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 continued from part 1 in the Week 6 newsletter and excerpts are re-printed with permission from ‘Memoirs, Colin Baker Ashton’.
Moving on to Senior School at St Peter’s College at about 12, I found an interesting pile of buildings and a luxury of facilities such as a library, chemistry and physics laboratories, gymnasium, swimming pool, tennis courts, a rowing shed (on the Torrens,) as well as immaculate ovals.
The large library housed in a corner tower room was reached by a spiral staircase and presented a wide choice of books for those times. There was a textbook and stationery office, smelling of fresh books, run by a kindly old man who treated us as equals.
I enjoyed athletics, gym and cricket. Mr Bennet, our gym master, organised a feast of variations on the trapezes, horizontal bars, etc in the large, lofty gymnasium.
[The chemistry] laboratory, with four or five rows of long benches with cupboards below and racks above, had a Bunsen burner every four feet, and, with all the equipment we might ever wish to use, was tremendously encouraging. We reduced oxides to metals in crucibles, and made salts and gases with acids. Some of the gases exploded, while some, like sulphretted hydrogen, were equally entertaining, with their pungent or outrageous stinks. I enjoyed chemistry tremendously and [gained] third credit in the State intermediate examinations.
I had hoped for similar enjoyment from physics, but found practical work frustrating through faulty electrical contacts or from insufficient time being given to complete experiments.
In these years St Peter’s College dominated the public examinations credit and general honours lists. What some of us overlooked was the potential of the ‘dullards’ in the lower stream classes taught by more swashbuckling, less learned masters. Here were boys who scored such low marks in examinations as to not seem possible, let alone acceptable to themselves or masters. But these lads’ parents’ ideas of going to school to be ‘fitted for life’ was not to come out of school a scholar, and St Peter’s College catered for them too. They dominated the sports teams where they found confidence, physical skills, team spirit and ability to handle others (with bluff and coercion rather than psychology,) and became in later life captains of industry, commerce and entrepreneurs.
We, the more scholastic, were told character was strengthened by sheer hard study, the value of Latin especially in this regards being established by tradition. Though gone was the ideology of those earlier English public school masters that learning was instilled by the cane, there was still little guidance to learning and writing skills, and success was by bullocky hard work.
The School accepted sons of Anglican clergy at a nominal fee, (which was of great benefit to some like Rev. Hopton with about six children,) and also made a token breaking of class barriers by offering entrance scholarships at various ages. We regarded ourselves as a homogenous group united by the School uniform, and so long as a lad spoke fairly well, there was not too much made of class origins, except for those in the most lowly trades, such as rag and bottle merchants. But however friendly boys were at school they didn’t take home boys outside their parents’ social class. Class distinction also showed up in the appointments of School prefects, though it could be argued that elite families accustomed to command produced the perfect type.
The Rev Bickersteth was a Headmaster of undisputed calibre, commanding all factions by endowments of stature, voice, scholarship, mental agility and personality. The only hint of criticism was heard when he declared a half-holiday upon the birth of twins to the Deputy Headmaster and his wife. This caused a stir which spread like fire amongst the elite matrons of Adelaide!
When Bickersteth retired after his long stint there appeared in his place a very different man, the Rev Pentreath who immediately showed a forceful hand. He caused howls of dismay when he abolished the Tuck Shop (purveyor of kitchener buns, cream puffs, lamingtons, pies, pasties and lolly sweets). More still when he struck at the manly concept of gym in favour of a boring Swedish drill. Moreover, he sent the gym master Mr Bennett packing, a proprietor of a well-known early Adelaide gymnasium.
This youngish, fresh-faced, sincere churchman-headmaster with new ideas grafted on old foundations was however, a logical choice to fit changing times. Bickersteth had repeatedly proven his claim to know every boy in the School to speak to by name, but this kind of formality now seemed outmoded in Pentreath’s clean cut style of leadership.
The moral code at School was very high as ostensibly, in society as a whole. It was essential to be truthful, sincere, frank, trustworthy, faithful, and, above all, honourable – a word that everyone understood so unquestioningly there was a loss to define just what it meant. There were people who weren’t all these things, but they were a minority to be shunned if hardened in their way. The idea of cheating in work or play, was ‘out.’
Sex was rarely mentioned. When Dick Blackburn, during a scripture lesson in Intermediate A, asked in all innocence, “What is circumcision?” the Rev. ‘Pat’ McLaren, a dear, childlike, unworldly man ummed and ahed for what seemed like five minutes before managing to say, “It was a rite practised by the Jews.” The boys were in uproar and Dick was fuming that such an issue had been made over his ignorance.
At the end of final year mother decided I must attend the Blue and White dance held at the end of each year in the Memorial Hall because the only-once-before-met cousin Margaret had asked, “Is Col going and will he take me?” and so I launched into dancing unprepared.
By concentrating on my studies I had missed out on continuing at cricket, learning to dance and gaining social familiarity. At the Blue and White I saw boys who had not distinguished themselves in School studies or sport now revealing themselves as excellent dancers, at ease with socialites in breathtaking dresses.
Returning from my first dance towards Margaret and her partner, she demanded, “Whatever have you done with your partner? Go back to her!” she ordered. “You mustn’t leave her until the beginning of the next dance.” Devastated I hurried back and gratefully found the good-natured girl still where I had left her.
What in hindsight, do I think about my schooling, for which my parents felt such a strong sense of responsibility? Though it was claimed we were taught to think for ourselves, we were of course indoctrinated rather than educated. If we strayed from conformity we were made to feel odd, and concepts like honour and patriotism were far too holy to be challenged.
Those who conformed and emerged feeling successful, even perfect works of art by eighteen years of age, became permanent ‘old boys’ who, joining clubs, would assure each other that they had already absorbed enough education for life and that their imposed ideas and ideals were the fundamentals of the only society worth considering – in the case of St Peter’s College the capitalist-nationalistic one. It was impossible for many to see beyond their indoctrination, finally becoming unhappy anachronisms.
But I had then only vague intuitions about this. I enjoyed my ten years at Saints – the beauty of its setting, the charm of its older buildings, and the other boys’ companionship. My parents’ dutiful financial sacrifice further secured my obligation to the School which had prepared me academically for the next stage of my life – entering university to study to become a doctor, and presumably, to live happily ever after in a wonderful profession.