School Days - a memoir of Hale School in the 1950s
The crest and motto of Hale School
I have recently re-read Such, Such were the Joys, George Orwell’s essay on his school days at Eton and also Charles Dickens’ novel Nicholas Nickleby. They are terrible stories, replete with the cruelty and insensitivity of the schoolmasters and matrons at boarding schools in England in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
My own school days were very different to those described by Dickens or Orwell. Here I am talking about my secondary schooling, which I spent at Hale School in Perth, Western Australia from 1954 to 1958.
Like me, most of the boys I knew at school were happy enough to be there. Indeed, more than sixty years later, I occasionally meet up with some of them who say that their days at Hale were the happiest in their lives. I am not one of these, but not because I disliked school. It just turned out that I have not dwelt on my school days or sought to relive them through Old Boys’ associations and so on. After I left Hale School I started a new life, and since then I have started several new lives as my family, friends, education, work and environment changed around me. Each new adventure moved me on into a different world. I do not need to look back to Hale School for fulfilment; rather I do so for historical interest, amusement and the occasional pleasure of renewing “old acquaintance not forgot”.
Having said all that, my schoolboy days at Hale were interesting and mostly fun, and my classmates were good friends and have become noble men as the years rolled by. I enjoy their company and would see more of them if my life was not already over-full. It is amazing how the shared experiences of youth create bonds you hardly know exist until they surface at a chance meeting at a social function or at a class reunion decades later.
Schooldays, like youth itself, are gone for ever. Also gone are the atmosphere and the attitudes of Western Australia in the 1950s. I am often amazed when I remember how different things were then. To me, it doesn’t seem all that long ago. But, as has been truly observed: “the past is a foreign country – they do things differently there”. Today, the modern Hale is perhaps the State’s most vibrant and wealthy school. The buildings are spread out on a lovely woodland campus at Wembley Downs and there are facilities for everything. It is a high-achieving school, excelling in everything from music and drama to academia and sport. It is a multi-million-dollar enterprise with international reach.
It was different in my day. The school was located almost in the city on Havelock Street in West Perth. You could walk to the city centre (via Parliament House and the old Barracks) in about ten minutes or take longer by catching a tram on Hay Street or a bus on Kings Park Road. Although you would not describe it as “down-at-heel”, it was definitely a “minor public school” by the standards of the day. There were only about 450 students and a staff of only about twenty masters. My final year (1958) was the school’s centenary, so one day they lined up the entire student body in front of the Boarding House for a photograph. Here we are:
Hale School student body in 1958
It was an all-male school. There was a woman teacher at the Junior School (which I did not attend), and another (I think her name was Mrs Nottage) who came in from time to time to teach music, but the only woman with whom I interacted was the school nurse who doubled as Matron at the boarding house. She was a reclusive figure - no one ever knew her name. Her official title was ‘Sister’ but she was always referred to by the boarders as ‘Titswobble’.
There was no conspicuous wealth associated with either the school or the students. Most of the dayboys were from the families of small businessmen or professionals, and we came to school on our bicycles or on the bus. The father of one of my classmates was a famous obstetrician who drove a Rolls Royce and would come along to our under-age football games and barrack noisily from the sidelines, but it didn’t seem to the boys that there was anything special about him. The boarders were nearly all from farms or pastoral stations, and while many of them came from prosperous families (the 1950s was the time of the wool boom in WA), this was not something you noticed or even cared about. I got on well with the country boys, and during the year I was a boarder, made some good friends with them.
Hale was a private school, by which is meant fees were charged (unlike the government schools, which were free). But it was not expensive. Fees were miniscule by today’s standards. My father paid 29 pounds and ten shillings ($59) a term for my fees, amounting to only $177/year. He got a 10% discount for my brother. The fee for a boarder was about twice that for a dayboy.
$177/annum in 1954 is equivalent to about $6,900/per annum in today’s money. [By comparison, the 2023 dayboy fees are $28,000 per annum].
Hale had a mild inferiority complex in my day. We felt we were looked down upon by the two main private colleges in Perth at the time – Aquinas College and Scotch College. The former was a very large school compared with Hale and used to gleefully murder us on the sporting field, especially at football, while the latter was the home of the social elite, drawing its boys mostly from the up-market suburbs of Peppermint Grove, Mosman Park and Cottesloe.
By the time I was a student, the school at Havelock Street had been there for just over fifty years (it was built in 1914).
Hale School in West Perth, about 1954, with the school buildings on the right and the boarding house on the left.
When I look at the old buildings today, I can see the hand of one of those turn-of-the-century colonial architects who were responsible for most of Perth’s great buildings. The design is compact and charming, an elegant grouping of well-proportioned redbrick buildings on limestone foundations. There is an undercroft with a small set of sandstone columns facing the northern sun (where the boarders loved to sit on chill winter mornings after breakfast) and a beautiful high-vaulted hall with polished jarrah flooring. Around the back was the gym and if you mounted a short flight of steps you came to the science lab and lecture theatre. The gym, lab and lecture theatre had been added at some later date; they had timber weatherboard walls, and a temporary feel about them.
The science lecture theatre about 1950
Unbelievably, by modern standards of health and safety, there was a rifle range on the school grounds. If you were an Army Cadet, you would just knock on the Staffroom door at lunchtime and ask Mr Drake for the rifle and a box of cartridges, which were duly handed over. The rifle was a .303 modified to shoot .22 bullets; the range was about 25 m long, and you shot at a tiny paper target that could be wound back and forth. It was totally unsupervised. Accurate rifle shooting was encouraged, as in those days there was an interschool shooting competition, and some prestige attached to being a member of the school rifle team.
There was an asphalt parade ground in front of the school where we lined up in our classes each morning before marching in for the morning’s assembly. After lining up, a prefect would inspect each student to make sure his shoes were polished, and tie and cap straight. There were also two small grassy fields where we played and ate our lunches, and a set of bitumen tennis courts down on the lower road.
The newly constructed tennis courts which adjoined Emerald Tce and Parliament House in about 1950. Beyond is the Boarding House and you can just see the roof of the School Hall
Up on the hill and with magnificent views overlooking Parliament House and the suburbs away to the north, was the great rabbit warren of the Boarding House – a mysterious place to the dayboys, redolent with the aromas of overcooked mutton, boiled cabbage and burnt rice pudding, but “home” to the eighty or so boarders and two or three masters who resided there. Some of the boys I knew spent up to eight years of their lives in this place. Until my brother and I spent a year as boarders in 1957, I had never been inside the place, and most of the dayboys I knew never once saw its gloomy interior.
Adjoining the school grounds immediately to the south were the lovely buildings and gardens of the State Observatory. A feature of life at Hale School in those days was the daily boom of the “One-O’Clock Gun” fired by Observatory staff to enable people in the city to check their watches. Beyond the Observatory and across Kings Park Road was Kings Park itself – a thousand acres of bushland, and also the location of Hale School’s sports ovals. Those sports ovals are today the area occupied by a children’s playground and coffee shop. The rest of West Perth in those days was a quiet residential suburb, bounded by Kings Park and the Perth-Fremantle railway line.
Unlike so many schoolboys who initially find high school traumatic, I made a very easy transition from primary school. It was made easy for me by two things: firstly, I was not totally amongst strangers; several of my schoolmates from Nedlands State School had also gone on to Hale for their high school years. The other thing was that the Hale culture was very sports-oriented, and I was able to hold my own on the sporting field from the outset. This smoothed my path with masters and fellow-students.
Hale School was nominally a Church of England school (it had been founded by a Bishop Hale) but religion played only a very small part in school life in my day. It was basically confined to the morning assemblies. Every morning at twenty minutes to nine o’clock, a bell would be rung and we would form up into our classes, each under the eye of one of the school prefects and stand “at ease”. The Head Prefect (or School Captain) would stand on the steps and shout “School! Attention!” At this command we would lurch to attention, and then march off class by class into the school hall, where we sat in rows on hard wooden seats.
The morning assembly followed an invariable ritual. Having again been commanded to come to attention, we would stand in silence while Mr Murphy, the headmaster, led in a line of masters. Each wore a grey suit and a shabby black academic gown, and they marched in order of seniority, the youngest or newest man bringing up the rear of the Congo line. Up on the podium, Mr. Murphy would read a prayer, and one of the prefects would read a passage from the bible. Then the congregation of boys would rise again, and we would sing one of the standard hymns of the day (“Oh God, our help in ages past” or “All things bright and beautiful”). The musical accompaniment was provided by the ancient German master (Herr Lutz) on an even more ancient piano. Mr. Murphy had a special Headmaster’s throne, on which he sat when not at the podium, while his lesser colleagues sat on rickety wooden seats.
Lecturn and Headmaster’s throne, in the School hall.
After the hymn singing and bible reading, Mr Murphy would make a couple of announcements and then turn to the School Captain and give him the nod. The School Captain would again command us to stand to attention while the masters marched out. We then filed off to our classrooms to begin the days schooling. We had an assembly exactly like this every morning on every day for the five years I attended Hale.
The asphalt quadrangle in front of the school was also where the Army Cadets paraded every Wednesday afternoon. Joining the cadet corps (or its Air Force equivalent) was compulsory once you turned 14. The corps was a standard infantry company, comprising four platoons and specialist machine gun and trench mortar units. All of the officers, NCOs and ‘soldiers’ were schoolboys, although one of the masters, ‘Captain’ Drake was nominally in charge. After the parade, which was in the hands of the schoolboy who had risen to the rank of Senior Officer (in my final year it was Bob Binks), we would disperse around the school or up to Kings Park to undergo elementary military training. I spent four years in the Army Cadets (a story told elsewhere in these chronicles).
There were three big differences between Hale and Nedlands State School where I had done my primary schooling. These became apparent from Day One. The first was the small class sizes. All through primary school I had sat in classes with fifty-plus students, but at Hale it was usually at least half that. The first three years (known as Third, Fourth and Fifth Forms) were divided into A and B classes, but after that there was a significant drop in numbers as most of the country boys left to return to their father’s farms and sheep stations. My two final years were quite small classes, especially as we were often subdivided into different subject streams. In 6A (these days known as Year 12), where we studied for the leaving examination, there were only about 30 students.
A second innovation was the requirement at Hale to wear a uniform. There was a summer uniform, with a grey cotton shirt and shorts, plus long grey socks, polished black shoes, a striped light-and-dark-blue school tie and a little blue Billy Bunter-type cap. In winter it was the same arrangement with grey woollen serge substituted for cotton. The uniform rules specified shorts up until your third year, after which you were allowed to wear long trousers. Incredibly the published uniform specification of the early 1950s also required the purchase of a pith helmet, as worn by 19th century pukka sahibs in India. My father purchased me a pith helmet, as he saw it on the list of uniform requirements, but unbeknown to him, they had not been in use since the early-1930s, and I never wore it. The old pith helmet hung about the house for years and proved handy for games of charades in those pre-television times.
The third difference was that our teachers were now called “masters”, and it was a strict rule that they be addressed at all times as “Sir”. In return, the masters called you by your last name. There were interesting conventions over names in those days. At primary school the teachers had called me Roger, at Hale I was called Underwood (or when I was a boarder “Underwood One”, to distinguish me from my brother who was addressed by the masters as “Underwood Two”); when I went to the University the lecturers referred to me courteously as Mr. Underwood. Finally, when I was at Forestry School, I was again addressed as Roger. The complete cycle by the time I was twenty!
The Hale masters at that time were mostly an undistinguished lot. The Headmaster Vernon Murphy was said to have been a great scholar in his youth and had an MA degree from Oxford, but we saw very little of him. He spent most of the day in his office, worrying about administrative matters. He would appear at sporting events, usually with a look on his face suggesting that he wished he was somewhere else. He did not teach at all in my day, and took no part in sports coaching, as did all the other masters. It was said that he had been a fine cricketer and an oarsman in his youth and had rowed for Oxford against Cambridge. I recall one occasion when he appeared unexpectedly in the boatshed in an amazing 1920s-style Oxfordian rowing get-up and took over as coxswain in the boat where I was rowing as Stroke that day. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, and rowed badly, especially when one of his grey-whiskered testicles lolled out onto the thwart in front of me.
Most of the masters had nicknames, some of which were affectionate or humorous, and some cruel or reflecting on the way the boys felt about them. Mr. Murphy was always known as “Spud”. Others included Monkey Marshall, Turkey Altorfer, Log Davey, Taffy Wall, Duck Drake, Keyhole Corr, Straightshit Strahan, Fizz Lutz, Bomb Mills and Sluggo Shields. In my first year we had been taught art by Charlie “Humbug” Hamilton, whose son Charlie was a forester (I found out later) and taught me dendrology at Forestry School.
Bill Altorfer was an intriguing figure. Tall and angular, he dressed immaculately in reefer jacket and striped trousers. He ran the boarding house with an iron hand but was popular (or at least well-respected) by the day boys. He taught me English, French and Latin for three years, and I liked him very much. He had an infectious roar of laughter and always had a twinkle in his eye. I heard years later that Bill had been a recruiting agent for the Australian Secret Service (ASIO), but this never really seemed possible to me. Mind you, he did drive a Jaguar, attend first nights at His Majesty’s theatre and was the sort of person to prefer his martinis stirred, not shaken.
Bill “Turkey” Altorfor
Like nearly all the Hale staff, Altofer was completely untrained, at least in a professional sense. He had himself been a pupil at Hale School, and then joined the staff immediately after graduation, initially as a House Master (a non-teaching position) and then later becoming the languages master for the boys in Middle School. Despite the lack of qualifications, he was actually an excellent teacher, and he imbued me with a love of literature and poetry that has lasted a lifetime.
Given that I am naturally a dunderhead when it comes to maths, I was very lucky to have Tom Hoar as my ultimate maths teacher. He was one of the most dedicated and accomplished teachers I ever knew, and I still give him credit for me passing my University matriculation, which in turn made the rest of my life possible. Mr. Hoar used to hand back our corrected mid-term and end-term exam papers shuffled into order of merit from the lowest to the highest marks. As the terms went by and I continued to profit from his teaching I moved higher and higher up the class list, as demonstrated by this simple technique for rewarding students without disclosing marks received. Under Mr Hoar’s guidance, I even became proficient in calculus and with logarithms – two things I never once used again in my entire life.
The chemistry master ‘Straightshit’ Strahan was another matter altogether. He was a hard man, and unpopular with it. On one occasion (the story goes) when he was temporarily in charge of the boarding house, the boarders rebelled, and would not get out of bed. Straightshit not only got them up, but he caned the whole boarding house; every boy (and there were nearly 80 of them) taking a cut on the backside. Then he did it again. Just as he was lining the boys up for the third round he collapsed with a stroke and had to be taken to hospital. To the regret of the entire school, he recovered.
I had Straightshit for chemistry in fourth and fifth year, but an exciting incident put an end to his teaching career, at least during my tenure at the school. We were all sitting in the science lecture theatre one morning and Straighty was demonstrating a chemical experiment on the desk out in front. There was a glass bottle of chemicals on a stand over a gas Bunsen burner; and just as it came to the boil, Straightshit added another ingredient. Immediately there was a vast explosion and glass and boiling chemicals went everywhere. Amazingly no one was hurt, not even Straightshit who had a premonition about what was to happen at the last instant and dropped to the floor below the bench. When after a few moments of stunned silence, he emerged from behind the bench, he was clearly both stirred and shaken. Later I had to hand in my lab book for my Leaving examination and it contained one page etched with acid, where it had been open before me that day.
Mr. Strahan was replaced by Mr. O’Sullivan, a delightful young man straight out of university, and quickly on a wavelength with the students. Along with Tom Hoar, he was the most natural teacher I ever had, patient with the strugglers, just as equally he was stimulating to the top scholars. Mr. O’Sullivan had a slight lisp, for example saying “Yeth” for “Yes”. We all had some fine amusement when he was teaching us about photosynthesis.
Willie “Keyhole” Corr was a tiny mouse-like chap, with a sad face, rather like that of the dormouse in the illustrations in Alice in Wonderland. It was said that he had been wounded in the trenches in World War 1 and had never recovered his spirits. I liked him, and hated the way some of the boys teased and took advantage of him. Apart from a stint in the army during the First War, Keyhole lived his whole life at the Hale School boarding house, where he had a tiny room off C Dorm. Every Tuesday he would drive off in his little Ford Anglia to a local bakery and come back with a mountain of cream buns which he would give to the boarders for a treat at suppertime. As far as I know he did this out of his own pocket.
Hale School staff in 1958. Headmaster Murphy centre in the front, wearing an academic gown; on his right Marshall, Altofer and Hoar. Sluggo Shields is on the far left, and Willie Corr third from the right on the rear row.
The gym master was “Sluggo” Shields. He was short, balding, florid and extremely muscular, and was said to wield the most powerful cane in the school. Sluggo took us for physical education, a period of which we had nearly every day. PE might be in the gym one day, where we worked out on the parallel bars or did vaults off a springboard or swung on rings; or it might be a game of baseball; or it might just be “physical jerks”, where we stood in lines and touched our toes, swung our arms around or jumped on the spot; or we might go for a long hard run up into Kings Park and back. At the end of an hour of PE we would all troop back into the classroom, faces glowing, and settle back down to conjugate Latin verbs or parse sentences.
Finally, a word on Monkey Marshall, the English and French master in my final year, and Deputy Headmaster of the school. The Monk was an influential and mostly a feared figure in the Hale School of the 1950s. He was a grey, spare, stooped man, the very model of an old-fashioned Dickensian schoolmaster – cold and humourless, a strict disciplinarian, and with piercing, unforgiving eyes. There was never any question in anyone’s mind that he was the School Enforcer. His nickname was apposite. In both appearance and outlook, there was indeed something of the medieval monk about him. He had a fine line in sarcasm and could tear a boy to bits in front of the class. However, he was good at teaching students so that they passed the Leaving exams, and his record in this respect was outstanding. I was always in awe of him and tried hard to earn his respect. This I found impossible, especially after one humiliating experience. As one of the school prefects it came my turn to mount the dais one morning and do the daily reading from the bible to the assembled school. The Monk was a sternly religious man; he chose the passages to be read each day and listened carefully to the reading. Unfortunately, my biblical and scriptural knowledge was close to absolute zero, and when I came to read the designated passage, which concerned someone called Job, I pronounced it “job” as in “he did a good job”, rather than “jobe” as required by biblical tradition. In this particular passage, old Job figured in nearly every sentence.
After I returned to my seat, I could feel the Monk’s piercing eyes on me, and a strange feeling of guilt took hold of me. I wasn’t sure how, but somehow, I knew I had committed serious solecism. I was right. In the first class that morning The Monk swept into the room and withered me with biting sarcasm. What made it worse was that his criticism of my biblical ignorance was directed at my parents as well as at me. Strangely enough, not one other student or master ever said a word to me about it, and I eventually concluded they had not noticed or did not care. Presumably 90% of them routinely switched their minds to other subjects when the morning bible reading began, while the other 10% possibly thought I had been taking the mickey. I never told my mother and father about this, which I now regret. Looking back, I realise they would have been amused not angry, especially my father who had been raised in a very strict Christian Science environment, leaving him with no time at all for the trappings of formal religion.
I was lucky to become a school prefect - I feel sure the Monk would have argued against it.
Headmaster Murphy with the school prefects, 1958. Back row: Gibbs, Brumby, Underwood, Kelsall, Drake; in the front Bennett, Treadgold, Burton and Binks
The School janitor
A mysterious bit-player in school affairs in my day was the old émigré janitor. He was said to be a Russian, but as he spoke little or no English it was impossible to tell. He was a small man, almost a dwarf, but powerfully built and he wore a heavy beard and long unkempt hair. He seemed to have only two jobs: chopping the wood for the kitchen stoves up at the boarding house and cleaning the school lavatories. He was the first person I ever saw splitting jarrah foot-blocks into firewood billets using a full-size axe held in one hand by its throat, while he turned and steadied the foot-block with the other hand. As I found out years later, this took extraordinary strength, concentration and a good eye. On lavatory cleaning duties, he would stride around the school in rubber boots with a coil of hose in one hand and a bucket of disinfectant in the other, muttering gutturally to himself, presumably in Russian. His lavatory-cleaning technique was quick and effective: the whole interior of the toilet block would be sluiced down by application of a jet of water from the hose to walls, floors, doors, windows and ceilings, followed by a strategic sloshing of the contents of the bucket. He was known to us all as “Old Phenyle”.
The academic curriculum was determined by the requirement for students to pass the two great public exams of the day, the Junior at the end of third year, and the Leaving at the end of fifth. These exams had to be passed in a certain number of subjects and the subjects had to fall into a given set of categories. Your overall mark was irrelevant. Because of this, and because Hale was such a small school, there was serious inflexibility in all this. For example, after the Junior I had to choose between chemistry (which I needed for my Leaving) and History, which I loved but had to forego. I was, however, able to give up Latin in order to study physics. As far as I can remember, it was impossible for me to do physics, chemistry and biology and so had to forego biology. This made it tough for me at university where my first two years amounted to a major in botany.
Being taught to pass exams in a tight curriculum left little time for wider education. We learnt nothing practical like carpentry or mechanics – although some of the country boys did take woodwork lessons at Thomas Street State School on a Friday afternoon. Nor did we learn about philosophy, world cultures, comparative religion, or current affairs. We were not challenged by ideas and concepts outside those of the basically conservative, conformist Anglicans who ran the show. The social and political issues of the day were ignored, and the environment was not recognised as an issue at all. I do not remember going on a single educational excursion during the five years I attended Hale. Perhaps this criticism should not be levelled specifically at Hale School but was more a reflection of the nature of Australia generally in the 1950s.
My one recollection of being influenced by international events was in 1957 when I was a boarder, and one evening we were all taken out onto the grass to watch Sputnik 1 (the first satellite) go over. This caused a sensation in the world’s media, some of which actually penetrated to the boarding house, a place almost totally isolated from the outside world in those days, with no radios, no newspapers and of course no television.
On the other hand, we were lucky in many other respects. For example, we were well taught in poetry and literature. We studied a different novel, poet and Shakespeare play every year in 3d, 4th and 5th years. As a result, I am still familiar with the poetry of Robert Frost and Wordsworth and with Henry V, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and with Hamlet. To this day I still read Hamlet through from start to finish about once every year, and marvel at the complexity of its psychology and the beauty of the language. I was also lucky to have been introduced to Ernest Hemingway during this period, and although I can no longer read his novels, I still enjoy his short stories very much.
Looking back, I also think now that the teaching culture at Hale was a good one, even if this may not have been a result of school policy. It was made clear to us that if we were to succeed it was up to us – we would not be drummed into scholars. I can remember one master making this very explicit to me once. “Underwood,” he said, “what you have to realise is that I get paid whether you pass your exams or not." The onus was squarely on me. As a result, in my day at least, Hale boys did not do outstandingly in the Junior and Leaving Exams, but they were always successful at university where you had to take responsibility for your own education.
The sporting culture
Sport was regarded as almost as important as scholarship at Hale School. One afternoon a week was officially given over to competitive sports, and we played cricket in the summer, football in the winter, athletics (track and field, as it is known today) in the spring and tennis in the autumn. At other times we swam, rowed, played hockey, shot rifles, entered life-saving competitions or boxed. I was in everything, with the exception of boxing which I regarded then, and still do today as a ridiculous pursuit. The only boxing match (in fact the only fight) I have ever had in my life, was the so-called “Boarder’s Fight”. This was a compulsory boxing match which every new boarder had to enter – three one-minute rounds with some other new boarder, or a selected opponent, and they were fierce encounters. My brother and I both had to go through this ritual. He remembers coming to me in great trepidation for my advice, and me telling him “to dance about and keep the gloves in front of your face.” I can’t remember if I followed this excellent advice myself - in fact I have managed to expunge all memory of this abysmal event entirely from my brain. There was a specialist boxing master, Danny Ryan, who came to the school regularly to teach boxing. Danny plied his trade around all the private schools at the time, teaching the “noble art” as he called it. He had a crooked nose, a grotesque cauliflower ear and addled brains as testimony to its nobility.
My father and elder sister Jill were keen tennis players, and I had learned the rudiments of the game from them, but my main introduction to stroke-making and serving came from Max Bonner, the school pro. Max was a laid-back, suave man, darkly burnt by a lifetime on the courts, his eyes hidden behind mirror sunglasses, and his black hair slicked back with brilliantine. He had been a great player in his day, reaching the Quarter Finals of the Australian championships in 1946, and later was one of the first tennis professionals in Perth. He made a good living moving from one school to another all over the metropolitan area, giving his classes, and later, when pro tennis was starting to become acceptable, he became a promoter, bringing the big-name players to Perth. His teaching methods can best be described as “tennis by numbers”. Thirty or so schoolboys would stand in a row facing him on the court. “One!” shouted Max, and we would all take our rackets back, pointing at the back fence. On the command “Two!” we would put our front foot across and sweep the racket to the hitting position. On “three!” we would flourish a follow-through and fall over. We would then go through the serve and the volley in the same manner. I don’t remember tennis balls ever taking much part in the lesson.
As an indication of the extent to which sport figured in my school life, consider my final year, the same year in which I was trying to pass the Leaving examination. I rowed in the First Eight (we were beaten narrowly into fourth in the Head of the River), swam in the interschool swimming carnival, shot at the Swanbourne rifle range, played in the First Eighteen in the Alcock Cup football competition, ran and jumped in the Interschool athletics championships and made it to the final of the School tennis doubles (with Angus Davidson). Over the summer months I had also sailed competitively at Freshwater Bay yacht club with my mate Dick “Skipper” Bird, and during the winter months I also played football on Saturday morning for a Nedlands District Junior team.
The 1958 Hale School first eight crew, setting off for a workout on Matilda Bay. L-R Handcock (coxswain), Binks, Cuming, Treadgold, Underwood, Gibbs, Wheatley, Kelsall and Burton. The final crew for the Head of the River was slightly different, with Davenport coming in to replace Burton
Hale in my days was largely free of cruelty and bullying. One or two of the teachers were regarded as sadistic, but not by anyone who had previously been to Nedlands State School where the School Enforcer had been a ruthless sadist. Mostly at Hale when someone was caned, they deserved it. The standards of behaviour expected of us were well understood, and we transgressed these in the certain knowledge that if we were caught, we would be caned. Some boys were never caned; in my five years at Hale I was caned only once, by Taffy Wall; that was for acting the fool, which I considered unfair, as foolishness was hardly a crime. Other boys seemed almost to relish it. I can remember there was a school bully who caused problems for a while, but eventually he was dealt with. A mild form of cruelty was the nicknames bestowed on many boys, often relating to physical appearance or disabilities. I can remember Boof, Corkhead, No-Neck, Blackbeard, Baldy, Beefy, Duck, Rooballs, Tubby and many others. I was called “Underpants” for a while, but this was too much of a mouthful and was soon abbreviated to “Uns”. Both my brother and I were addressed as Uns for most of our Hale School days.
Mind you, I was lucky. I was just good enough academically so as not to be regarded as a complete dunderhead, and I was a reasonably competent all-round sportsman. There were other boys who struggled with their work, or were not part of the sporting culture, and these boys often suffered at the hands of others. As far as I can recall, this took the form of teasing, not physical bullying, but I may not have been fully aware of what was going on. I know that occasionally fights would break out in the schoolyard, and perhaps some of these were the result of the bullied counter-attacking or being forced to defend themselves.
The year my brother and I spent as boarders was a significant part of our education. The school boarding house was a world apart. Here, unlike at home, life was highly regimented. You awoke to a morning bell, showered (in cold water) and dressed as one boy, and then trooped down to the dining room for breakfast. Afterwards there was an hour to fill in before school classes commenced, and in wintertime (which I remember most vividly) this was usually spent trying to get warm. The boarding house was completely unheated, and the upstairs dormitories were bitterly cold. At lunchtime there was another meal in the dining room and then back to school until classes ended. The afternoons were usually spent wandering around the empty school grounds, playing hand-ball against a wall, kicking a football down on the grass, or “training”.
Training was my great escape. I have never been a long-distance runner, but I re-invented myself as one when I became a boarder, because this was one of the few legitimate ways of getting off-bounds. I would put on my shorts, a singlet and sandshoes and go and see the Duty Housemaster and request permission to get on with my training as a cross-country runner. Anything to do with sport was OK, so permission would be automatically given. I would then trot off down Havelock Street and cross over into Kings Park and spend the next two hours or so quietly walking or jogging around the cycle paths through the bushland, listening to the birds, and sniffing the wildflowers. It was a great psychological relief and outlet. Similarly, one afternoon a week I would take the tram down Murray Street for my music lesson, and part of the great pleasure of this was the sense of freedom it gave me.
The aspect of boarder life I disliked most was the evenings. We would be assembled for dinner, inspected by a prefect to see we were properly dressed, our hair done and shoes shined, and then marched in, seven or eight to a table. The masters would then arrive and one of them would intone Grace (invariably “For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly grateful”). Then dinner would be served. Finishing the main course (usually boiled mutton and cabbage) and the dessert (most often rice or tapioca pudding) was compulsory – you were not allowed to leave the table until your plates were empty. Most of us were always hungry and had no trouble with this requirement – we would also wolf down multiple slabs of bread and jam.
An interesting aspect of boarding house policy was that the boys who were members of the Head of the River rowing crews were given special meals in the weeks leading up to the big regatta. They sat at a special table and were served delicious steaks and fresh salad and fruit, while the hoi poloi subsisted on boiled mutton and bread and jam. An early example of the administration of performance-enhancing substances, so frowned upon by the sporting codes these days.
The dining room in the boarding house, about 1950. On the left is the small alcove where the housemasters and members of the rowing crew were served special meals
After dinner each evening the boarders would file off back down to the school again and there sit in the same classroom we had occupied all day for yet another hour or two, for what was called “prep”. Prep was another name for homework. A housemaster would supervise each class doing its prep, but basically you did what you liked, so long as you kept your mouth shut and did not leave your desk. Many of the boys spent prep writing letters home; others would sit vacantly, thinking who knows what.
After prep it was back up to the Boarding House and into bed. There were three great dormitories, each with about 30 beds, and by each bed was a tiny locker in which you kept your personal belongings. At a given time, slightly later for the older boys, the housemaster would come in and check that each bed was occupied, turn off the lights, and lock the doors.
Lights out would signify sleep for some, mischief for others. I can remember some wonderful arguments in the dark in C Dorm when I was there, one or two of which ended up in blows. I remember no homosexuality, or anything remotely resembling the sexual abuse you read about these days in the newspaper. Indeed, I left school scarcely knowing that such things existed.
The dormitories were out of bounds during the day, so there was never an option to pop upstairs for a lie-down and the reading of a good book. I was a voracious reader as a boy and missed this badly during my time as a boarder. There was a Boarders Common Room, a tiny room with two or three hard chairs, but it was always cold, dark, and uninviting.
“C Dorm” where I spent the night during my time as a boarder. There were three dormitories in the Boarding House, all just like this.
In retrospect, however, I am grateful for having experienced the year of boarding school. It opened my eyes to a new world, far removed from the soft and privileged life I led at home. There I had been used to the freedom to come and go, to my mother cooking superb meals and generally being concerned about my day-to-day welfare and my father taking an affectionate interest in my schooling and sporting life. At Boarding School, I was not much more than a number to the adult world. It toughened me up - I had to look after myself or go under. By the same token, the boys with whom I was thrown together in C Dorm treated me as a mate, and looked after me when I was a newcomer to the system. Two of them stood by me on the occasion I was threatened by the school bully. These were lessons in the school of life, as compared to the school of academia which the dayboys only knew.
The Big Ticket Items
There were three big ticket items on the Hale School calendar each year: Anzac Day, Old Boy’s Day and Speech Night. These were the occasions on which parents came to the school, mingled with staff, met one’s friends, and generally provided an alternative adult presence in school affairs. Anzac Day was particularly poignant. The mid-1950s were not so long after the end of the war and many of my schoolmates had fathers who had been away fighting, or who had gone away not to return. Also, many former Haleans had served and died in both wars, a reminder of which we had each morning as we filed into assembly past the plaques commemorating those who had fallen. We always had a special assembly on Anzac Day, and the whole school would fall silent for one minute and a bugler would play The Last Post. Then there would be prayers and a hymn (usually The Recessional) and one of the Old Boys who had been in the war would speak briefly about his mates. I always found all this very moving and would have trouble keeping a dry eye. Afterwards we were awarded a “Half Holiday”, which meant that we could leave school and do our own thing for the afternoon. For some reason, a group of friends and I fell into a routine of walking down to the Barrack Street jetty after the Anzac Day ceremony, taking a ferry across to South Perth and spending the afternoon wandering around at the Zoo. I don’t know why we did this, but I remember that it was peaceful and interesting at the Zoo in contrast to the emotional impact of the ceremonies earlier in the day.
Speech Night, which incorporated prize-giving, was by unanimous vote of all students (with the possible single exception of the Dux of the School), the most boring night of the year. The entire student body plus parents would turn up, and we would be subjected to lengthy speeches from Spud Murphy, a clerical bigwig from the Church of England (on one occasion a gaiters-wearing Bishop), the Chairman of the Board of Governors, the President of the Old Boys Association, the School Captain and, for all I remember, Old Phenyle. It went on for hours into the night. I was never a prizewinner, not in the academic field anyway, so my appearances on Speech Night would be confined to something like a quick whip up to the stage as winner of the Under-15 High Jump. My brother, on the other hand, was a brilliant student and was Dux of the School in his final year. I missed that Speech Night, being down in the karri forest at the time fighting a bushfire, but all through the days our schooling overlapped I can recall him shyly mounting the dais every speech night to be rewarded with one academic prize after another.
I never thought of us as being a very special mob, but my Hale School class uniquely produced two Rhodes Scholars (Bruce Bennett and Malcolm Treadgold, both of whom later became distinguished university professors). There was also a lawyer who became a magistrate, a Lord Mayor of Perth, a doctor, two dentists, a geologist, a hydrogeologist, a forestry officer (me), three pharmacists, three accountants, a stockbroker, a priest, a funeral director, an architect, a renowned commercial artist, a wine-maker and restaurateur and several successful businessmen, farmers and pastoralists. Thinking back, this is a significant tribute to Hale School of the 1950s, and its teaching and culture.
The end of school
My schooldays eventually came to a resounding climax. This was the Leaving Exam, a traumatic experience, but in the end a minor triumph. I was well-prepared, I had studied hard, and I got through. Then I had the immense good fortune of being awarded a scholarship to go on to University to study forestry; this was a watershed, across which I made the transition not just to adulthood, but to a whole new world and life.
Over the succeeding years I have only once or twice been back to Hale School, which to me is still the cluster of elegant colonial brick buildings on Havelock Street, now the State Convention Centre. It is greatly changed and seems to me to be extraordinarily smaller now than it was then, especially the classrooms.
Sixty-five years on: members of the Class of 1958, reassembled on the steps of the old school on Havelock Street, in 2023. ‘Underwood One’ is on the right
It may no longer be a school (indeed, our school), but the buildings retain a palpable atmosphere. Without too much trouble I can faintly hear the chatter of schoolboys lining up for morning assembly or the bellow of Under Officer Binks on the parade ground on Army Cadets day. In the old hall, I hear an echo of three hundred voices singing as one in the great, crashing emphasis on the most popular line of our most popular morning hymn.... “with great ador –RATCHION”. Or I see in my mind’s eye my friends (Bill Gibbs, Hamish Cuming, Richard Kelsall, Angus Davidson, Dick Bird and company) eating our lunches on the grass by the chemistry lab, and in the background, Bill Altorfer striding down from the boarding house on the curving brick path, his gown billowing in the breeze, his steel-rim spectacles flashing to left and right and the buttons of his reefer jacket glinting in the sun.
And when I remember these things, I cannot escape a feeling of gentle nostalgia for good days long gone. Maybe they were not the best days of my life, but they were good enough.
1. I thank Sid Breeden for the excellent 1950s-era photographs of the school and boarding house published above. Other photographs were provided to me from School archives, or copied from the Cygnet Magazine
2. An earlier version of this story appeared in my 2003 book The education of a forester.]