Hampden Street School


Hampden Street School 1868 - 2009: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same  

Walking around Hampden Street School today, it is hard to imagine what it must have been like over 140 years ago. It is hard to imagine the squeals of the children as they danced around the fly-pole or get strapped by strict teachers, the scent of the hay from the neighbouring stables. Students cramped into two small classrooms, with wooden desks and ink pens as they learnt arithmetic and grammar. It is hard to imagine what Hampden Street School has been through and the lives that have been affected by this historic Nelson primary school.  

Hampden Street SchoolHampden Street School - rebuilt after 1892 fire. The Nelson Provincial MuseumClick image to enlarge

In 1867 part of the town acre ‘1038' became the proposed sight for Hampden Street School. The section was slightly more than half an acre and bought for £45. On January 27th 1868, the school opened for the start of the school year, surprising many with its roll size of 129 - 75 boys and 54 girls. To begin with, Hampden Street School was a ‘side school' to Nelson Girls Central School, which would deal with the overall administration. Looking back, we can guess that maybe this is partly the reason why today Nelson Central School and Hampden Street School are so competitive with one another.1  

Hampden Street School has been through its share of triumphs and setbacks and it fair to say that this school is a survivor. The first major event that occurred was the fire on June 20th 1892. The night before the fire was very windy and stormy. Around 4am the fire bell rang and according to the Nelson Evening Mail: "A great glare was seen in the southern part of the town, lighting up everything in the most vivid manner... before long everything was destroyed."  It was too late to save what was left of the school and only a few things could be saved. In three days time the students and teachers returned to school and relocated while the school was rebuilt.2  

In the 1920's it was questioned whether there should be mixed-sex classes at Hampden Street School, because local doctors claimed it was wrong on physiological and moral grounds. On the other hand the Education Board pointed out that elsewhere "the girls had a softening influence on the boys and that the boys tended to make the girls bolder and braver." So from then on it was never questioned again.3  

Another significant part of school life at Hampden Street School is the swimming pool that was built in 1940. At this time, during World War II, it was thought that maybe a big hole in the ground could have a better use. However, plans went ahead and some say that it was one of the most important days in the history of the school. The ‘Mail' said, "the baths were officially opened in brilliant sunshine which made the cool blue waters particularly inviting." Today the pool is a major attraction for the school and classes swim everyday in the summer and have annual swimming sport competitions. The school shares the pool with Nelson South Swimming Club.4  

The War years were hard and dark times for Hampden Street School. Many male teachers left to join the armed forces and one was tragically killed. The school prepared themselves with 15 air raid shelters, higher than Government specifications. The school helped the community by letting the Home Guard use the grounds for parades, the classrooms for ‘lecture rooms' and the armed forces use the swimming pool. The spirit at the school remained high. One teacher remembered a concert at the Theatre Royal put on by the children where they sang "Land of Hope and Glory." The school did their best to keep a strong façade.5  

Hampden Street School poolHampden Street prided itself on its swimming pool (1947) - Hampden Street School Reunion bookClick image to enlarge

Looking back, even to the 1960's and 1970's, the school has changed greatly. Alan Norrish was a pupil at the school between 1962 and 1966 and recalls how strict the teachers were "We would sit on the mat like statues." He remembers on his first day of school being dragged into a room, having to strip of his clothes for a full body examination by a nurse, like all new students as they arrived. This is something that would definitely not be done today. Another memory of his is ‘Superballs' which he said to be the "latest greatest thing that were constantly flying around the place." Most of all Alan Norrish remembers the military like order from his day that seems to have disappeared.6  

There has been a big change in the classroom environment with a more diverse bunch of students in the class. In 1970 you would be unlucky if you had one child with a behaviour problem in your class. Today around 4-6 is considered normal. Jim Lawrence, a teacher between 1973 and 1996 says that the teachers' jobs became easier over time because they were given more time and assistance, whereas when he taught, he went to night classes, would coach teams, had library duty all on top of teaching. Class sizes have changed a lot. There were around 39 students in a senior class until the late 1980's and, with more people immigrating, there were more children of different nationalities at the school. Mr Lawrence described this as being "brilliant," as it gave students the opportunity to learn about and accept other cultures and ethnicities. It was rare to have a foreigner in the class, so a fuss was made of them.7  

When Jenny Earle became Principal in 1990, she made her own changes to the school. The hall was built, but the major effects were the social changes. Before the hall was built students had to sit on the hard, hot concrete outside with seagulls swooping down on them. Now with the school hall the whole school can be together under one roof and it creates an atmosphere of teamwork and togetherness. Mrs Earle started up the Student Council for students of all year levels to get together so they could have a say about what was happening in their school. The school culture gradually got richer.8  

The Sunley Memorial Prize was a tradition that was around for over half a century. The prize was in memory of the first female principal of the school, Miss Sunley who died in 1910 and was awarded to the best all round boy and girl at the school. Robin Cook, principal from 1975 to 1990 stopped this tradition. He said "How do you pick the best boy and the best girl in the school?" His decision wasn't received well by the organisers of the Reunion, but it brought the conflict and problems between parents, teachers and students to a halt.9  

If you asked a student one thing that they remembered from Hampden Street School, almost all of them would mention marble season. Marble season is a week long annual event that the students love and teachers hate. Alan Norrish remembers it being a really big week "It was huge...everywhere!"10  It causes a huge amount of drama every year and Robin Cook recalls saying to the children "Don't go grizzling to me or your teachers if you lose your marbles." It is chaotic and crazy but it is something that forever remains a memory of Hampden Street School.  

A tradition in its own is the way that the school brings the community together. Garden Days, Galas and quiz evenings mix the community and get people onto the grounds who wouldn't normally be there, and the hall is used for numerous community events such as dance and yoga lessons, holiday programmes and even recently a Pacific Island wedding. The school is always generous in letting the grounds and buildings be used. This gives an atmosphere of togetherness and helping one another.  

When I asked Robin Cook, Jenny Earle and Jim Lawrence what their fondest memory was of Hampden Street School, they all answered with the same thing - watching the children make a breakthrough. Whether it is academically, socially or sporting, the memories that stick most are those of faces glowing with success. The journey of Hampden Street School is a lot like this, at times a lot of struggle but consistently the school pulls through. History has watched the school do this, just as the teachers have witnessed the students' successes. As I have discovered, although the school has changed in countless areas, the focus remains the same.

Jasmine Doris, Nelson College for Girls, 2009.

Updated: April 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Hampden Street School Nelson Reunion (1980) Nelson, N.Z.: Reunion Organising Committee, p. 7
  2. Hampden Street School burned (1892, June 20) The Nelson Evening Mail, p.2
  3. Blincoe J. (1993) Speech Notes at Hampden Sreet School 125th Reunion
  4. Hampden Street School Nelson Reunion, pp.40-41 
  5. Hampden Street School Nelson Reunion, pp. 44-45 
  6. Norrish, Alan (2009) pers.comm. 
  7. Lawrence, Jim (2009) pers.comm.
  8. Earle, Jenny (2009) pers.comm
  9. Cook, Robin (2009) pers.comm
  10. Norrish, Alan

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  • Interesting to read about HSS. I attended 1939-46. My younger brother John took all of one Saturday morning to swim two miles in the pool! I could barely manage 2 lengths. Sadly John passed away in Australia last month. I am well retired after 40 years of teaching. Mr Alf Price was Headmaster during my time there. Good memories. Terry Leahy

    Posted by Terry Leahy, 30/12/2016 7:29pm (7 years ago)

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Further sources - Hampden Street School


  • Gee, M. (1978) Nelson Central School: a history Nelson [N.Z.] : Nelson Central School Centennial Committee
  • Hampden Street School Nelson Reunion (1980) Nelson, N.Z.: Reunion Organising Committee Street, I.E. (1932) 
  • The history of education in Nelson Province 1842-1877 [thesis] Christchurch, N.Z.: Canterbury University College



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