Sunday, 5 August 2018

The Heddon Bush School Riot of 1888

The Heddon Bush School Building and Pupils.
The old Schoolhouse is to the rear.
Taken circa 1939
[Source : "Looking Back 100 Years"]

The Heddon Bush School riot of 1888 is a story I have touched on before but considered this most unusual story worthy of some further background research in an attempt to find out more about this destructive fracas. For it would be the parents who rioted and damaged the school property and building rather than the pupils! But, as we shall read, this small country school would suffer another 'riot' and I was in fact an eye witness to the second all out fight to the death!

Our story commences on Friday the 18th February 1881 with the opening of the small Heddon Bush School in rural Central Southland. The school, being sited on a 12 acre 'glebe',  had been surveyed prior to the district being thrown open for selection under the 'Deferred Payment System' (lease to buy) only three years previous. But without doubt, one thing that mattered greatly to the new settlers was the education of their children (being a harmonious mix of both Catholic and Protestant) and they worked hard to have a school built and opened.

The opening of the school took the form of a soiree, concert and evening ball carrying on till "daylight did appear" but presumably being held in a local shed as the school itself was only a diminutive 24ft by 16ft with the public hall not built until 1897.  Still, the School Secretary, Mr JH Young; "congratulated the residents of the district on being possessed of a school, and hoped it would flourish. Many older settled districts did not possess such a fine school, and it said much for the energy of the settlers that they had succeeded in such a short time in getting a school in their midst." As the settlers had experienced "a [great] deal of trouble in getting the school" he hoped that the children would attend regularly. While a schoolhouse had not yet been built this was completed within the following 12 months. 

Heddon Bush School from the rear, showing the entrance.
The Head Teacher, Mr Samuel Jackson and Mrs Jackson
appear in this image. Taken circa 1916.
[From my own collection]

The first appointed Teacher, being from March 1881, would be Mr John Armstrong being followed by Mr John Officer. As in future years, all Teachers would be employed by the Southland Education Board but were also directly responsible to an elected School Committee formed of local settlers, generally all having children attending the school.  

The first reference to the apparently divisive Samuel ["Sam"] Rosewell Girle as Teacher at Heddon Bush is May 1882, having been appointed by the Southland Education Board, such appointments usually being renewed every twelve months. Girle would still be in residence as "Head Teacher" through 1887 but his days would now be numbered. 

George Hassing with his Wife and Daughter
outside the Heddon Bush Schoolhouse.
Taken circa 1905
[Source : "Looking Back 100 Years"]

But who was Samuel Girle? Genealogy sources confirm that he had been born in North Shields, Northumberland, England on the 8th May 1821, arriving in Tasmania on the "Boedicea" in 1836. I might add that there is no record of him as being a convict! He appears in fact to have worked here as a Teacher, would marry in 1846, but in 1850 was unfortunately forced to apply for bankruptcy. He appears to have continued teaching thereafter. The first mention of him in New Zealand is when his appointment to the Long Bush school was confirmed in 1879, and then noted as passing an elementary science examination for teachers in March 1880. 

The first hint of trouble at the Heddon Bush school would come in October 1887 with Girle being; "given three months notice of the termination of his engagement" by the Education Board. While the reason is not given one only has to look back at the School Inspector's grading marks for October 1886 so see that Heddon Bush School, at 55% of passes, rated bottom for academic achievement with, for instance, Limestone Plains at 72.3 and Riversdale as high as 76.4 This followed similar results in August 1885. 

The local community were quick to respond, with "a number of residents" petitioning the Education Board on the 4th November 1887 to have the services of their Teacher retained. The Board then referred the matter to the Heddon Bush School Committee for "an expression of their opinion".  While their reply has not been published their opinion would strongly support the Board in their original action.

Mr George Hassing with Heddon Bush School Pupils, circa 1905.
My Aunt and two Uncles appear in the front row
(from left, 3rd, 6th, and 7th).
[From my own collection]

At the Board meeting on the 6th January 1888 it was decided to adhere to their former resolution of termination. But after a deputation of residents waited on the Board asking that any decision be deferred until a new School Board had been elected in April their request was acceded to. 

At the next meeting, being held on the 3rd February 1888, the existing School Committee and represented by their Solicitor Mr Macalister, questioned the Board as to why the notice of termination of engagement had been suspended. The Board responded that; "The object was to enable the householders to give an expression of opinion on the subject".   

On the 23rd March 1888 the Board, and after taking the unusual step of going into committee, "resolved that the committee of the Heddon Bush school be informed that the Board proposed to re-appoint Mr Girle as head teacher of their school till the 31st May next [i.e. 1889]". 

No doubt feeling considerably aggrieved and effectively sidelined, the School Committee, and obviously then wishing to be rid of Mr Girle, took the highly unusual and equally divisive step of writing to the Minister of Education asking him to intervene as they had not been consulted on the Board's decision. The Minister replied that he had not the power to intervene and that, while the committee should be consulted, it was ultimately up to the Board to appoint or dismiss. Mr Girles' re-appointment was duly confirmed on the 4th May.

George Magnus Hassing
Heddon Bush Schoolteacher 1888 to 1906
[From my own collection]

But most surprising, and considering the intransigence of the Education Board, it was publicly announced in July 1888 that Mr George Magnus Hassing would "take charge of the Heddon Bush school". While published records are now silent on the matter, the memoirs of Mr Hassing give us a fascinating glimpse of what then transpired, being written in his usual lively and entertaining style. Here is an unedited copy of his report of the proceedings and the subsequent "riot";    

"My predecessor [Girle], an old and worthy gentleman, had for years, unfortunately, made but poor progress with his pupils. He was a teacher of the 'old school', and certainly ignored the new [Education] Act, hence the stagnation. The parents divided for and against retaining him, and the local feud became very bitter indeed. Finally, after a free fight at the annual householders' meeting, a committee opposed to retaining the teacher came into office.  As the [Education] Board did not immediately grant their request to remove the teacher, they turned him out of the school and locked the building.

The teacher, however, opened the school in the residence for those who wished to retain him. But one night, under cover of darkness, he made a sortie and captured the school building. When this news reached the committee they armed and rushed for the recapture. They drove out the teacher and scholars, smashed up the table, chairs, windows, and doors. The teacher, finding himself utterly defeated, thereupon left the district, and died a few years after.

Heddon Bush School Pupils, circa 1907
My Father is seated 5th from left, 2nd row from front
beside the Teacher, Miss Minnie Hanning.
[From my own collection]

Apart from the smallness of my salary as a teacher, I worked overtime till near mid-night for the first month in repairing the broken furniture, pasting up maps, putting in panes of glass etc. I saw at once that it was absolutely necessary to create peace and harmony between the opposing factions in order to make the school a success. I therefore advised them that an important public meeting would be held in the school house. In anticipation of another free fight the meeting was well attended. I then addressed those assembled, stating to them that the unchristian and suicidal policy they had followed, showed them clearly how they were ruining the chances of their children's progress as well as their own social joy, happiness and brotherly feeling. I entreated them to look upon the matter in its most serious aspect, and called upon them as good and honest men to make friends at once.

At the close of my address a wonderful reaction set in. The whole assembly stood up and shook hands most heartily, they fell upon each other's bosoms, and shed tears of joy. After that evening we had uninterrupted friendship and brotherly love among the whole community during the many years it was my privilege to live and labour among them."    

Being written in the years prior to Hassing's death in 1928 I would discount any possibility that he had embellished the story for dramatic effect. Despite being of Danish birth he simply had a wonderful mastery of the English language. Elderly residents of the district would have quickly called him out had he been telling tall tales and there were even a number of first day pupils still living who attended the 68th Anniversary celebrations in May 1949. The unusual anniversary date had in fact been chosen because of this very fact.

My Father's Badge & Decade Ribbon from the
Heddon Bush School Anniversary, May 1949.
[From my own collection] 

As to the unfortunate Samuel Girle, and then aged 67 years, he would go on to be appointed as "Temporary Head Teacher" at the new school at Longridge, Balfour in June 1888. Thereafter his name appears at various Southland schools but always on temporary appointments, the last such appointment being in 1889. By 1890 he had moved to Invercargill where he died on the 19th July 1906, aged 85 years. Descendants placed a new headstone over the family grave site in 2016.  

Even Hassing appears to give Girle a passing compliment in referring to him as "an old and worthy gentleman" and it must be remembered that half the local residents were quite happy to retain him. But retaining old teaching methods and not being readily amenable to change he had simply had his day as an effective Teacher. By comparison, Hassing successfully taught until he was 85 years of age and was much liked by pupils and parents, being not too strict but "if a pupil wanted to learn, he provided the opportunities and the benefits available from even the best of teachers" [written by George Catto, a former pupil of Hassing].

Now, as to the second Heddon Bush school "riot", this would have taken place around December 1966 and also involved a smashed table and chairs with pupils intent on hitting each other, but let me explain. The Head Teacher, Mr Warner Lamb, had gone to some trouble to go over to Otautau to purchase a quantity of soft "Pinex" wood panels to use as props for an end of year school production. Needing to undertake some other business he left the senior room boys to make these into a makeshift table and chairs. During the play, a cast member would be pushed over the table and chairs in a mock fight and they would safely collapse. It may have been a western themed play but I cannot recall for certain. But things got out of hand when temptation became too much and a few boys were whacked with pieces of pinex. Then it became a free for all and a matter of self preservation although I recall that the girls kept well out of it saying that there would be big trouble when the teacher returned.

The Newly Extended Heddon Bush School,
Taken early 1965
[William Dykes Photographic Collection]

Naturally he was furious at his precious pinex being smashed up in such a manner and all the boys, including myself, were given a stern lecture including the strap, regardless of culpability or age. This was not the only occasion where all the mixed age male pupils in this classroom were strapped and on one occasion it turned out that none of us were at fault. But nothing was said, no apologies, no complaints from parents, these were just very different times. 

Having met this same (and now far less scary) teacher again at the 125th celebrations in 2006 he was quite blown away and perhaps, I even thought, rather emotional at the academic achievements of his former pupils so perhaps such punishment had its place after all! Having said that, my Scottish born Grandfather strongly believed in the birch as a form of punishment, perhaps having been forced to submit to this in his youth. But then he was, as was his brother, both very high achievers, a Solicitor in Edinburgh and a First Class Marine Engineer. But seriously, I believe it is always a qualified and engaged teacher who has the ability to bring out the best in and inspire their pupils onto greater things in life. Both Mr Hassing and Mr Lamb undoubtedly had these attributes.

All Rights Reserved

Sources :

- Personal Family Papers and Photographs (held by the writer)
- William Dykes Photograph Collection (held by the writer)
- "Papers Past" [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
- "The Memory Log of G.M. Hassing", 1930 (from my own collection)
- "Looking Back 100 Years - Heddon Bush School 1881-1981" (from my own collection)

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