Boarding fees were only £39 ($78) per 13 week term and, consequently, facilities were basic by today’s standard. The boys themselves did most of the caretaking, inside and out, under the supervision of the three prefects.
‘Lights out’ was 9.45pm, with no talking. Twelve juniors slept in the present Gallery Room in a dormitory of white counterpanes, bedside cabinets and verandah lockers. In my first year I joined this room of mainly Preparatory pupils, who attended the small private school of Forms I and II at the College (now years 7 and 8).
Everyone else was housed in an unusual building on the hillside behind. Unusual in that the long wall facing the sea was incomplete. It reached only half way to the overhanging eave, with the open-air gap able to be partially closed by shutters, pulled up in stormy weather. If there was wind with the rain, some moisture blew inside. Some resorted to warming their beds in winter with a tomato sauce bottle. We couldn’t boil water, so used the hot tap water instead. No wonder we called it the Fowl House. It burnt down around 1979.
Third and fourth formers (years 9 and 10) were rostered onto boiler duty after school. Prefects supervised bed-time showers for half the boys each night. Two minutes, then a compulsory plunge into a cold bath ‘to close off the pores’. Leafraking, push lawn-mowing, path sweeping and wood splitting were done each week as punishment for minor infringements of house rules. Often, when I was a prefect in 1953, there were insufficient noticed misdemeanours for this system of ‘fatigues’ to work, and the ‘goodie-goodies’ were roped in, much to their annoyance. Spring-cleaning and tasks like cutting fennel with a sickle were handled by periodic working bees.
On week days we left Fairfield by 7.30am, not returning until 6.30pm. In spring months we had to be at College by 7.15am for P.T. on the terrace. Those heavy flannel shirts were an ideal insurance if the weather changed during the day. On Saturdays and Sundays there were extra trips for lunch and tea. After football practice mid-week, and after Sunday games, there would be another trip back for a shower. In the five years, I would have made the journey over 3,000 times.
Our unfettered, unsupervised domain was the wooded hillside, where there were banana passionfruit to peel and chestnuts to roast. We physically excavated a tennis court, behind today’s Meeting Room, and constructed cycle tracks. We made homebrew from rose-hip berries and sugar smuggled from the dining room. We stored it in a deep post hole, with a decoy undrinkable bottle for the prefects closer to the surface. We built a waterproof hut looking out over Melrose, (no Melrose Terrace then), with hazardous reading platforms high up in trees. The hut had a pot-belly stove and cockpit bucket seats.
One drizzly Sunday afternoon a stray white leghorn wandered into a clearing. A group of 10 decided to make a meal of the poor creature. In recognition of his father’s occupation as a poultry inspector, Paul Goldsmith was given the honour of wringing its neck. After flexing his biceps in anticipation, he pulled so hard the neck and body parted company. The headless chook managed to fly quite a distance purely on its nerves. We found the plucked carcase did not have enough time on our smouldering campfire to make the flesh chewable, and we departed for College tea instead.
Our greatest freedom, by today’s standards, was our free range over the Nelson countryside. As long as we were back at Fairfield by 5pm, we could roam far and wide by bike and boots. Wooded Peak, Dun Mountain, The Doubles, Jenkins Hill and the Roding Dam were all popular goals. On one memorable day we made a return trip to the upper Pelorus, below Rocks Hut. We left so early that we had breakfast on the Mineral Belt beyond Third House at 7.15am, and left the river at 10.45am to beat the curfew.
Other times we cycled to Motueka on the old gravel coastal route and back by Moutere Highway. We even attempted Blenheim, but had to turn back at Renwick on our heavy, un-geared bicycles with back-pedal brakes and fat tyres. We also explored the tributary valleys of the Maitai River. Fairfield boarders were the only page 40 ones allowed to use Trafalgar Street South between Bronte and Examiner Streets, except for dancing class on Friday evening in the winter term. We walked over Day’s Track to play rugby at Tahunanui, but the beach itself was out of bounds. The Broads was the College dairy farm for the Agricultural courses.
Pocket money was the equivalent of 10 cents per week, plus five cents for church collection. We picked outdoor tomatoes for five cents a kerosene tin at Appleby, having been transported there by open truck deck. Broken biscuits were 25 cents a tin from K. M. Black’s in Bridge Street. On one occasion, a can of condensed milk being boiled to make caramel exploded in one of the huts. We took the face-burnt victim to the College sanatorium with the excuse that one of the water-heating boilers had blown back.
Every Sunday evening we had to hand in a letter home in an unsealed envelope, so that its contents could be censored before mailing! Because of travel distances, most of the boys did not return home for Easter or mid-term. Boarders from Nelson College for Girls travelled the day before the boys at term end. Surprisingly, there was no such rule after the holidays. Perhaps we were still under parental responsibility until we arrived back at school.
The House-master and his family lived on the top floor of Fairfield House. He came down at 9pm each night to say the Anglican benediction - lighten our darkness - but, apart from a Tuesday Assembly at College House, we seldom saw him at all. It was nick-named the Tin Wing, now the site of Roundhay, and was where the other half of Fell House lived then. For my first three years the House-master was A.J. (Jigger) Gray. He then left to become rector of Gisborne High School. I proofread his history of Kati Kati, An Ulster Plantation, while he was in residence. He was followed by the somewhat sarcastic Bernard (Bernie) Brown, and then the arty Norman (Norm) Banks.
Our deepest friendships were amongst those at the same form level. Social interaction above and below that layer were much less common than the norm these days. We inherited and developed our own patois, and had to make a mental effort to go back to standard English when at home on holiday. A mild form of fagging was forced on juniors by seniors, imitating an English public school. For instance we had to wash seniors’ football clothing, clean their football boots and make the prefects’ beds. Our generation decided that, when it was our turn, we would quietly drop the tradition, as we didn’t approve.
The most extreme form of the practice was caning by seniors in the College locker rooms after Sunday breakfast. One stroke on principle, and one for each mistake page 41 in reciting the College Song, giving the wrong score for the previous day’s First XV match and so on. Soon after, national press headlines about a Head Prefect being allowed to cane boys caused so much condemnation elsewhere that this unofficial caning ceased, in case it also became public knowledge. Caning by the Masters left tramlines on buttocks, visible for days afterwards during shower time.
Butter was rationed in 1949, and we had to bring our individual ration books from home. By about the 20th of each month, the pile of coupons was exhausted. For the next 10 days, all 274 boarders went without butter on their bread or toast. Kirkpatrick’s “K” jam came in half gallon tins and was spread liberally, even on slices of sausage. The total length of a year’s supply of cans appeared in the Nelson Evening Mail. The favourite was Pie-Melon, nicknamed green back by the boys.
We ate at long tables, 24 each side on forms, with a chair at each end. The chair person had 12 others to share his tiny slab of butter with. The surface was scratched into 13 segments, and woe betide any lad who did not cut down absolutely on the vertical. There was no tablecloth. The original dining room burnt down in a fat fire in the last week of one term. We ate in shifts at The Ritz in Trafalgar Street for a day or so, before being sent home early. The old gym was commandeered and converted during the holidays.
Rudimentary gas cookers were installed, and we made allowances for the circumstances, but the quality of cooking did not improve. One lunch time all the dessert was returned in silence, uneaten. The Headmaster over-reacted, imposing a three day group punishment - you couldn’t have the prisoners running the gaol. The prefects were in extra trouble for not giving warning of the obviously planned mob-rule action. The punishment was gleefully accepted, as the food standard improved overnight!
My five years at Fairfield were a wonderful experience. Its distance from the other boarders, far from being a hardship, was more than compensated for by the smaller numbers and space for unsupervised recreation in a world of our own.