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The Autobiography of a Maori

Reminiscences of Mr. Thornton

Reminiscences of Mr. Thornton

I have been told again and again that there has never been a generation of Te Aute boys like the Thornton generation. John Thornton was a remarkable man in many ways. He was a very strict disciplinarian; strict, I am sure, because he felt his responsibility to the young lives placed under his care and whose character he was expected to mould. He enforced neatness and cleanliness and, though many of the boys were very poor, he often held inspection parades at which the boys had to appear with clean boots and with every button intact. He would not tolerate haphazard work of any kind. At morning prayers, at seven o'clock, every boy had to be in his place before the arrival of Mr. Thornton and we knew it was his habit to have a cold bath regularly every morning. I have often wondered why the school woke up at six o'clock right throughout the year, for only those who have lived at Te Aute can realise how bitterly cold it is in winter. It was Mr. Thornton's intention to harden the boys and to accustom them to early rising. Every morning, he had a gang of boys working in the gardens or in the fields and every flower garden had to be well trimmed and the lawns neatly mown. My own love for neat gardens and mown page 75lawns must have been obtained from Mr. Thornton's teachings.

Mr. Thornton was a man of firm religious faith. I always enjoyed his evening talks on religion and his sermons in the village Church on Sunday evenings. I well remember the rage Mr. Thornton got into when a clergyman read the Commination Service. It was the first and only time I ever heard such a service read, so perhaps Mr. Thornton's wrath was justified. Good Friday was observed by the college only in the morning. The Venerable Archdeacon Samuel Williams and his family were also evangelical, as were their missionary forbears, so the religious atmosphere of the whole settlement was decidedly evangelical. I considered the religion I learned then sufficient, and I did not want anything external to augment it in the way of forms, ceremonies, and such.

Mr. Thornton was also an out-and-out teetotaller. This was a very important point in his character and must have had a great influence over the boys. Accustomed as they were to drunken scenes in the pas, meeting a white man, who never touched strong drink and who was the headmaster of a well-known college, must have been a wholesome lesson to them.

Mr. Thornton was a simple man in all his ways and tastes, was always plainly but neatly dressed and there was nothing of the Epicure about him. He had one aim in life and that was to conduct his life as a model to the boys under his care. He inculcated in their minds the elementary rules of health; for instance, never to sit or lie on damp ground; he also taught them never to wear damp clothes or boots, to avoid draughts, to be careful with money, and numerous other things necessary to remember. All ray life I have endeavoured to avoid lying on damp ground, and have been blest with good health, for which I think I must, to some extent, thank Mr. Thornton, He did not give us any set page 76lectures on health, but he imparted the lessons occasionally, and then, generally, out in the fields.

During my long life I have had many controversies with people on the subject, "What is the Noblest Calling or Profession?" Most people, of course, maintain that either the medical profession or the clerical profession is the noblest. I maintain that the teaching profession is the noblest and I am usually hauled over the coals, but I still maintain that view. My concrete example of the nobility of the teaching profession is Mr. Thornton. The teacher moulds the character of the child and he also moulds the body and leads the mind to appreciate the aesthetic. A doctor may repair a broken limb, a parson may mend a broken character, but the teacher moulds them both.

Mr. Thornton could never stand lounging about or putting one's hands in one's pockets. When he sent a boy to fetch something, the boy had to either run or step it out, but could not drag his feet. I often heard him ask a boy after the class had shown him its work, "Rangi, why must you always be the last." I suppose he even knew that boys might develop inferiority complexes. Constantly, in season and out of season, he watched the boys with a fatherly care and took every opportunity to teach and guide them to useful and good lives.

The boys revered Mr. Thornton and among themselves always referred to him as "Jack," as though he were one of them. In private company Mr. Thornton was jovial and entertaining and boys felt perfectly at home with him.

Before coming to New Zealand, Mr. Thornton was headmaster of a mission school in India, and his appointment to the headmastership of Te Aute College in 1876 followed his being headmaster of the Oamaru Grammar School. Owing to his failing health he resigned from the college in 1910 and died on July 4th, page 771913, at Hastings, at the age of 69 years, and he was buried at Te Ante.

When I found myself established at Te Aute, I felt elated, as though my name had already been engraved in the scroll of honour. Sir Apirana Ngata was then still a student, but in a senior class. At the college there were representatives from all the tribes in New Zealand, from the North Cape to the Bluff. Some could speak English very well, but others, like myself, could speak only in halting English.