Nelson College - a boys' eye view


There was much speculation amongst the boys when word got out in 1881 that Nelson College’s governors were considering establishing a ‘Ladies College’. “This has caused quite a flutter of excitement to thrill the manly bosoms beneath our roof,” reported the Nelsonian of October 1881. “Will the girls and boys be examined together?  Will the fair ones march out two and two with a prim governess behind?”  It was suggested that the thoughts and feelings of the boys “would soar away into those lofty and divine speculations in which the affairs of earth become a mere dream.”1

The interests and passions of College boys through the years have been captured in The Nelsonian published since August 1881.   A rugby match between Wanganui and Nelson colleges was reported in 1898 in which “Nelson played with no end of pluck and dash, keeping close on the ball and showing a most stubborn defence…..Anyhow we know what must happen to the side that at the half-way has no reserve as was soon evident when the Wanganui backs renewed the attack and added six more tries.” The score was 32 to nil.2

Boys College rugby team

A Nelson College rugby team in 1896. Maybe some of these boys played against Wanganui two years later with ‘no end of pluck and dash’. Nelson College Scriptorium.

Boys College cricket

Cricket played on the front field with the original wooden building circa 1880s. Nelson College: Images of an Era.

While mourning the destruction of the school by fire, the May 1905 Nelsonian was pleased to say that a tender had been accepted for the levelling of the college grounds and the boys were looking forward to a splendid cricket and football ground being ready for the College’s jubilee celebrations in the following year.3

About 150 boys were swept away by a new craze for radio  in 1923.  A Radio Club committee was formed to consider ways to link the school up “with the large body of experimenters who are at work in wireless telegraphy and telephony.”  A three valve de Forest radiophone was bought so the club could provide opportunities for practice and experiments.4

Boys College radio

The nationwide craze for radio swept Nelson College in 1923. They were able to connect with ‘the large body of experimenters who are at work in wireless telegraphy and telephony’ with the purchase of a radiophone. Nelson College: Images of an Era.

The Annual Sports Day on Saturday 1 December 1923, was “a fine day with a strong sea breeze to temper the heat.” The most remarkable feature of the afternoon was the brilliant high jumping of Stevens who ‘with very little apparent effort has cleared 5 ft 9 1/8 inches establishing a New Zealand Secondary Schools record…..The opinion was freely expressed that Stevens will yet rise to greater heights.” There was a small charge for afternoon tea and the 12th Regimental Band played several selections during the afternoon.5

As the 20th Century progressed food, rituals and caning occupied the minds of many boys.6

Pat Tennent (1935-1938) remembered that new boarders were initiated into a school tradition in the gym to test their fortitude. “One of the items was running the gauntlet past the older boys armed with knotted towels.”

War rationing took a new twist when one boy had the idea of screwing a cup hook under the table so he could save some butter from breakfast to put on his potatoes at dinner.  Don Taylor (1942-45) remembered that the idea caught on and before long Matron noticed that a number of cups had gone missing. It was also noticed there was a distinct odour in the dining room as some of the butter had turned rancid.

Nelson College’s caning era ran from 1856 to 1983. Don Grady (1942) recounted a time when as tough train boys he and a friend travelling on the train from Wakefield splattered each other’s faces with fountain pen ink. Bets were taken as to who would cry from the resulting caning. “Chalk marks were drawn around our shoes in the position where we had to stand and bend over and touch our toes….The head prefect climbed up a ladder in the prefects’ study to get extra height and leverage for caning. He brought the cane down with a resounding whack. I practically flew out the door, my feet hardly touching the ground…..The pain was excruciating.”

Boys College lab

Class 6A in Lab 4, 1956. Maybe this was the lab where Jim Henderson learnt about the production of coal gas. Nelson College: Images of an Era.

When John Kramer (boarder 1947-50) was at the college, juniors were only allowed cold showers, winter and summer. Sore, wet and miserable after playing a game of rugby, John decided to chance having a hot shower and was relishing the treat when the house prefect dragged him out of the shower, turned the tap to cold and pushed him back in. “No-one manhandles John Kramer, so I hit him.” He ended up naked and wet before the housemaster before ‘the most excruciating flogging I had ever had’ was administered.

However some masters were more benevolent.  Jim Henderson (1931-35) remembered that house master Mr Kirk “was a gentle figure who was loath to cane an offender’. Henderson threw a jug of water into the coke burner and Barnicoat House became enveloped in a dreadful smell. Henderson earnestly explained to Mr Kirk that he had been repeating an experiment on the production of coal gas which Kirk had recently demonstrated in the science lab. “You may go,” said Mr Kirk, a true scientist to the backbone.”

Nelson College’s purpose-built Scriptorium has papers, books, artworks  and memorabilia relating to the school’s long history and its pupils. You can visit the Scriptorium by contacting:

  • David Robertson: Museum/ Scriptorium Manager/ Archivist: 027 775-7872
  • Gina Fletcher: Nelson College Old Boys Association Liaison, 03 548-3099 ext825


Sources used in this story

  1. Nelsonian, October 1881
  2. Nelsonian, May 1898
  3. Nelsonian, May 1905
  4. Nelsonian, July1923
  5. Nelsonian, December,1923
  6. These memories have been contributed by Old Boys since 2006 and are held in the Colleges’ Scriptorium

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Further sources - Nelson College - a boys' eye view


For a full bibliography and further sources of information about Nelson College, see the story: Early Nelson College