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The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times

Chapter V. — School Life in Dunedin

page 35

Chapter V.
School Life in Dunedin.

The family moves to Dunedin—Bell's High School days—Incidents of school life—His attachment to the school—An eloquent speech.


In the year 1863 the Auckland days came to an end. Sir Dillon Bell had business interests in Qtago, and he now decided to move to that province. In partnership with Stafford and Richmond, he took up the pastoral property in the Ida Valley which was popularly known as the "Ministerial Run." Accordingly the whole family set out from Auckland en route for Dunedin.

The first part of the journey from Auckland to Wellington was made in a coastal boat, "very small, smelly, slow and uncomfortable." After a halt in Wellington for about ten days the family re-embarked in "a still smaller, slower, and more smelly boat," and after a rough voyage reached Port Chalmers.

For the first two years or so, the family lived in a wooden cottage a little to the north of where the Dundas Street bridge over the Leith now stands. Here the boys spent happy days fishing in the Water of Leith and exploring the bush-clad hills in the vicinity. After the warmer climate of Auckland they were astonished page 36to enjoy the delights of snow-balling in their first Dunedin winter, and they experienced for the first time really hard frost.

"Starting off on the way to school we found the lane full of what we thought was 'broken glass' and ran back to tell our mother we were afraid to go on. The sheets of ice that had formed on the small puddles and ruts had been broken into fragments by some early morning milk-cart."

The two elder brothers, Francis and Alfred, went to the Boys' High School, which was rather a fine building for those early days.* It stood on the top of the Dowling Street hill, and its wide pillared portico was up till modern times a familiar sight, as after the Boys' High School was quartered in its present noble building in Arthur Street, the old building served as a Girls' High School for many years.

In 1863 the Rev. Frank Churchill Simmons, M.A. (Oxon), was the Headmaster, and his house was an annexe to the school. At the Jubilee celebrations fifty years later Bell declared that Simmons was "the greatest Rector the school ever had." The foundations laid at the Auckland Grammar School served to carry both boys into the highest form, and it was here that Bell first displayed his fine mental gifts, as he was Dux of the school for five years in succession from 1864 to 1868.

This record is unique, but cannot be repeated by any present-day pupil, as it is no longer permissible for the same boy to be Dux for more than one year.

The following interesting incident will serve to page 37illustrate that even as a school-boy Bell displayed the force of character and power of leadership that were such conspicuous features of his later life.

The Rev. Frank Simmons had to resign the headmastership owing to the publication in Scotland of a private letter in which he had wittily criticized the Anglican and Presbyterian clergy of Otago. He was succeeded by one of the Under-masters, Mr. Pope, who though an accomplished scholar failed to preserve the strict discipline of the Simmons epoch, and laxity prevailed to what was probably an unprecedented degree in a school of any repute.

"It was during this period that one of the Fifth Form boys, otherwise a good fellow enough, committed a flagrant offence against the codes of the school, and Harry, then the head of the Sixth Form, determined that such an offence was unpardonable and must be avenged as a matter of honour and that by himself as Head of the School. Quite unusual arrangements were made: it was decided by Harry that the form and place of the ordinary school fights at the back near the fives court, with only those more immediately concerned looking on, were not consistent with the gravity of the offence and the condign punishment due to it; and the fiat went round that the fight was to take place in the large school assembly room, and every boy on the lists must be present.

"When the zero hour arrived a few minutes after the end of morning school, all the boys streamed into the assembly room instead of out into the playground as usual, and formed a crowded circle round the central space. The communicating door between the assembly room and the Headmaster's house now page 38occupied by Mr. Pope, was solemnly locked by a Sixth Form boy (such a thing would be inconceivable except in that time of lax discipline): Harry emerged through one of the side doors in fighting trim, and took his place in the centre of the circle; and the offender, in similar trim, was brought in through a different side door by two Fifth Form boys and placed opposite Harry—the two combatants were fairly matched in height and weight. A few dignified sentences from Harry to the silent, watching circle of boys as to the gravity of the occasion then followed, and the word to engage was then given by the Sixth Form boy next in class order to Harry. Fists flashed and blows rained for some long-drawn-out minutes, and then the offender gave in, apologized for his sin against the school codes, and was led away by his two form mates: and Harry, declaring that the honour of the school had been cleared, retired, and the boys streamed out into the playground eagerly discussing the fight and everything connected with it. The writer of these reminiscences, at that time a Fourth Form boy, was present in the circle throughout; and in describing the occasion in his old age supposes it was probably the only one on which the Head Boy of a great school has ever felt it incumbent on himself personally to uphold its honour with his fists."

It must be considered a fortunate circumstance that Harry's physical prowess was equal to the task he set himself of vindicating the school honour; otherwise it would have been puzzling to deduce any satisfactory moral from the story.

Bell's success at school was not confined to pre-page 39eminence as a scholar. He took his share in the athletic life of the school, as he played in the cricket team, as well as being an enthusiastic officer of the Cadet Corps of which the Head Boy of the school was Captain and Bell the Lieutenant.

"When a parade had been ordered he would emerge from our house in George Street in bright scarlet tunic, red-striped trousers, and brown gaiters, with uniform, cap on head, and sword by side—a gay, martial figure that excited intense admiration and envy in the cluster of his brothers gathering round him. He took his military duties seriously, and became a very efficient officer, occasionally taking command in the absence of the Captain when parades were held, or a guard of honour set for some public function with which the High School might have some connection."

Speaking many years later when the system of cadet training was under discussion in Parliament, Bell said:

"My own memory goes back to the Cadet service of over fifty years ago, when I was trained and instructed in drill by my honourable friend, Mr. Hardy (a fellow Legislative Councillor), and I hold now, for I was never gazetted out, the oldest commission in New Zealand—Lieutenant commanding the High School Cadets in the year 1866-69, so that I can hardly be prejudiced against the Cadet system."

And he added with a touch of humour:

"May I say I have held a good many positions in my life in which my voice has commanded to a moderate extent, and I have been allowed the privilege here of having an influence—though a great deal more influence is attributed to me than I possess. page 40But I have never held a position of such absolute authority as I held when I was a Lieutenant commanding the High School Cadets as a boy of seventeen years of age."

During the first years of Bell's attendance at the High School his younger brothers were at a private school at Pelichet Bay (known as the old stone school) run by an accomplished scholar, Mr. Shaw. The historical interest of this arises from the fact that the under-master or "Usher" as he was called, was a then ungainly Shetland-Islander of about twenty years of age, named Robert Stout. He took charge of the younger boys, and superintended their games in the playing field. This was the future Sir Robert Stout, K.C.M.G., who in due course became Prime Minister, and, at a later date, Chief Justice of New Zealand. All old boys of the little school at Pelichet Bay were proud in after life of having been in their school-days under a master, who as the years went on, achieved such distinguished and eminent positions.


Meanwhile, as the family was fast growing up (it consisted of one girl and six boys), the cottage by the Water of Leith became too small. A new home was therefore acquired at the corner of London and Pitt Streets, and this soon became one of the most popular social centres in Dunedin. The whole block, which is now densely covered with houses, was occupied at that date by gardens, lawns, and native bush in which native birds abounded. For some years the school holidays were spent at the lovely seaside resort of Waikouaiti, where bathing and shooting could be enjoyed page 41under ideal conditions. Hawkesbury House was an historical old building on the edge of the bush, and this house, which no longer exists, was the summer home of the Bell's.

At a later date the family home was again moved to Shag Valley Station, which is still in the possession of Bell's nephew, Mr. Frank Bell.

Bell retained throughout his life warm and affectionate memories of his old school in Dunedin. He attended its Jubilee in 1913, and its further celebrations in 1923 and 1933. In an eloquent speech at the dedication of a Memorial Arch in 1923, Bell said:

"May we who have joined in this memorial not ask that it shall be a rule—not a task set by masters, but a greater and stronger rule of the traditions of the school—that every boy and every man who has had the privilege of being a student here, every boy who is now a student, every boy who shall be a student in the future, shall reverently bare his head when he passes whether within or without these gates, and that every lad in uniform shall salute? So there shall be a memorial by the habit and custom and tradition of the school that shall last long beyond the time of stone and brass. And there shall remain the record that each boy of the school claims a share in the proud memory of the men who were of the school to which he belonged, and who laid down their lives for the country: and we shall say—we boys of the past and of the present—that this is our memory and these are the men who did honour to us and whose names we will preserve. So from generation to generation of page 42the school there shall continue that which we have tried to begin the record of to-day, that our comrades and our school fellows served their country, laid down their lives for the country, honoured the school, and to the end we will honour them."

This simple act of reverence is still observed, and will no doubt continue, as Bell hoped, from generation to generation.

* "I was not one of the boys who answered the first roll-call at the opening of the school, but I was there before the end of the first year."—Sir Francis Bell.