Childhood and Youth
Tim Beaglehole’s A Life of J. C. Beaglehole (2006), includes an account of his historian father’s early years growing up on Hopper Street and attending Mount Cook School. This excerpt describes John and his brothers attending school and enjoying a warm extended family life. It also reflects on the political atmosphere of the times, including how Mount Cook school was taken over to house the special constables during the 1913 waterfront strike.
John was often the bearer of notes from his mother, and was remembered by the family of his cousin Amy Denton for such an occasion when he was ten. John was hanging around, eating apples but not saying much, while Amy’s mother cooked. Finally she ventured, ‘What time does your mother want you home, dear?’ She was kneeling at the oven putting in a tray of rock cakes. ‘What time do the rocks come out?’ John asked. It became a family saying. The Beaglehole boys were all said to have great appetites; none of them shared their mother’s vegetarian principles, which seem to have left them feeling hungry. Large appetites may have run in the male members of the family. A story tells of someone looking out of the window at Hopper Street during afternoon tea and suddenly crying out, ‘Hide the cake under the sofa, here comes Joe!’
The extended family moved around to one another’s houses for parties with music or charades, occasions of great jollity and youthful high spirits. Ern showed a lighter side, teasing the girls. He clearly adored them and would have liked a daughter. A young relative met him one morning, very dapper, on his way to work. ‘Whither away fair maid, whither away’, he greeted her. He ‘had some very flowery language’. In the charades Uncle Will Jackson was a star, and Alan Paterson made his mark early, portraying a reformed sinner who had taken the pledge — a live issue, as most of the older generation were strong temperance supporters. Alan also showed an early talent for drawing, a foretaste of his career as a cartoonist on the Dominion. His gifts for drawing, acting and writing were all to flourish during his later membership of the Wellington Savage Club. John went to dancing classes conducted by Miss Moore, ‘incredibly frizzed and rouged’. A cousin later recalled dancing with him ‘when Miss Moore called out: “Jack and Amy, relax your muscles”, and you muttered into my ear, “Good God, how are we supposed to do that?” and I said, “You ass, you know how to relax you muscles, don’t you?” And your memorable reply was: “Gosh, I thought the woman said bustles.”’ In the summer there were picnics at Scorching Bay, reached after a good walk from the end of the newly opened Seatoun tramline.
The boys went to Mount Cook School. John began in 1906, when he turned five; Geoffrey had already been there for three years and Keith started two years later. The school, opened in 1875 as a development of the Buckle Street Girls’ School, was run by a Mrs Wilkinson and her daughter. The Mount Cook district was something of a social mix. The homes of the better-off were on Willis Street, where Dr Bennett lived and had her rooms, and climbed the hills to the south, where the Kirkcaldie mansion at the top of Thompson Street looked down on many fine houses. On the Te Aro flat, which included Hopper Street, the houses were the much more modest dwellings of manual workers and the unemployed. The Mount Cook School grew rapidly at first, reaching a roll of 598 in 1897, before declining to 384 in 1907 and 330 in 1913. This decline followed the suburban development that was closely linked to the construction of the new electric tramway system. In 1904 the trams began running down Hopper Street, crashing and swaying within a few metres of the Beaglehole house. Surely one day, the boys hoped and feared, one would fail to take the corner into Webb Street and would hurtle into Burbidge’s greengrocery, spraying fruit and vegetables everywhere.
Mount Cook School when the Beaglehole boys were there was in three separate parts: the infants’ school (under Miss Watson) and the girls’ school in Buckle Street, the boys’ school in Taranaki Street. By this time the neighbouring Mount Cook prison had become the home of the permanent artillery (the prison having moved to The Terrace, from whence prisoners were marched through the city each morning to work in the brickworks still on the site of the old prison). This, along with the barracks and defence stores on Buckle Street, gave a military air to the area, and created interest, particularly to those at the boys’ school. This was housed in a rather forbidding Gothic building erected in 1878, which by the turn of the century was somewhat the worse for wear. School logbooks and the minute books of the school committee give glimpses of the school and its activities at this time. The drains were a long-standing problem as the original ones were open and a constant health hazard; with the site subject to flooding in the winter they also occasionally overflowed. Finally in 1907, John’s second year, the Education Board built a new toilet block. In 1913, his final year, the inspectors reported the rooms to be ‘rather dark and badly lighted … the asphalt requires renewing in places, as in wet weather pools of water settle in front of the building. The floors were fairly clean but the windows more especially those at the back of the building were very dirty and some were broken.’ The schoolwork done by the standard six pupils, however, was said to be very good.
During the waterfront strike in 1913 the school was taken over to house the special constables and was closed from 3 to 18 November, after which the rooms used by the ‘specials’ were scrubbed out and disinfected. The standard six classes, with exams imminent, spent some of that time working at Te Aro school in Willis Street. Even after the school reopened the back playground was kept until early December for police horses. On 27 and 28 November John sat the examinations for those finishing primary school. He was placed thirtieth on the Wellington district list, with 497 marks out of a possible 800 (top of the list was Doreen Mary Britland with 611 marks). This placing qualified him for a ‘Junior free place’, tenable for two years at a state secondary school. He was the only successful Mount Cook pupil that year, but his achievement was matched by his three brothers.