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Pioneer Times at Papakowhai School

Over 20 years ago I was Deputy Principal at Papakowhai School in Porirua and my classes studied Mum’s books as part of a unit of work on ‘Pioneer Times’. Searching through the archives I stumbled across a full page newspaper article torn from Te Awa-iti, the local Porirua newspaper, dated April 27, 1990. Staring out from the faded page were many of my ex-pupils attired in pioneer costumes and the memories came flooding back.

I loved teaching creative writing and had forgotten the wonderful writing of the Standard 4 – Form 2 syndicate that Brendon Henderson and I co-taught. The children were all dressed up as pioneers and we had gone on a field trip to Wellington. Here they all were looking out from this old newspaper clipping – of course I remembered them all!


We had taught the classes ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1853. The pulse, repetition and drama of this wonderful poem, had captured us all.

I called Mum and we talked about how she was brought up on these old poems – Tennyson, Wordsworth, Longfellow. At night by the fire her father would recite poetry. In his everyday speech he would break into verse. My grandfather Wally was not an educated man but he used the poets’ words to express himself. Mum was brought up with the cadence of 19th century poems and these poems emerge throughout her books. There is nothing as good as the satisfaction of learning ‘by heart’ a long dramatic poem.

So when I read Melanie Attree’s writing in the article I saw the rhythm and key words of the Light Brigade coming through…

“Half a league, half a league, half a league onward. Onward trudged ‘M’ block up the Thorndon Walk. My long braided hair was flapping about everywhere as we caught sight of old ‘Saint Pauls Church’. We walked very slowly because our long pioneer skirts were weighing us down. Into the mouth of the church we boldly strode. Into the hall of peace, then we sat down and rested our tired legs. (Melanie Attree, age 10)

Children today continue to read and love the stories and teachers are working hard to bring the history of pioneer times alive. Libraries are starting to request copies of the May series to replace their well read, battered copies. Booksellers are also placing orders as readers are telling them they ‘must’ stock the May series.

That day, Bernie Grice, a friend of Mum’s from her schooldays, guided 73 children around historical Wellington giving them an experience that would stay etched into their minds for years.

“Fierce winds blew as we stumbled along the hard rough pavement. Seventy odd pioneer children held on to their hats and clasped their jackets tightly. We must have looked quite a sight to the modern people of Wellington…Mr Grice our wonderful guide, called to us and we came to a halt. We stood and rested outside the Old St Pauls Cathedral and Mr Grice told us about some of its history… we lined up ready to file into the church. Warmth moved over you as you stepped into the beautiful wooden building. The colourful stain glass windows glowed when the sun shone through them. Sitting down and looking at the carved wood and the golden brass made you feel like there was nothing wrong in the world.
(Erin Bracken, Form 2, 12 years old)

This walk would have been the finale of the ‘Pioneer Times’ unit of work and no doubt families had become involved as the children studied these times and prepared for the field trip.


I wonder if the story above was made up by Rebecca or was a true conversation with her Grandmother? Was it a whiff of beer or was it whiskey? I am not sure where you are these days Rebecca but maybe you can tell us.

I am sure this study of Pioneer Times stayed with these 73 children – the stories within the books, the field trip to Wellington, the thrill of dressing up in pioneer clothes and experiencing a little of the feel of those days…all bringing those old stories to life.

After writing this blog post my memories of the 73 pupils are revived. Papakowhai School – you will remember me as ‘Mary Hodgson’. I went back to my maiden name ‘Johnston’ in 1996 when I left teaching. To the Papakowhai School senior classes of 1990 – we would love to hear from you and your memories of ‘the books’.

I had planned to write about bridges today and had gone in search of the old red exercise book containing some of Mum’s research notes. I knew there was a diagram in the precious red book about how to build a bridge over a river without getting wet. However I became distracted as I stumbled across the Papakowhai School article and all thought of bridges was put to the side for another time. That is the delight of having the treasure trove to delve into.

The bridge story is forming in my mind. The importance of bridges for the pioneers and the devastating effect when they are destroyed will form the theme for my next blog…unless I become distracted again.

Mary Johnston – November 27th 2017


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