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Retired medical practitioner, Dr Colin Ashton (DAC ’35) is one of our rare centenarian old scholars who has been proud and delighted to share some of his school-day recollections with us recently. At 101 years old, his prodigious memory gives a glimpse into student life at Saints in the 1930s, and underscores the vast social and educational transitions that have taken place over the past century. The following is re-printed with permission from ‘Memoirs, Colin Baker Ashton’:

Aged eight, I began my schooling at St Peter’s College. It was a forty-minute tram journey from Keswick to school, but fortunately the tram, of the type called ‘Bucking Billy’ (having only centrally placed wheels – it rocked,) went straight through without need to change trams in the city. It was a half-mile walk (but I always ran) to the tram stop near the Keswick bridge. Here I studied the ground, for I not infrequently found coins (up to two shilling pieces) lost out of people’s pockets.

I preferred a seat in the non-enclosed back end. Here a regular fellow passenger was Shea, the West Adelaide football captain, a polished gentleman who, except to greet new arrivals, remained behind the morning newspaper. Trams were fun, and except for a stretch along the parkland, ran along the centre of the road. Although passengers were supposed to enter and alight only from the left-hand side, a blind eye was turned on occasional entries from the other side. Passengers spat more then. A good spitter could project a pellet across you and out of the tram to the ground four or more yards away.

There was plenty of interest as the tram made its way along the southern edge of the parklands, along Goodwood Road to West Terrace, into Sturt Street to disgorge students to Adelaide High School, then Morphett Road and Gouger Street past the Central Market to King William Street, where many left for city offices and many Saints boys got on, to continue along beautiful North Terrace to Payneham Road. On the trams all social classes were obliged to meet with tolerance.

At Palm House I felt comfortable, both with the other boys and with the school work.

I learnt to wrestle the fistfighters and succeeded in pinning them down, whereupon the thwarted gladiator would declare “I’ll let you go if you let me go” – for, though I was frail and innocent looking, broad shoulders gave me a leverage advantage that surprised us both.

My first cricket was played on a proper cement pitch on the Palm House Oval. Unfortunately our captain overdid his role of tactician, for he got one batsman out by enticing him to leave his crease to “look at a spider” and then triumphantly ran him out!  Our supervising master, however, reinstated this batsman.

Three masters’ residences and a full-sized football field separated Palm House from the Preparatory School. St Peter’s College, thanks to its wealthy, untaxed, early founders, had huge grounds. When I left the cloistered seclusion of Palm House for the Prep a year later I felt prepared for the adventure of life itself.

Fights in the Prep were daily affairs but, as they usually involved the small percentage of boys from rougher backgrounds, one could usually keep out of them and it was surprising the protective status one soon acquired by excelling either in sport (especially) or school work.

As soon as two boys began fistfighting, boys ran from all directions, dropping anything they were doing. Forming a circle they spurred on the combatants, by screaming encouragement. By now to retreat would be ‘funk.’ “Go into him Kelly.” “Go on Petrie. Hit him harder.”  “Kelly, Kelly.” “Petrie, Petrie.” “Don’t let him get away with that.” And when one went reeling and was willing to give up: “Get up Kelly. You can lick him.” When one lad was finally vanquished, the crowd wandered back to what they had been doing, thrilled by the drama of the fight or disappointed if the event had ended as a squib, too soon. Sometimes a master caught the fighters and imposed after-school lines.

The school day began with boys grouping into form classes for the five minutes march to chapel at the Senior School. Having a long journey to school, I was sometimes a fraction late, but then enjoyed the run to catch up by the time of roll call outside chapel. I liked early morning chapel very much, for it gave the picture of life as I would have liked to find it – full of singing, music, talk of love, good behaviour and ideals. Under the eyes of masters strung out along the tops of rows of the tiered pews facing the central aisle, boys were reasonably attentive, though in the secrecy of prayer some carved the pews with pocket knives. Hymns were sung with fervour rather than meaning. Sometimes music was interrupted when the organ broke down.

We sang lustily, “There was a green hill far away without a city wall, where our dear Lord was crucified. He died to save us all.” As I seemed to be the only one worried about why the green hill didn’t have a city wall, I thought it best not to reveal my denseness. It was a small point anyway, compared with the crucifixion horror. The school then marched out back to Junior School and put the world of chapel out of mind for the rest of the day.

Being members of a church school distinguished us from the public school barbarians around us, whom we pitied so long as they didn’t threaten us. On caps and coat pockets we wore our patron saint’s key to heaven, and underneath, the motto ‘Pro Deo et Patria.’ Unlike most of the boys I took scripture lessons seriously for I wanted to know why we were on this earth, and exactly what was the right thinking and right doing that God, our Maker, wished of us. The ten commandments, the beatitudes and the parables were clear statements. Without such a basis for living, it seemed to me, all learning was of minor importance, and I was surprised that more boys and masters didn’t share my view, for scripture suffered in status well below other subjects. Except that is, in the top class of the Prep School, VIa, where Headmaster, the Reverend Bickersteth, taught the subject.

He had a long walk from the Senior School and was often late for the weekly lesson. Absence of the master always saw a scene of noisy disorder while one boy ‘kept nit’ – in this instance for the Headmaster on his unexpectedly northerly approach. Once he took a different path and suddenly appeared at the doorway where his awful presence froze those ten or so who immediately saw him. The waiting for perhaps twelve seconds until the last boy realised what had happened and closed his mouth of awful sound seemed interminable! Great was our apprehension of punishment, great was our relief and agreement that the Head was a wonderful person when he granted us his pardon.

At lunch break each classroom saw a pouring out for the three hundred yard run to the tuck shop. Exhilarated by these runs, I attracted attention by passing older boys, respected as good runners. I threw tennis balls well too, in games where the ball was thrown high between two groups whose individuals vied to outmark each other. The result was I was chosen to represent my House each year in athletics and hence gained prestige.

I kept in the upper stream forms (and thus with the best students and teachers,) was dutifully in the first ten overall, and came in the first four in my best subjects English, Geography and Arithmetic. Though the upper boys in top stream classes thought their own bottom ten pretty crass, all agreed that lower stream classes were a ‘rabble.’ Of course, only a third of the boys were really interested in scholastic excellence, which I felt was most unfair to parents scrimping to send sons to a private school.

Towards the end of the Prep School the Reverend Bickersteth visited the class to ask each boy what career he intended to follow, so that subjects could be allotted him in senior school. About half the boys already knew; the others were told to have the information ready for the Head’s return in a few days. My parents went into conclave and father pronounced ‘law and commerce.’ When I told the Head he declared that was two careers. Father accepted the Head’s knowledge, but having had his turn and lost, mother had her way with ‘medicine.’ Of course, the Headmaster was wrong and father’s concept of commercial law quite right, but by such an error of navigation was my future course set.