Story of Dilworth - Part 2

Military precision and farming at Dilworth

Eventually, in 1908, the Trustees appointed Charles Bourne, another former Auckland Grammar and Christ’s College Headmaster, to lead the school. He lasted only one year and was replaced in 1909 by the redoubtable Colonel Arthur Plugge, who had been Deputy Headmaster at King’s College. Under Plugge, the school made great strides. He introduced rugby and cricket, established swimming and fitness, encouraged military drill and started the annual school camps. In addition to the purely physical, Plugge also encouraged academic endeavour. A giant of a man, and responsible for the introduction of corporal punishment, he could command respect from the most recalcitrant of adolescent boys.

By 1912, the eldest boys among the original entrants to the school were approaching secondary age. The school, however, continued to offer only primary education, sending boys of promise either to Auckland Grammar or to Seddon Memorial Technical College, while they continued to board at Dilworth. Even so, there was a great deal of practical education offered. The school was still in essence a small farm, able to provide its own meat, poultry, eggs, fruit, and vegetables. Boys were taught to milk cows, tend sheep and pigs, prune fruit trees and grow vegetables, and they continued to do so, up to the 1950s.

Eventually, in 1916, and in accordance with Dilworth’s initial instruction to establish a ‘technical school’, a separate farm school was established at Otara, offering advanced agricultural courses to potential farmers from Dilworth School. Known as the Dilworth Ulster Institute School of Agriculture, it was located in Otara in specially built facilities, which now form part of the Manukau Institute of Technology. Sadly, poor staffing and the urgent need to employ men in the rural sector after the First World War, ensured that the school was never a success, the trustees closing it, after just three years.

Meanwhile, on the Remuera campus, the boys both feared and respected Headmaster Plugge. He would not have gone down well in the “anti-smacking” era, using the cane extravagantly and even, on occasion, lashing out at some miscreant with his boot. As one boy of those times explained, ‘You saw Plug’s boot before you saw the man himself’. Even so, he was a sound leader, and established the English public school traditions, which endure, in one form or another, to this day. He persuaded the Trustees to build a gymnasium; the first new building, even though it was little more than a wooden barn. He also used a bit of Kiwi ingenuity, to convert the old farm reservoir into a temporary swimming bath, although it endured for almost half a century, until a new pool was built in the late 1950s.


Swimming at Dilworth

Training methods for swimming over the years tended to rely on the time-honoured, if crude, ‘sink or swim’ technique. It was the responsibility and eagerly sought-after privilege of the School Prefects, to toss the hapless juniors into the deep and murky waters of the pool. It was a case of 'save yourself!' If a boy showed no sign of coming back up to the surface, he would be fished out, given a moment to refill his lungs with air and then thrown in again. The procedure would continue, until he could manage to stay afloat unaided. When Governor-General Lord Bledisloe visited the School in 1932, he made the comment that the swimming bath was one of the noteworthy features of Dilworth. The reservoir-pool was approximately 20 feet long, 10 feet wide and six feet deep. He observed that there was no shallow end, so that boys soon come to the realisation that, just as in life itself, everyone entering the water was entirely dependent on his own efforts; the only alternative being to sink to the bottom. It was a particularly apt remark, given the emphasis at Dilworth on striving for self-reliance. Colonel Plugge’s determination to teach his boys how to swim, however barbaric the methods, paid dividends in 1911, when an un-named nine-year-old from Dilworth carried out a daring rescue during the school holidays, saving a small boy who was in danger of being drowned at Kawau Island.

Another of Plugge’s innovations was the school camp, where the entire school lived under canvas for two weeks, before the start of each year’s first term. Camps were held on Puketutu Island, at Takapuna and later, following the arrival of Headmaster Gibson, annually at Weymouth. There are many tales of what went on there, the following being an example:

The camp pecking order ordained that, at meals, prefects and senior boys were served first and what was left went to the silent majority, uncomplaining, because that was Dilworth lore and their turn to enjoy the fruits of seniority and privilege would come in a few short years. No wonder such events were perpetuated. The older boys had enormous appetites, sharpened by the vigorous physical activities, which consumed most of each camp day. The only way for juniors to avoid starvation was to have a few nibbles at the food, when it was their turn to prepare it. It was, however, a dangerous indulgence, as punishment by one’s fellows could be far worse than anything the masters might deal out.


Dilworth and WWI

At the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1914, Colonel Plugge answered the call to arms and left to command the Auckland Battalion of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He saw service in Egypt and at Gallipoli, where he was wounded – and where he is permanently commemorated by the area known to Australians and New Zealanders as ‘Plugge’s Plateau’. He returned to New Zealand after the war, not to resume his educational career, but to take up farming near Taupiri. Two Dilworth Old Boys, Eric Ancell and the Ulster import William Dunwoodie died in that devastating conflict, and their names are honoured at the School.


The Gibson years

Plugge’s successor was Noel Gibson, a young teacher at Auckland Grammar School, who had been identified by his Headmaster, James Tibbs, also a Dilworth Trustee, as the man to lead Dilworth, a task he fulfilled for the next thirty years, although not without some degree of reservation. Gibson assumed his duties in 1914, as the war in Europe escalated, and, following the death of his brother at Passchendaele, he made a number of attempts to enlist. His efforts to join the war, however, were continually thwarted by the Trustees, who would not release him and leave the school under-staffed.

In 1927 Dilworth observed the 21st anniversary of its actual opening, and suitable celebrations were held. It was also notable for the completion and opening of the Trust Board’s downtown commercial enterprise, the Dilworth Building, a modern structure, which replaced the ageing Tyrone Building and Thames Hotel, which James Dilworth had himself developed, on the corner of Queen Street and Customs Street East.

Under Gibson, the School continued to grow and expand on the Epsom site. Periodic attempts to establish a new school at Papatoetoe and then Wiri failed to get off the ground, as wars and depression depleted the Dilworth Trust Board’s resources and paralysed the nation’s economy. Apart from the introduction of ‘in-house’ secondary teaching in 1928 and the erection of yet more temporary wooden buildings on the Epsom site, no advancement towards a new school was made before the mid 1950s. The Trustees were obliged to run the school on a shoestring budget for years, and Gibson was in the unenviable position of having to implement their cost-cutting decisions. Boys, who passed through the school in those decades from 1915 to 1955, felt that the school itself was “in straitened circumstances,” as they made do with hand-me-down clothing, recycled every tiny scrap of paper, did without basic comforts and observed the visibly deteriorating state of the old, temporary buildings. The sad state of the plant was matched by harshly draconian school rules and the inordinate use of the cane, to maintain order and discipline.


Dilworth and WWII

The retrenchments of the First World War were followed by further cost-cutting during the Great Depression and again, soon after, by yet another world conflict in 1939. Most young Dilworth Old Boys answered the call to duty and served overseas; a disproportionate number never returning. At school assemblies, his powerful voice trembling with emotion and choking back the tears, Gibson would read out the latest casualty lists and the names of those killed or missing in action, many of them still well known to present boys. Like the nation itself, the school seemed to be haemorrhaging and losing the cream of its talented youth, while those boys who were yet to leave school were put to work, digging air-raid shelters and sandbagging the windows and walls of the main homestead. Wartime shortages and rationing made life difficult, but boys managed to see the funny side of things and recorded their thoughts in The Dilworthian. This is how a group of 1942 Fourth Formers suggested conserving resources:

Use goldfish H20 for fish soup. After weddings, collect up rice for pudding. Put canaries, budgies, etc., in radio for music. Always squeeze toothpaste and shaving cream out of tube by mangle, etc., etc.

A good sense of humour is essential for survival in any boarding school, and it was especially true at Dilworth during the Great Depression and the war years - especially when so many basic necessities were in short supply or completely unobtainable. The annual school magazines of those times contain lists of ‘howlers’ - inadvertently humorous blunders - perpetrated by unthinking boys in exams and class work, to both the frustration and amusement, of their teachers.


Post-WWII years

When the war came to an end in 1945, Gibson was ready for retirement, his health broken, his spirit lowered by the weight of the difficult years and the continual frustrations impeding progress towards building the promised new school. Another colonel took over from Gibson in 1946; Bill Wakelin, a wartime hero and tank regiment commander. His short tenure was marked by unusual advances in basic comforts, the fostering of debating and music and the appointment of the School’s first music master. The uniform was modernised, underwear was provided for the first time and a new school badge devised, reflecting the Irish heritage of its Founder. The badge features the Dungannon castle (now a ruin), which is also the central motif of the Royal School Dungannon coat of arms. The motto is FIRMITER ET FIDELITER (“steadfast and resolute”, a reflection of the RSD motto “Perseverando” = success comes through perseverance”). “Firmiter et fideltiter” literally means “firmly and faithfully”, more freely “strong with steadfast purpose”. But one wily old school master of the 1940s, famous for his ability with the cane, thought it should be translated as “firmly and often”.


Unmentionables and other uniform items deserve a mention

Dilworth boys never wore kilts, not even Irish ones, so there was no mystery about what lay beneath the surface. Or was there? In fact, had the Board decided on kilts as uniform dress, they would also have been obliged to provide one other vital item of apparel missing from early Dilworth wardrobes ... underwear. They were not part of Dilworth issue in those days, nor were boys permitted to wear private underpants, or, for that matter, private attire of any description, even if it might well have been considered an essential requirement of good taste and personal comfort. It was not until the late 1940s that boys were provided with underpants and permitted to wear them.

With the advantage of hindsight, and viewed from the perspective of the mores of a more caring society, it is perhaps rather too easy to be critical of the Dilworth rules, which prohibited underwear. There is no record indicating that the Trustees refused to pay for them. Nor is it clear, however, why teachers and Matrons did not demand them for boys. Perhaps they had other priorities for spending the meagre budget of those times. If the boys had been given an opportunity to rank the budgetary requirements for a given year, it is highly probable that underpants would have come a close third to better food and more lenient leave arrangements. But, of course, their opinions were never canvassed and no rebellion was ever mounted. It was not surprising that the lack of underwear was one of the first things addressed by Headmaster Wakelin. If annual labels were to be applied, 1949 might be called ‘The Year of the Briefs’. Unlike his predecessors, Wakelin was astounded to find that there was no underwear issued, and that private garments were not permitted. It was all very well for the boys to be the picture of outwardly sartorial elegance in their new uniform, when under it all there was absolutely nothing. It is quite possible that the Trustees were blissfully unaware of the deficiency, because they reacted swiftly and positively to Wakelin’s request for them to be made part of normal issue. Even so, it must be said that the new briefs were hardly that. They were baggy old men’s drawers and really gave little in the way of support for those desperately in need of it. But at least they were hygienic, even if only changed once a week, and it was a step in the right direction.

The earliest days and right through to the late 1940s could be called ‘The age of a boot,’ as boots were the only kind of footwear on issue. The age of the boots could be judged by a somewhat unusual technique, which had nothing to do with the appearance of the leather or even the state of the sole or heel. It was simply a matter of examining the tongue, upon which the School number of the (temporary) owner was indelibly stamped, with a leather punch. In accordance with Dilworth’ philosophy of conservation and thrift, long ingrained into boy and master alike, each pair of boots was passed down the generations for many years, having literally dozens of occupants, until reaching that point at which no further repairs can prevent disintegration.

Each time the boots (not always a matching pair, it must be said) were inherited by a new occupant, the previous number was erased, by methods which sometimes shredded the leather, and the new number was stamped below or beside it. When space ran out on the tongue, which often happened, the numbering continued around the top of the boot. If the array of successive numbers had been legible, they would have read like a kind of student genealogy. Sometimes a new owner would be able to identify an earlier occupant of the boots, and could boast that he was filling the large boots of X or Y, an illustrious forerunner.

Of course, such humour was lost on the boys, who had no interest whatever in the antique value of the footwear, and were only concerned to preserve a modicum of dignity and the status, which went with ownership of a brand new pair of boots. But there was an almost insuperable barrier. The boot store was called the “armoury”, because it had been used to store rifles in the days of cadet training. Teacher Gilbert Pearce presided over the armoury for thirty-seven years, and getting a new pair of boots out of him was about as easy as extracting teeth from an alligator. The only guaranteed pathway to new footwear was through appointment as an ‘armoury boy’, another desirable occupation in the complex Dilworth schoolboy hierarchy.

The Conolly years

Popular with the boys, Wakelin resigned for family health reasons in 1950, moved to the South Island and eventually became the much-respected Headmaster of Nelson College. When, in 1951, another wartime leader Brigadier John Conolly, took the reins of the School, there were finally signs that a new ‘permanent campus’ could be built. A rapidly improving economy, the gradual removal of building restrictions, and changes in the Dilworth Trust Board’s own financial fortunes enabled the Trustees to take the necessary steps to rebuild and enlarge the decaying school plant and to increase the school roll which had remained static at 134 for decades.

The first decision to be made was whether to remain on the Epsom site, or, alternatively, to establish the permanent school in South Auckland, in accordance with the first variation of the Dilworth Trust. Conolly argued for remaining in Epsom and developing the campus, which had been home to generations of Dilworth boys for, at that stage, almost half a century. Once this first decision was made, the Headmaster was sent overseas, to study trends in educational buildings, and a new architect, Milton Annabell, was hired, to drive the project.

Annabell, an eccentric genius, was inspired by the brilliant internationally acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd-Wright, and his initial sketch plans mirrored the conceptual designs of his mentor. The first new work was a redevelopment of the site - playing fields were levelled, new front and rear drives installed and new boundary walls and fences erected. This was to be followed by a new swimming pool and tennis courts.

The first new building was the Chapel, completed in 1958. It was a jewel of a building, constructed almost entirely of Hinuera Stone, and set among the very trees planted by James Dilworth a century before. Not everyone was happy about the chapel being the first new building. Many staff members strongly believed that the old wooden buildings, still used as classrooms and dormitories, were fire hazards. The Chapel was followed, firstly by a new swimming pool, and then, to the considerable relief of the staff who watched over the boys at night in their ancient wooden accommodations, two new boarding houses.

The first of the classroom blocks followed, all of them following the design concept of the chapel, with Hinuera Stone facings, inverted buttress supports and cloistered ways linking each building. The large A-frame administration building attracted a great deal of attention, with the reflected sun on its shiny new copper roof dazzling motorists on the Great South Road, before the motorway was built. A new gymnasium and changing-rooms were erected, adjacent to the swimming pool. The original Dilworth farm homestead, with its motley collection of old, wooden farm buildings and generations of temporary additions, was finally demolished in the early 1960s. Dilworth boys adapted eagerly to their new surroundings and much-enhanced facilities. For the first time in more than half a century, they could regard their school with feelings of pride, both in its appearance, as well as in the successes of its Old Boys.

Distinguished Old Boys

Indeed this was a golden age of achievement to match the splendour of the buildings. Graduates of the school were now to be found in every walk of life: in business, the professions, military and public service, farming and the trades. In the space of two decades, the school had produced a good crop of scholarship winners, its first Rhodes Scholar, its first Queen’s Counsel and its first ordained Anglican clergyman. The first Old Boy to be appointed to the Dilworth Trust Board was D.F. (Bill) Cotter in 1960, and he was eventually followed by several others. David Beattie was the first Old Boy Chairman of the Board, and, since then, Old Boys have filled the chair continually, the present incumbent being Derek Firth, a barrister and solicitor, who fronts a successful mediation and arbitration practice.

At one point, there were three Dilworth Old Boys in Parliament (Harry Lapwood, Michael Bassett and Mike Moore), all of them reaching cabinet rank and Moore enjoying a brief term as Prime Minister and, more recently, serving for a term as President of the World Trade Organisation. The appointment of Old Boy Sir David Beattie, to the post of Governor General in 1980, was the icing on the Dilworth cake and a significant boost to the School’s self image. Numerous Old Boys have gained high office in local body government and administration, while others have achieved highly on the sports field, representing their province and their country in their various codes.

Reporting on progress

In common with all schools, Dilworth reported regularly to parents on the progress and achievement of its boys. The mid-year report followed the mid-year exams, and a final report was issued at the end of the year. Marks were always entered as a percentage, and the place in class was also added. Because Dilworth had a holistic responsibility for boys, other details were included, such as height, weight and the gains made from one term to another. It was intended to demonstrate to parents that their boys were well fed and growing steadily. But boys were not always impressed with what they read. A Maori Old Boy, Ron Haira, tells the story of an exam he sat in English in the fourth form. The papers were later returned, by English teacher Gilbert (Bert to the boys) Pearce. Ron, who admits to having had some problems with the English language (although he is a fluent and elegant speaker of the language now), was somewhat dismayed to see the result given as 2%.

‘Bert sent for me a couple of days later’, says Ron, ‘and I had a sense of impending doom. He told me that none of his students had ever scored such a low mark and, in fact, the lowest he had ever given before was 10%. He then informed me that he was going to give me some free marks to make up the difference between the 2% I had earned and the 10%, which was his minimum. He had no intention of ever having such a low score on his books. But the first marks he gave me were not the ones I wanted. I was ordered into the bathroom, where I received “four of the best”. Bert’s marks were engraved painfully on my tail but, true to his word, my report card showed 10% for English and the comment “Satisfactory”.... which is what he said about everybody.’

It was only a matter of time before some creative individual came up with a new way to beat the system at Dilworth. Had it not been for an eagle-eyed master, or perhaps more likely a careless boy, this story might never have been told. It was Deputy Headmaster D.A. Gray who revealed this tale in the early 1960s, although it occurred much earlier. It transpires that a small notebook was discovered by a master, in the course of one of the odious ‘swoops', which took place periodically at Dilworth. At first glance, the master was unaware of the importance of his find, which appeared to be a boy’s prep notebook and Latin vocabulary list. However, on closer inspection, initiated because the book seemed to have been unnecessarily hidden among other belongings, it soon became apparent that it was in fact a handbook on the avoidance of punishment. The middle 20 to 30 pages contained a listing of the most common misdemeanours, each one followed by two or three ‘defences’, which could be offered in mitigation. But the crowning achievement of the excuse book author, and the feature which most startled and amused the staff, was that all the excuses appeared to have been actually tested on various masters. Beneath each excuse was the annotation ‘Works on Gray, but not on Steele’, ‘Works on Pearce and Steele, but not on Gray’, ‘Only use on Doms’, ‘Norwood knows about this one ... avoid’, and so on.

Peter Parr and Murray Wilton

When Headmaster Conolly retired in 1966, he could look back with considerable satisfaction on what had been achieved during his headmastership. All the long-serving teachers left during this period, but another stood up to replace them in the person of Bruce Owen, who joined the school in 1964 and retired 43 years later, having worked his way up to become Deputy Headmaster and Assistant Chaplain. Under Conolly’s successors, Peter Parr, from 1967 to 1978, and Murray Wilton (the first Old Boy Headmaster), from 1979 to 1997, the re-building programme was continued and completed. The new facilities added at the Epsom campus during that 30-year period included two more boarding houses, a senior hostel for Year 13 boys, a second new swimming pool, astro-turf tennis and hockey fields and a new library. The original two boarding houses were completely refurbished and the four main houses were renamed, in order to synchronise with competitive sports houses. Extensive on-site housing for resident staff was also added. The kitchen and laundry complexes were enlarged and modernised and the David Beattie Centre for music was opened.

In 1993, a separate primary department was established on its own campus, Hobson Park, the former home of Auckland Hockey, bounded on three sides by Market and Omahu Roads and the Southern motorway. This was a fitting way in which to mark the centenary of the establishment of the Dilworth Trust Board and the foundation of the School. Known today as the Junior Campus, with its own Head of Campus, it caters for 192 primary level boys from Years 5 to 8 and is self-contained, with a kitchen and full boarding facilities. In addition to these fine campus developments, during the 1990s, the School also forged a link with James Dilworth’s old school - the Royal School Dungannon. In partnership with its Headmaster Paul Hewitt, a highly successful Tutor exchange programme was launched, which, in turn, continues to foster connections between Dilworth and Ulster, in accordance with the Founders’ wishes.

Recent Years and the arrival of Donald MacLean

Today, the whole Dilworth complex is managed by Donald MacLean, who began his tenure as Principal, as he prefers to be called, in May 1997. He has seen the school roll rise to almost 600, becoming by some distance, the largest boarding school in the country, and he oversees a staff of more than 120. Since his arrival, MacLean has presided over the completion of the technology and information centres, the building of a handsome new Sports Centre and the addition of a new wing to the senior boarding hostel (Wilton House). In February 2012, a new Rural Campus was opened at Mangatawhiri. Named Te Haerenga (the journey). With its own Head of Campus and staff, it caters for just under 100 Year 9 boys, and offers a residential programme featuring outdoor pursuits, environmental studies, horticulture and the development of independence and self confidence.

There has been a broadening of the curriculum, and the School is well established as a provider of the new NCEA secondary qualifications system. In particular, there have been bold moves to embrace Maori and Polynesian culture, and in the centennial year, 2006, the Old Boys' Association made a gift of a handsome carved Maori gateway (Te Waharoa), to mark the school's Centenary. The other significant gift of the Old Boys to the School in the centenary year was a complete rebuilding of the chapel organ, originally provided by the Old Boys as a war memorial.

Dilworth continues to fulfil the requirements of the Founders, to produce young men of ambition and quality, yet, so far, no Trust Board has been bold enough to open the school doors to girls. James Dilworth’s Will, the founding document for the school and the source of its mission statement, called upon the Trustees and their managers to establish a school for boys from families experiencing straitened circumstances and provide opportunities for them to become good and useful citizens. The extraordinary attainments of so many of its sons are testimony to Dilworth School’s fulfilment of the Founders' requirements. During the past century, the School has turned out young men who have taken their places in local, as well as national and international communities, with significant numbers having distinguished themselves. James and Isabella Dilworth would have good reason to be proud of the fruit of their labours and the legacy they bequeathed to the City of Auckland and the nation.