Sadness as bell tolls for school

'Big things happen in small schools'

Last updated 05:00 15/12/2012

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When Waimahaka School hosted its closing celebration it  marked the end of 111 years of history. Kimberley Crayton-Brown talks to a man whose family has had strong ties to the school for four generations.

When 6-year-old Jack Stirling started at Waimahaka School he had already missed a year because of the polio epidemic. Back then students walked several kilometres to the rural school, milk - often warm and curdled by the time the students received it - was delivered to the school daily, and misbehaving students risked getting the strap from the headmaster.

Born in 1927, Jack was the second generation of the Stirling family to attend the Southland school, built in 1901 when the town's population was steadily increasing.

Jack remembers travelling the two miles to school "by various means" during his years there.

His dairy farmer father, William - who also attended Waimahaka School along with his six siblings - took Jack and his three siblings to the rural school by horse and cart when he took the milk to the factory, and later by truck.

It took 15 to 20 minutes and the neighbour's children, part of a big family, always seemed to time their arrival out on the road about the same the Stirlings came past on the factory cart.

The school's name, Waimahaka means twin rivers in Maori, was spelled out across the bank in rocks collected from the family farm, which they would whitewash every year, Jack says.

The class was "just a room" with basic chairs and desks, the teachers used a blackboard, and the students worked with exercise books and pencils until they were old enough to use pens and inkwells.

"That was messy. There were certainly no ballpoint pens in my primary school days."

It had only been a few years before, when his brother was at the school, that students worked on slates with slate pencils.

There were two classrooms, a corridor, and a sink with one tap - cold water - and outside toilets, Jack says.

The school had a good concrete playground, but the grass area was not so good, at a low level and often very boggy. It was not ideal for playing sports and other activities, he says.

A paddock at the bottom of the hill housed the students' horses while they were at school, and later was also home to a teacher's cow.

The nearby stream was good for swimming in, but the boys had to jump in first to chase the resident eels away.

As there was no room at Waimahaka the students travelled to Wyndham by train for manual classes - the boys for woodwork and the girls for cooking - and in later years, once a bridge was built over the Mataura River, they travelled to Invercargill. One of his earliest memories from his time at the school is his first, and only, run-in with the headmaster's leather strap.

He had only just started school and an aeroplane, piloted by one of his uncles, arrived in the district. They had not seen an aeroplane before, and when it landed in a paddock near the school at lunchtime the students' curiosity got the better of them.

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"The whole school just headed across country to where this aeroplane had landed and we were late getting back to class. I was just a 6-year-old with short legs and I was last. We had to line up in the corridor with our hands out and get the strap. By the time [the headmaster] got down to wee Jack at the end it was a pretty light tap I must say."

Jack left the school in 1940 to attend Southland Technical College, but says he lived and farmed in Waimahaka for the first 76 years of his life.

In 1921, his father William bought 340 acres of land which he named Alameda.

Jack and his wife Zada took over the farm, and when they moved to Invercargill in 1998 his son Nigel and wife Karen took up the reins, and remain there today.

The closure of the school is sad for the district, Jack says, and another sign of a declining population.

When he attended the roll was fairly stable at 50 students, increasing to almost 100 during the post-war baby boom and making a new, larger school necessary in 1964.

When the school bell rang for the final time last week, only four students were enrolled.

The amalgamation of farms, smaller families and fewer families were all reasons for the decreasing population, both in the community and at the school, he says.

The majority of the farming families are now quite mature, and there is not a new generation of children coming on for some time, Jack says.

"We grew up at school and carried on in the same district afterwards . . . it was a generational thing right through."

Jack is fairly certain his twin granddaughters, Rose and Alexandra, are the only fourth generation children to attend the school.

Jack's children Nigel, the twins' father, and Helen both attended Waimahaka School.

The Stirling family have also had four generations involved in the board of trustees, with Jack's grandfather John Senior, his father William, himself, and daughter-in-law Karen, who is the current board chair, all taking up roles.

When The Southland Times visited Waimahaka School earlier this month, books and other bits and pieces of school equipment were being packed into boxes ready to be taken to other schools.

Glenham School, Tokanui School and Columba in Dunedin - the schools the four students will attend next year - will all get a share of Waimahaka's resources, and anything they do not want will be offered further afield.

A freestanding fire heats the classroom the four remaining pupils are rehearsing A Christmas Carol in.

As they run through their lines and duck off to the side of the makeshift stage for a quick costume change, the smell of mini Christmas cakes, baking in the nearby staff kitchen, drifts through the room.

On the whiteboard is the message "big things happen in small schools".

The performance on Tuesday night was the last Waimahaka Christmas concert and prizegiving to be held.

Today's community barbecue will be the last celebration held on school grounds.

The large wooden playground will be dismantled, with some of it going to Tokanui School, and other pieces going to the Fortrose foreshore.

One student points out the rugby field, where Southland Stags captain Jamie Mackintosh first started out.

The students are very proud of Whoppa, teacher Jane Craske says.

Near the vegetable patches, planted with produce that was expected to be ready before the students left, stands the school bell, which came from the Tasmania Star and was donated to the school by the Blue Star Line in 1960 and will become part of the community hall.

Principal Jenny Craig says the feeling at the school in the final week was one of sadness that the school was closing after such a long history.

Mrs Craig has been at the school for eight years, and it had a roll of 16 when she first started.

She said the school network review had had an effect on Waimahaka, with year 7 and 8 students starting at schools in Invercargill causing the initial drop in the roll, and the change from two teachers to one.

The students all said one of the things they would miss most about the school was the space - in the classrooms and the playground - and also the school camps to places like Auckland and Rotorua.

In the book A High Point of Vantage: The history of the Waimahaka, Pine Bush and Fortification districts, printed in 2001, author Marjory Smith describes the growth and decline of the Southland town's population.

In the summary she urges people to protect and support the school and community centre "which are the jewels in our crown".

"One hundred years seems like a very long time, yet in history it is really very short.

"In summary, the history of the Waimahaka district is not much different from the rest of New Zealand's rural centres.

"We arrived, we struggled, we prospered, we declined."


February 1901: Waimahaka settlers were informed the Education Board had granted them a new school. The boundaries of the school district had been decided, and from several possible sites, three acres of George Watson's Erne Hill property close to the township had been selected. Mr Watson sold the land for £4 per acre, and Colin Davis' tender of £185 to build the school was accepted.

December 1901: The one-classroom school was opened, with Miss Jessie Wilson teaching more than 25 students.

1908: A teacher's residence was built next to the school, with Duncan Campbell's tender of £350 accepted. Until then teachers had boarded with local families.

1920: A grant of £514 was made and a second classroom was built, as well as a play shed, and a washhouse and bathroom were added to the teacher's residence. Two small Tui stoves were added to the classrooms for heating.

1950s: The school was completely remodelled in the early 1950s. However, due to the increasing roll due to the post-war "baby boom", and the old school buildings "having seen better days", the decision was made to find a new school site.

December 1962: A new pool was built on the future school site for £2239, built by carpenter Newton Wills and local labour.

1963: Land was acquired from the railway and Robertson and Hawkes tender of £12,988 to build the new school was accepted.

February 1964: The new three-teacher school opened

November 1968: A new teacher's residence is built on ex-railway land near the new school at a cost of $11,119.

February 2012: The Waimahaka School board of trustees asks the Ministry of Education for voluntary closure, as the school roll reaches four students.

December 2012: The school holds a closing celebration for past and present staff and students and the community.

January 2013: The school is officially closed and the land and buildings put under the Ministry of Education surplus land disposal process.

Source: A High Point of Vantage: The history of the Waimahaka, Pine Bush and Fortification districts by Marjory Smith.

- The Southland Times


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