canterbury’s own lifestyle magazine / a great local read

Dr Bruce Harding sits in his natural habitat. A historian and literary scholar, he is surrounded by mementoes and treasures: artworks, photographic portraits, cartoons, sketches, books, and letters.
It’s a colourful and characterful office; much like Dr Harding himself. As curator-archivist of Christchurch Boys’ High School, Dr Harding says he is privileged to preside over the school’s history collection. Not only is it important for the school, it represents a significant part of Canterbury’s history. ‘I am very grateful to headmaster Nic Hill for giving me the opportunity to take up a new role as part-time reliever and part-time archivist. It’s very interesting at this point,’ says Dr Harding.

The recipient of an inaugural UK Rhodes Trust ‘Inspirational Educator Award’ in 2016, he adds that it makes a nice counterpoint to battling ‘bureaucratic elites in Wellington to halt a Kiwi march to educational mediocrity’. His office is part of the historic restored Deans farm buildings, which date back to the 1880s. The Deans used the brick buildings for stables, a piggery, and a blacksmith’s forge. The family sold the buildings to Christchurch Boys’ High School in 1928. The school used them for a woodwork workshop, bicycle sheds, artillery shelter, swimmers’ dressing room (the old cattle pen became the swimming pool), a boxing gym, kayak shack, and radio club (‘the radio shack’).

The earthquakes of 2010–11 severely damaged the buildings. Two were demolished, and the remaining two brick barrelvaulted buildings were painstakingly restored in consultation with Heritage New Zealand, from 2016–18. One building is now the uniform shop, and the other building houses the Old Boys’ Museum, a meeting room, and Dr Harding’s office (formerly the Deans’ farm dairy). Dr Harding sees himself as custodian of the rohe, the heritage area of the school.

‘What interests me there in terms of custodianship is the early history of the Deans Estate. Also the fact that this area was a Kai Tahu food-gathering area, Te Mahika Kai, for birds and fish.’ Having started as a master at Boys’ High in 1985, Dr Harding has watched as successive waves of change have impacted New Zealand’s educational system, but his role and academic background also give him a rare historical lens that lets him explore further back. Bruce Harding was born in Timaru. His father, Ed, had served with RNZAF ground crews around the Pacific during World War II. Once demobbed, his father (an irrigation engineer) sold agricultural machinery around the South Island, and later created his own company specialising in farm and golf course irrigation and equipment, and he also travelled to America and Europe on business. His mother, Thelma Vincent, hailed from South Canterbury, and Bruce recalls a safe ‘classic Kiwi childhood’ with rich education provision at all levels in the era before fees and user-pays. He did a BA and MA at the University of Canterbury in English, the social sciences, law and history. He wanted to be a journalist, but instead was encouraged to do a doctorate as a precursor to a career in education policy.

His thesis at Otago University was entitled ‘Lawless Lands’ and involved a comprehensive, comparative study of Australasian literature and literary history. Then followed secondary teaching. ‘I desperately wanted to be a curriculum planner, and headmaster Ian Leggat generously introduced me to Dr C.E. Beeby, who became a role model for my intended career. Leggat was a noted, nationally respected education leader, curriculum thinker and school reformer, and so I planned brief service in the classroom under his reign, then a run up to the Curriculum Development Unit at the former Department of Education. But then The Picot Report and Tomorrow’s Schools precipitated Ian’s early retirement and ruined my career plan totally!’

Dr Harding doesn’t hold back in blasting these reforms. ‘I was totally stymied by the neo-liberal revolution and its inane reforms. Tragically, so were many of our students, which is far more important.’

He recalls Prime Minister David Lange, who had just taken the role as Education Minister, visiting Boys’ High late in 1987. ‘I asked him for his vision for the reforms. He told me he wanted to fit the educational bureaucracy inside a McDonald’s Restaurant! Lange was captured by his advisers and by the Treasury boffins, and the rest, alas, was history we are still unpacking.’

Dr Harding’s research has shown that many of the headmasters, masters, and old boys who passed through the school’s doors made an impact. He laments that its very scholarly founding leader, Thomas Miller, left in 1884 after just three years of frustration with his governing board.

Charles Bevan Brown served 37 years as headmaster, from 1884 until 1921. ‘Brown stayed in the school and wouldn’t leave it, and thought it was his life’s work. He was a funny little Cornishman who whipped up World War I frenzy beyond the norm. A decent, nice, intelligent little Anglican man, a moral idealist in some respects, but also a rather simple-minded man. (I’m using Dr Beeby’s words for him because he had to endure him as his headmaster.) A lot of old boys thought of Bevan Brown as bloody amazing, but really, I think he tied the school to his own myth and rather held it back as he aged.

‘Old boys talk very fondly of Alf Caddick. He was master of English at Wellington College and Head of English at Christchurch West and then eventually headmaster here and guided the school very well through the Second World War right up till about 1950.

‘These early headmasters all look rather old and grim with their gowns or their frowns, but they were decent people.’ Dr Harding says working under Ian Leggat was a career highpoint. ‘Ian was a liberal humanist with a very lively mind, and an engaging man who became, among many things, our university chancellor.’

Deputy-principal Tony Cooper was ‘a wonderful man, a biologist, and a fabulous person to work with’. Barry Maister, as Head of Science and Second Master, went on to other headmasterships before heading up the New Zealand Olympic Committee and serving on the IOC.

‘I would also like to pay tribute to headmaster Trevor McIntyre for his compassion when my sister and I chose to help home-nurse our mother and I went part-time. That was, while very sad, the richest experience of my life, and my sister’s dedication was simply amazing.’

Other masters had colourful careers. ‘Kevin Quinn was a wonderfully eccentric and yet sublimely intelligent, witty and practical man. His quirky classroom antics inspired generations of maths pupils in several schools.’

An old boy master Pat Vincent was only a two-game All Black, but a major rugby talent. After his mother died in 1967, Vincent left CBHS and introduced rugby to Californian schools. ‘He was a very savvy, smart, Old Spice fragranced snappy dresser. He was a boarder from Westland in his younger days and then became a staff member here. And then in 1957 he went over to UC Berkeley for an MA in Geography, returned to New Zealand, continued to have a huge impact on Ranfurly Shield rugby and schoolboy rugby and then left to finish his career in California.’ All Black John Graham also taught at CBHS and ran its hostel in the 1960s long before taking charge of Auckland Grammar School.

It is impossible to list all the old boys who have achieved notable success. They include artists Bill Sutton and Russell Clark, poet Allen Curnow, cartoonist David Low (‘who drove Hitler up the wall with his cartoons!’), Rewi Alley, who lived in post-revolutionary China, photographer Brian Brake, theatre director Elric Hooper, David McPhail, singers Chris Doig, Edmund Bohan, Malcolm McNeill and (more recently) Marlon Williams – as well as a long list of New Zealand sporting greats.

More recently, Dr Harding recalls the super-charged student Jake Millar, who became a successful entrepreneur after the sudden tragic death of his father in an aircraft accident in 2010. Instead of advising that he should go to university and study law (and accept a $40,000 Otago law scholarship), Dr Harding encouraged Jake to follow his dream, which was consuming. ‘I said you’ll always regret that you didn’t do the entrepreneurial thing, which makes me rather unusual in the teaching field. Like Jake’s, mine was a business family.

‘Andrew Dean, who did his D. Phil at Oxford University in English, was a student rep on the board, hugely talented. Ben Shearer is managing archives at the Discovery Channel in London. We do have some extraordinary people going through the school.’

Dr Harding has had a 20-year association with the University of Canterbury’s Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, Ngai Tahu Research Centre and, since 2015, the English Department.

He has served as curator at the Ngaio Marsh House in Cashmere since 1996, and has a reference book on the celebrated crime author and theatre director out later this year, as well as a book in the pipeline on the Kai Tahu author Keri Hulme.

He has also written another book on pioneering Australian aviatrix Nancy-Bird Walton, who courageously flew Tiger and Leopard Moths in the 1930s, running aerial ambulances in the hot dry outback of Queensland and New South Wales. ‘Her name is on the first Qantas A380 and she has an airport named after her in Bourke. I knew her through a relative in Sydney. She created the Australian Women Pilots’ Association in 1950, which later led Fear of Flying clinics for Qantas. I am hoping Qantas might bring that book out.’

Roles in the community, including assisting with consultants with the South Library, and serving on a community development subcommittee of the Spreydon Heathcote Community Board and Cashmere Residents’ Association have been important.

‘I’ve been pleased to do stuff as an agitator in my community to save certain historical things: the Ngaio Marsh House, small things like preserving local amenities, and stopping ludicrous municipal vandalism on places like the Cashmere Village Green.’

For Dr Harding, actively engaging with the community has been an inspiration. He has plenty more to say, more books to write, and goals to accomplish. It’s hard to imagine him retiring anytime soon.

WORDS & IMAGES David Killick