rugby Tour of 1981.

Tucked inside the school office a stall has been set up for sales of the newly launched book. It's selling better than the freshly baked scones in the staff tearoom. The two editors are trained historians and researchers and also parents at the school. Sadie Coe and Kerryn Pollock explain that the many oral history interviews conducted were a crucial part of the book that give the publication added personal depth.

Helped in on a cane, an elderly gentleman enters the office with albums tucked under his arm. He might be 84 and recovering from a hip operation but nothing was going to stop veteran Chris Gaunt from attending the open day celebrations of his primary school. He tells me he started in 1939, he's most pleased to be joining the 130 strong current role of children - and on this day he is the eldest former pupil here.

Big Centenary For A Little Suburb

Big Centenary For A Little Suburb Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Around the corner in the staffroom, Sadie introduces me to the two Petrovic sisters. They've traveled all the way from Australia to attend these centenary celebrations. Wellington born and Berhampore raised Lily and Maria were students during the early 1960's. Climbing over fences for sneaky pool swims, hair-raising, no-brake downhill go-cart races and regular fort building in the surrounding bush would have driven any school caretaker mad. Their notorious escapades were legendary in the suburb and would have made 'Dennis the Menace' proud.

Highlights for Sadie and Kerryn are the stories of the journeys - people finding a home in Berhampore. From W.W.2. to present day many refugee stories are reflected and particularly poignant for Sadie. The publication is rich with historic images taken in the 1880's and early 1900's to social documentary photographs by the renowned New Zealand photographer Peter Black, a resident of Berhampore.

The aroma of delicious Devonshire tea and fresh baked scones draw the public to the staff rooms at morning tea. I'm caught with a mouthful as I meet Brian Epsom, alumni from 1954. Brian tells me the teachers were much stricter in his day. The pupils were at risk of a good strapping or the cane if caught being naughty. Discipline has fortunately come a long way after corporal punishment Brian reminisces, but good manners are somewhat missed these days.

Linda (another former student of the late 1950's) tells us that children would always stand for adults on the trams. Back in their day the trams were an iconic symbol of Wellington city's public transport.

The open day is one great big playtime for the teachers and pupils alike. The public are encouraged to move from classroom to classroom where different fun activities are underway. Several old fashioned games are practiced by children, like their teachers, they're dressed in a variety of costumes from the decades.

I'm almost swept off my feet by children racing past. They're in fits of giggles, being chased by their teacher. Dressed in old fashioned braces and a boater hat he roars impotent threats about giving them all a good 'thrashing" for their misbehavior.

In one classroom some students huddle over a marble game. "Marbles, skipping, hopscotch and American tag are just some old fashioned games that we've explored. Parents are better than the kids." Nicky their teacher explains that she's got the students to learn the rules and to share the games with others. 

Nicky also points out the wall of "aged children" in the classroom. The aging AP has turned all her current 7 and 8 year pupils into elderly citizens.

It was a bit shocking at first, for the children to see themselves as aged.

"I told them ""You're all going to get old, wrinkly, grey and wise one day, but don't worry."" They've written beautiful things they want to leave behind. There's been lots of lovely learning doing this exercise. They have a sense that they've got a legacy. They care about what they leave behind. That's the point of a centenary really isn't it?"

Big Centenary For A Little Suburb

Big Centenary For A Little Suburb Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

The open day at the school is completed by a cake cutting ceremony in the school hall, three cakes in total making the numbers 100. Amidst loud cheers the cakes are cut by Chris Gaunt, the eldest former student on the day and the youngest and newest entrant, 5 year old Roselyn.

Sunday morning is blue skied and hot as I join Alan Chambers on the historic walk through the Luxford Street, Athletic Park part of the suburb. Berhampore was ground central for the bloodiest clashes between riot police and protestors during the 1981 Springbok Rugby Tour. It was a time when New Zealand citizens openly declared their opposition to South Africa's apartheid regime. Alan was a protestor with vivid memories of some of the tensest times of New Zealand's civilian history.

We were faced with barbed wire around our homes. 'How dare you!' we thought, it was an affront. There was one row of police and 20 rows of us. It was symbolic.

Alan recalls the Macalister Park confrontations, one of hundreds of protestors as they trampled the barbwire flat. For the duration of the game, Red Squad one side and citizens the other - before his crash helmet was split open by a police baton.

I witnessed the whole thing, it was really scary as a child.

Penny was nine at the time and recalls riot squad storming past her living room window, beating up protestors with batons. 'It was a very frightening time,' she tells me.

After the walk we're back at the school for a cup of tea. Principal Mark Potter introduces me to Marjorie (Midge Crackers) Lee. At almost 94 and the epitome of sprightly she is the eldest living alumni of the school. Midge started as a new pupil in 1927. She explains that her small stature and a popular brand of biscuits consumed at the time earned her the affectionate nickname "Midge Crackers".

The Book - Berhampore: Stories of a School and Suburb

This year Berhampore School celebrated its centenary. A group of highly qualified school parents seized the opportunity to examine the history of the suburb as a whole, and of the place of the school within this social context, in the form of a professionally produced book launched just before the centenary celebrations which took place on Labour Weekend this year.

This book drew together research from both primary and secondary sources, including oral history interviews carried out of past and present residents and local personalities. It provides a valuable resource for the community and raised the profile of this diverse suburb.

The book was published and promoted by volunteers from the community. It was created by the community for the community and has strong local support alongside research material from the WCC archives and City Libraries which provided free access to their collections.

The aim was to produce an educational and social history of the school and suburb, illuminating distinctive social patterns, events and people, placing the school within its wider community context.

The ultimate aim was to publish a professional quality book which serves as a valuable historical resource for a variety of audiences and contribute to the ongoing development of the suburb’s identity.

The team that worked on this project comprised of a group of school parents highly experienced in the fields of historical research, writing, and publishing design.


To mark the Centenary of Berhampore School and fill a gap in local historical literature which largely neglects the suburb of Berhampore. To provide the Berhampore community with a diverse and interesting account of the suburb’s history and social composition. To provide a resource for future scholars by providing a record of the history of a diverse inner city suburb of Wellington and raise money for Berhampore School.

Content and structure:

The book takes a whole-of-suburb approach rather than focusing exclusively on the school. Topics included:

  • Māori occupation of Berhampore and development of the suburb 1840-present.

  • The establishment of the school and its development over time.

  • Special characteristics of the school, including the kura kaupapa unit and its successor the Montessori unit, and its long term commitment to ESOL and special education.

  • Key people associated with the school such as writers Robin Hyde, Geoffrey de Montalk, playwright Roger Hall, and sports commentator Keith Quinn.

  • Socioeconomic and demographic analyses – changes in age structure, class, and ethnic composition in the suburb. 

  • The development of the suburb and amenities. Local shops, churches, and industries.

  • Derivation of street names.

  • Sports and recreation.

  • The impact of major events on the school and community, such as the first and second world wars, 1918 influenza epidemic, waterfront strikes, and 1981 Springbok tour protests.

  • Orphanages and social housing – Berhampore had at least two orphanages and contains a number of social housing complexes, including the Centennial Flats, the first multi-unit state flats built in New Zealand.

The publication provides for both main audiences of members of the local community past and present, and for a secondary scholarly audience by providing detail while still maintaining visual interest and readability.

The ultimate aim was to publish a professional quality book which will serve as a valuable historical resource for a variety of audiences and contribute to the ongoing development of the suburb’s identity.

Copies are available at Wellington libraries and community spaces and at the National Library.

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