Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 3, 2000
A Full Turn of the Wheel: from School to School
With the passage of time, many of the buildings of last century have disappeared from the central city streetscape to make way for developments of one kind or another. One building which has clung tenaciously to life through its almost 140 years existence is the rather uninspiring austere wooden structure at 321 Hardy Street. The exterior of the building has a certain old world look about it but it is, nevertheless, difficult to believe that it started its days about 1860 as the Hardy Street Girls' School, packed to bursting point with young children. Despite the name, some boy entrants also began their education there.
The resplendent and hotly debated Nelson Provincial Government Building, which was erected on Albion Square at the same time, was demolished 100 years later, much to the chagrin of many citizens (and delight of others), because the wooden structure had become uneconomic to maintain. The Courthouse now stands on the site.
Visual traces of architecture from the Provincial Government era which do remain within the precincts of Albion Square include the Engine House, (used as a morgue for victims of the Maungatapu murderers), which was built in the same style as the Government Building.
The Hardy Street Girls' School, with the Office Keeper's house at the rear, is another survivor. It was used as a school until 1896, when a larger, handsome building was opened in Shelbourne Street.
Many hundreds of children must have passed through the doors during its thirty-six years as a school The reports of the Inspector of Schools, W. C. Hodgson, were published in the Nelson Government Gazettes and make interesting reading. According to his 1869 report the school was overcrowded, with 90 children in the Preparatory Division, an infant class of girl and boys, the majority of whom were under six years of age.
The Preparatory Division had 147 pupils and Hodgson wrote: "These numbers speak for themselves. Even with ample school room it would be impossible for two teachers to do justice to so many children but, huddled together as they are now upon rows of forms, it is simply marvellous how such good order can be kept and so much good teaching can be accomplished. Another teacher and an additional room are urgently required, though it is unfortunate that any enlargement of the school buildings will trench upon the already cramped playground".
The subsequent report in 1876 condemned the overcrowding in the Preparatory Division, which now had 193 pupils! A third teacher had been appointed and was in charge of 64 children pent up in a small classroom capable of accommodating not more than 30, but numbers had increased so much that the Inspector recommended that an additional room be provided urgently. He further suggested that the best solution to the problem would be to build a school for boys adjoining the one in Bridge Street, and it seems that the authorities adopted this proposal, as the Bridge Street Boys' School opened in 1880.
After the girls moved to their new school in Shelbourne Street in 1896, the vacant building was occupied by the Nelson Central Board of Education. Known later as the Nelson Education Board, it used the building as office accommodation until about 1927. The Public Works Department, which was the next occupant, changed its name to the Ministry of Works following the Second World War, then became the Ministry of Works and Development before finally becoming a State Owned Enterprise.
If any ex pupils of the Hardy Street Girls' School were still about, they would not recognise the modernised interior. The walls have been flush panelled and a ceiling now obscures the formerly open roof timbers of arched collar beamed trusses. The internal layout has also been altered. The building was extended several times during its many years of use as office accommodation, firstly by the addition of two wings, and then the space between the wings was infilled. The Ministry of Works also made a link through to the late Dr W. Jamieson's house and surgery next door and utilised that space as well.page 64
By 1989 the wheel had turned a full circle and the building reverted to its original use as a centre for learning, under the control of the Nelson Polytechnic.
Adapted from an article by the author in the Ministry of Works and Development Journal, Works News dated October 1977. Nelson Provincial Government Gazettes are held in the Nelson Provincial Museum. Also referred to is Nelson Central School, a history, 1979, by Maurice Gee.