Early Days of Ashburton Borough School

Ashburton Borough School was opened on 19 February, 1872, and was the first Government school in Ashburton. With an initial roll of 4 pupils, the school has since grown to accommodate 350 students this year, which is Ashburton Borough School’s 150th jubilee.

The story of Ashburton Borough School began at least 4 years earlier, in 1868, when a meeting was held to consider the establishment of a school in Ashburton.

A fight for education

The men present at this special meeting included a number of early important figures; John Grigg, Robert Park, William Turton, and Anthony Thompson were in attendance, among others. Robert Park, the surveyor who laid out the streets of Ashburton, suggested that a committee be formed to investigate the possibility of a school in our town, and this was agreed upon and actioned. William Turton suggested that a subscription list be circulated to help finance the construction of a school and master’s house.

It took four years for the efforts of the committee to pay off, and they eventually persuaded the Government to open a school at Ashburton. In the interim, one or possibly two schools operated in the town, as stated by Alex Hewson in his reminiscences, Early Days in the Ashburton County, 1918: “The first school was a lean-to, near where the police barracks now stand, the first schoolmaster being Mr. May.” Dr. Scotter’s Ashburton history book also refers to a private school that a Mr. Gilbert Mayo opened in Ashburton during this time, but “his venture failed, however, because the local people decided about the same time to ask for a Government school supported by rates.”

The original Borough School, as seen in the booklet Ashburton Borough School Centennial: 18th – 21st February, 1972.

The first Borough School building measured 30ft. by 18ft. (9.1m. by 5.5m. approx.), at the corner of Tancred, Short and Park Streets, the later site of the St. Stephen’s Anglican Church Hall. When Ashburton Borough School opened, there were very few houses and formed streets in Ashburton, which itself would not be constituted a proper Borough until 1878. The school therefore, was something that people could be proud of – a contemporary report praised the schoolmaster’s house and school building as being “the best school property seen in Canterbury.”

Growth and change

Ashburton Borough School grew very fast during its first few decades. In 1873, the Lyttelton Times reported that the roll had grown to 42 pupils. By the end of 1874, the roll had more than doubled to 91. The school’s first headmaster, Mr. Joseph Ward, was praised for having a library established and for acting as unpaid librarian. Dr. Scotter wrote: “He was the first district schoolmaster, and although not a success in his profession, he deserves recognition for what he did for early Ashburton, especially as librarian and as lay reader for Anglican services held in his schoolroom.”

A new room was built in 1875 to deal with the increasing roll, which rose to 163 that year, and the teaching staff was comprised of two men and one woman. Ashburton began to develop rapidly after the railway link in 1874, and this caused the school roll to increase at an even faster rate; in 1877 there were 300 students, 412 in 1878, and 476 in 1879 (including 200 infants!)

To cope with this, two more rooms were built in 1877 and a further two were built in 1879, which gave the school six rooms total. The roll peaked in 1894 at 488 students, but then it began to drop as the Allenton side-school (est. 1877) became a separate school in 1897. A side-school was also opened at Hampstead in 1884, becoming a main school in 1886. A side-school was also established at Tinwald.

In the early 1900s, agitation began for new school buildings to be built on a new site. The old school, at this point, was criticized as being inadequate, and even a health hazard. A long struggle ensued before a new brick school was opened in 1919.

Second iteration of Ashburton Borough School, opened in 1919. Archive reference 02.1982.0507.

Memories of a bygone age

The recollections of an early pupil, Miss A. Henderson of Sumner, give us an amazing idea of what it was like to live in Ashburton, and an idea of the Borough School in the early days. Miss Henderson and her family arrived in Ashburton in April, 1876.

“Ashburton was then the terminus of the railway, and the bridge was in process of being built and the workers’ camp was on the far side. Coaches ran to Timaru and to Mount Somers. The housing problem was worse than it is now, there was not a place of any description to be had for rent – a great predicament for us, for there were eight children in our family. Still things are never so bad as they might be, and just in the nick of time a four-roomed cottage owned by the coach proprietors fell vacant and we got the loan of it for six months.”

Eventually Miss Henderson and her family secured a home of their own, and she and four of her siblings went to school: “The school to which five of us went, had then a master, an infant mistress and one pupil teacher – Mr. Joseph Ward, Miss Jessie Stewart and Egbert Mayo. I well remember the day we joined the school seeing a young man with a thick beard sitting in the ack row of the highest class. He rode in from Ashburton Forks, and a nice gentlemanly fellow he was. There were several others in their late ‘teens, and later on, after my sister and I joined the staff as pupil teachers and the bridge was completed, we had a black-bearded man well on in his twenties, who rode in from Lagmhor Station.”

“I must have worked under Mr. Ward till the end of my third year, when he retired and Mr. Alexander Stott was appointed in his place. When we completed our pupil teachers’ course my sister went to the Teachers’ Training School in Christchurch and I stayed on to take my assistant’s training under Mr. Stott, and on passing the examination in 1880 took an appointment as infant mistress at Southbridge and left Ashburton, although I was too young to hold a certificate I was only back during harvest holidays in 1882 for our family went back to Christchurch for good.”

This article draws heavily on the information found in the booklet Ashburton Borough School Centennial: 18th – 21st February, 1972.

By Connor Lysaght

Unless otherwise stated, photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc.


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