Supporters of Tuapeka Mouth Ferry

Contact Info

Heritage Hub: Skinner Road
Tuapeka Mouth,


Tuapeka Ferry: Ferry Road
Tuapeka Mouth,


Attending Tuapeka Mouth School: 1943 – 48

W J Cowan; August, 2023
I turned five years of age in May 1942 and the question of ‘education’ raised its head.
Tuapeka Mouth School was the nearest at three miles distant but the problem of transport
had to be addressed. We were in the middle of WW2 and petrol was strictly rationed. There
were no bus services in the district and the rural delivery car was no use as it travelled from
Lawrence to Tuapeka Mouth in the evenings. Also transporting a child to and from School
took quite a chunk out of a farmer’s working day. (The Education Board may have provided
a travelling allowance based on mileages to the nearest school, but this was really of little
Faced with these difficulties my parents adopted an easy option and sent me off to Dunedin
to live with my Grandparents, the Moore family, at 878 Cumberland Street where I attended
George Street School for a year. My grandparents were very kind to me but living away from
home was not all beer and skittles particularly at night time when there were air-raid sirens
wailing and searchlights criss-crossing the skies. No wonder Grandfather always listened
intently to the 9 p.m. BBC world news.
After a year or so of living at 878 my parents decided to try-out Plan B: this would involve
me returning home and the purchase of a suitable pony on which I could ride to and from
Tuapeka Mouth School. A pony, named Tibby, was bought from someone near Awamunga
and I was taught how to ride her. A saddle was adapted with ‘boots’ fitted to the stirrups to
prevent me being dragged in case Tibby decided to buck me off which happened on a fairly
regular basis.
But let’s be honest here; the expectations that a six year old plus recalcitrant pony making a
safe, regular, daily trek to school, in all weathers, over indifferent roads lacked a certain
amount of parental thought and consideration. The problems soon became apparent. The
further Tibby travelled from home the slower she plodded; returning home the opposite
happened, the closer to home the faster Tibby galloped. On arriving at School Tibby was
removed of her bridle and saddle and allowed to graze in the School glebe, a paddock of
about an acre and once designated to be the local cemetery.
Anyone reading thus far will be able to anticipate the outcomes. Tibby seemed to take all
day to reach School. Releasing her into the glebe was no problem but catching her after
School was another matter. Naturally there had to be an audience and this was provided by
local children. A mob of these roaring around the field attempting to catch the pony did
little to calm Tibby. I can’t recall the outcome; perhaps a passing adult took charge, caught
and saddled up the beast and bade me a safe trip home.
Now the scene was set for the final ignominy. Tibby, sensing ‘home’, quickened her pace
first into a trot and finally a gallop. I couldn’t cope with this and early-on was bucked-off
onto the side of the road suffering a few abrasions, but not much else, and watching Tibby
disappearing over the horizon, hooves flying.

What Mum’s thoughts were as she saw a riderless Tibby flash past the kitchen window is
anyone’s guess but it immediately initiated Plan C. Plan C was to involve forgetting about
any further involvement with Tibby; on reflection I think the pony experiment only lasted
for about three days anyway. It was arranged for Dad, or a farm helper, to take me by car to
the top of Mill Hill every morning and I would walk from there to School. On Monday,
Wednesday and Friday afternoons Hec Soper, with his rural delivery van on the Tuapeka
Mouth – Lawrence run, would bring me home. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I would set off
walking up Mill Hill hoping that I would be met by Dad sooner rather than later. Sisters
Kathleen and later Dorothy joined the school party on their fifth birthdays. When the Steel
children began school the transport arrangements were shared. These continued until the
closure of Tuapeka Mouth school at the end of 1948.
Where to now? Maybe a description of the grounds might be the most sensible. Situated in
a rectangle of ground occupying about two acres including the glebe, it was bordered to the
west by the road to the punt and to the north and east by the main road to Lawrence fifteen
miles distant. The southern boundary, which met the Reserve, was bordered by a stand of
pines for about half its length. Near this boundary and opposite the tennis courts was
located the rather down-at-heel school house occupied by Clarence and Mrs McLeod.
(Clarence was a decorated WW1 soldier).
The School building was in the shape of a capital ‘T’ with the ‘crossbar’ the 1908-built room
facing east. To the south were two toilet blocks, boys to the west, and girls. There was a
play-shed complete with a horizontal ladder at the western end of the playground which lay
between the School and the main road. Just west of the school and behind the playshed was
a double row of young pine trees running north and south while just west of these was a
tennis court.
Suitably confused? Inside the School the arrangements were more straightforward.
Negotiating the front porch led into a high-ceiling passage complete with many coathooks
from which we hung our bags and coats. At the end of this were two fire extinguishers: one
a cone-shaped carbolic device about a yard long and mounted on the wall, the other a push
me-pull- you pump was mounted inside a ten gallon or so circular, water-filled container.
Any self-respecting fire would have laughed its head off at the feeble flow this device
produced. Electricity was about ten years into the future which meant there were brackets
here and there for attaching lanterns to the walls. Lanterns could also be suspended from
the ceiling.
Prior to the opening of the Coronation Hall, all district functions were held in the original
classroom which must have been crammed during the local dances. Many of these dances
went on through the night until daybreak and the cows had to be milked.
Now for some odd reason classes were not held in the most suitable classroom: the 1908
addition. This had windows along three walls, was well-ventilated and generally more user-
friendly. But its use, in my time, was to store unused desks and the school piano. The
original classroom room dated from 1870 and local legend says that it was built to plans
according to the northern hemisphere. Hence the windows were facing our south when
they should have faced north. It seems that windows facing south were initially installed
because their locations were actually boarded up.

So this room only had windows on the north wall and was altogether rather pokey. Seating
faced east with older children at the rear. The desks for children up to about Standard Four
were of the dual variety: two children per desk with flip up seats. The desk top contained
recesses for pencils and inkwells. Older children, up to Standard Six (F.2.), may have had
individual desks and chairs. Other classroom furniture consisted of at least two blackboards
and easels, one or two standard Otago Education Board dual-door cupboards and the odd
table. In the middle of the room was a coal-burning stove with its flue taking a leisurely
route up to the ceiling. The stove had a flat surface capable of heating a pot or kettle.
Remember that in the Winter hot, highly over-sugared cocoa was supplied to the pupils,
and heated by this stove. Did senior children prepare this goo?
Miss Bell Skinner, Robert Skinner Senior’s daughter, was the Sole Teacher at the Mouth and
I’m sure she did a creditable job. Her task, not an easy one, was to teach a variety of
subjects to a class of about 25 children whose ages ranged from five to thirteen. Bell
covered the basics which included reading, maths and writing. Other subjects received
infrequent attention. There was some music and art but topics such as nature study and
phys. ed. received fleeting attention and usually only when a visiting subject-advisor called.
This meant that nature study and phys. ed. Received only about six hours concentrated
attention per year. There were no Bible in School classes that I can recall though the RC
pupils had a weekly session with the Lawrence priest at the local church. The priest drove a
Ford coupe and he would wait outside the School to collect his flock at three o’clock. If there
were half a dozen waiting, three would cram inside the Ford, the others clung to the running
boards and roof and off the priest would set sail.
Bell’s favourite teaching position was seated in a comfortable arm-chair beside the stove.
The children came to Bell, not the other way round. She may have had a little table there
containing such teaching aids as marker pencils, chalk and loose paper. Also tucked-away on
the table or bench was an opened tin of Highlander condensed milk, heady stuff for young
taste buds but very much liked by Bell. Did she take it straight or add it to her tea? She
encouraged older girls, at lunchtime, to comb her hair.
Playground duty was not regarded by Bell as an essential part of her job description. On a
warm day she might sit in the sun inside the play-shed but it was not part of her routine to
wander around the playground and encourage the pupils in the games they were playing.
Older children, especially the boys, were engaged in ‘other activities’. These could be
described in one word: ‘digging’. For some reason there was always a hut, on the outer
edges of the playground and in or near the belt of young pines, being dug. Excavating these
huts was the only use ever made of the School’s supply of digging implements; these were
originally supplied to establish school gardens. Once the huts were dug to a sufficient depth,
around four feet, they were thatched using wood from the pines and clods of earth.
Once completed the old hut was abandoned and a start made on a new one nearby. But
why this desire to dig; something primeval, the need to seek cover and protection? The
older boys didn’t seem to be into games unless you called bullying a ‘game’. For there was a
fair bit of this around not only for the younger children, as recipients, but for some families
in particular. Bell didn’t seem to be aware of this occurring under her ‘watch’. Perhaps the

fact that the worst bully, L., being one of her nephews, may have explained her indifference
to the menace. Why L. behaved this way only a psychologist could explain. But out in the
cloakroom/passage he would pick on someone for no reason at all: bash, wallop, thump. I
seem to remember copping my fair share from L. when I announced to all and sundry that
my Wanganui aunt had just produced twins. That was worth a medium-sized drubbing at
So, what did we do at playtimes, us younger fry? There was always the ‘sandpit’, an uneven
depression near the foot of the giant macrocarpa in the north east, playground corner. Here
we built roads and construction sites powered by basic but sturdy toys such as the die-cast
Fun Ho series. This pit was not a quiet place. Every truck, tractor and piece of powered
equipment was operated at full throttle with each item contributing its own unique exhaust
note to the cacophony.
On occasions we played the odd ‘scrag’ sort of game like Bar the Door. Occasionally there
were fights. My ‘favourite’ opponent was J.; we had regular fisticuffs with no clear winner.
We did play ‘rounders’ on a diamond-shaped pitch using hoops as bases. This was really a
much milder form of softball.
One playground feature which was acceptable all those years ago but would be regarded as
abhorrent now was the Vickers Machine gun, happily inoperable. Hard to believe these
days, but in the context of the times quite appropriate, that after the end of WW1 schools
became the recipients of war weaponry as some sort of reminder of the recent conflict.
There was an order to the weapons supplied, a sort of ‘sliding scale’: smaller schools ended-
up with machine guns and the like while larger schools ‘earned’ field artillery, the big guns.
Our Vickers sat rusting and seized-up near the row of pines where it was treated with
indifference. I can’t recall anyone actually ‘playing’ with the thing.
There was practically no interchange with other schools. Tuapeka Mouth did take part in the
annual South Otago Primary Schools’ Athletic Sports held at the Balclutha Showgrounds in
November. We would put in some desultory practice on the nearby Reserve where there
was a long jump pit. I did reasonably well at the long jump but in any races would finish near
There were few ‘champions’ among us; a far cry, indeed, from the early Thirties when an
athletic team from the Mouth came close to winning the prize for top school in the Otago
Primary Schools’ Champs. But there was a one-off occasion when a seven aside team from
the Mouth played rugby against a similar grade team from Lawrence District High at
Lawrence. I think they beat us hollow but there was one unforgettable moment when Peter
Dickson scored a try running about the length of the field carrying not only the ball but a
Lawrence boy who was hanging onto Peter’s back trying to bring him down.
However, let’s return to the classroom in an attempt to explain how we spent our scholastic
day. The morning, when the children were fresh and dewy-eyed, was spent on the ‘hard
stuff’ like arithmetic, reading and english which mainly consisted of writing. Department of
Education textbooks were supplied for each class level in arithmetic and English and we duly
plodded our way through these year by year with help from Bell. Arithmetic was strictly

arithmetic with a strong emphasis on problem solving and no mention at all of any other
aspects of mathematics. The english textbooks, very thin volumes, presented us with a wide
selection of activities but mainly topics on which to write about.
Before we got down to the daily grind the first session was devoted to ‘morning talks’. These
could have lasted up to half an hour depending on the material on offer. (I can’t recall
morning talks being on the menu when I first began at the Mouth; they may have been a
later development). But one morning I may have broken the boredom-inducing record when
I blathered-on for about 45 minutes describing a new Mountain-class of locomotive recently
introduced by the Canadian National Railroad. Well, you see, I had a copy of a recent
Popular Mechanics magazine explaining everything and once I gained the floor this
particular morning I set-out to keep it. Bell just let me ramble on and it wouldn’t have
surprised me if most of my captive audience fell asleep. It was exhaustion on my part which
brought this great exposition to a halt, not any action on Bell’s part.
An important part of the day was the handwriting lesson: how to hold the pen or pencil and
how to shape printed and cursive forms of the letters. (I don’t think the Palmer style of
cursive writing had been introduced as yet). We had an entire exercise book devoted to the
practice of these letter shapes. The most important part of the day was the reading lesson.
For those in the primer and early standard classes this involved us being hauled-out one by
one to the stove area where Bell would ‘hear’ us read aloud. There was a certain emphasis
on the teaching of phonics but I seem to recall the ‘whole word’ method was used where
we memorized the shape and sounds of each word with a strong emphasis on
comprehension, the understanding of the story and where it was taking the reader.
Our early readers were those published by Whitcombe & Tombs and were graded up to
about book six. These readers contained short articles extracted from other publications
and many of these contained a moral of some sort. Hands up those who can remember
reading of ‘Bertie the Germ’ and his vile habits which encouraged readers to brush and
brush their teeth often and often? Then there was the story of the ‘Rain Rope’ dangling
down from a resident cloud. You were a farmer, it was a hot day and your crops were
wilting, you needed rain. So, you strode over to the rain rope, gave it a good tug and the
showers began. But then arrives onto the scene your angry neighbour who is about to shear
his sheep and the last thing he needs is a downpour. So, he gives the rope a good yank and
out comes the sun. You can see where this story is heading to: fisticuffs.
For older children, who were mainly independent readers, there was that great boon, The
School Journal, published by the Department on a regular basis and on about four levels of
reading/maturity difficulty. These journals were for ‘keepers’; us pupils could hang onto
them. It wasn’t until about 1957 that the journals were published quarterly, on heavier
paper, but remaining the property of the school.
Some of the journal stories were memorable. For a period about 1947 there was a series on
the early Otago goldfields and the travails of recovering the precious metal. Here we learnt
about the Irish miners of Matakanui who had to construct miles of water races before they
could begin sluicing and how this party had been ‘grub-staked’ by the local shop-keeper
during this time. We learnt about the deep pit formed beside St Bathan’s main street which

hosted the longest hydraulic ‘elevator’ in the world. This was all heady stuff for a young boy
who had a strong interest in the efforts of our pioneers.
There was one resource though which was sadly-lacking, and I don’t suppose our School was
any different in this regard, that of a decent supply of library books for recreational reading.
I mean, it was all well and good to be able to read but what did this lead onto? One of the
Education Board cupboards contained a shelf or two of books but I think they were mainly
non-fiction and had been part of a Board supply. There may have been some part-works of a
children’s encyclopedia. Certainly, no use was made of the School Library Service whereby
books were supplied, on loan, to schools. (Maybe it didn’t exist in the Forties).
Bell may have read us stories after school resumed at 1 p.m. There would have been time
for some art work and the chance to finish-off formal work not completed before lunch. If
the weather was fine some games of rounders might be played after the 2 p.m. break. But I
have nearly forgotten the ‘milk break’! Some time after 2 p.m. Dave Cross’ Clutha Valley bus
would arrive at the Mouth bringing the crate of school milk from Balclutha. Now this crate
had been well-travelled to Greenfield, to Clydevale and up the Rongahere Road as far as the
punt before crossing to the Mouth.
No doubt the milk was cool and drinkable when initially placed in Dave’s bus at the
Balclutha Milk Treatment Station but when it arrived at the Mouth it was anything but. It
was warm and it was curdled. But we drank the stuff through a straw and it seemed to do us
no harm. Two children were sent off to the shop, probably during afternoon play to return
the previous day’s milk crate with cleaned half-pint (?) bottles. The full crate could be quite
heavy to lug back the 200 yards or so to School. Each full bottle was capped off with a
cardboard ‘stopper’ which had a hole stamped into it for the straw. Some children, the
naughty ones, became adept at pressing the cardboard top in such a way as to cause a jet of
milk to squirt out; a squirt which could be aimed at someone of choice.
[Caveat: sensitive readers and/or those who abide by all current Health and Safety regs.
should skip the next paragraph or two]. I have already mentioned that there were two toilet
blocks at the School, rather primitive affairs, and yet relatively, recently- erected which
makes one wonder what the original installations were like. The present toilets weren’t
encumbered with the complexities of a flushing system. No, the ‘products’ of the various
toilets dropped into a large pit which extended the length of each building.
This was a simple system which gave no trouble and was relatively odourless. But there
came a time when the pits filled-up to the extent where they needed emptying. Who would
undertake this unappealing task? As no adult seemed able to devote time and energy to this
job some bright spark on the School Committee suggested it should be offered to a couple
of senior boys with payment. It turned out that the two senior boys were John Hames and
myself. Our parents must have given the OK for us to be employed, during school time, so
we were set to work substituting formal lessons for the practical work of nightcart duties.
Memory seems to have repressed details of how we went about this business but a wheel
barrow, shovels and pickaxes were essential equipment. Earlier deposits had dried-out and
congealed into something resembling soft clay. This was dug out onto the wheelbarrow and

wheeled away, but to where? Was it bagged or dumped in a discreet corner of the
playground from where it could be removed by anyone wanting to ‘pep-up’ their vegetable
garden’s productivity? These days there are many activities in life which were once
acceptable but are now on a ‘forbidden’ list. Employing a couple of ten year olds to empty
school pit toilets would be near the top of such a list.
Tuapeka Mouth and Taumata Schools were the two which didn’t accept the 1938 invitation
to close and be consolidated with the rest of the Valley schools onto the new District High
School under construction at Greenfield. Taumata relented and closed after the War; but
not the Mouth which stayed independent until 1948. High School children, almost without
exception, attended Clutha Valley D.H.S, travelling via the Puketi bus which turned east at
the Presbyterian Church corner. However, word seemed to have filtered into the village that
there were certain learning and social advantages to be gained from attending the High
School’s primary-level classes. And so, starting about 1946, began the slow defection of local
children, including Bell’s nephews, to the C.V.D.H.S.
This slow trickle gained speed resulting in only a handful of children attending the local
School by 1948. [During this year I was the only boy in F 1, there was no-one in F2, and the
roll would have been less than 20]. The writing was clearly on the wall and to gauge local
opinion a number of meetings were held. I think it would be fair to say that the most
staunch supporters for keeping TM open could sense they were losing the battle. I
understand that, in keeping with meetings of this kind, opinions were ‘warmly expressed’.
One of Bell’s sisters, a spinster, spoke fervently about the need for the School to stay open
but had the wind taken out of her sails when someone asked her how many children she
had attending the School!
Was there a ceremony to mark the School’s closure? I can’t recall, maybe its memory was
wiped-out by the excitement of attending a new school and travelling by bus. Did we have a
School Concert? Certainly, the pool of available talent had diminished. These annual
Concerts, held in the local Coronation Hall, were a high point in the School Year. We seemed
to take weeks in preparation. I was a ‘star turn’ at one or two of them for one reason or
other. I remember playing opposite the glamorous Anne May in one item and having to sing
‘Pedro the Fisherman’ in a croaky voice. ‘Prizes’ in the form of books were handed-out by a
generous School Committee at the end of the performance.
Before I finish I need to recall, to the best of my memory, the names of the children who
attended the Mouth School at one time or another during my stay: Peter, Tony and Louis
DICKSON; Robert CARTWRIGHT; Kathleen and Margaret KEENAN; Graeme and Heather
STEEL; Tay ANDERSON; Owen, Valda, Dawn and Brian HOULISTON; Anne and Robin MAY;
Anne and Graeme McGOWAN; John and Wilma HAMES; Bill, Kathleen and Dorothy COWAN;
John, Percy and Trevor BURROWS; the GRAYS; the Dave HOULISTONS; the HALLS; the
There was a sadness about the School’s closure which was palpable throughout the district
even amongst those who had voted for its closure. The local Garage and Shop may have
been the hub of the community but the School was certainly its ‘heart’. Bell Skinner was

appointed to the Roxburgh Health Camp School where I know she would have been an
undemanding and caring ‘mother figure’ to the many children who had a stay at the Camp.
Thanks to a number of happy circumstances Tuapeka Mouth School still stands and is well
maintained. Bought first of all by the South Otago Presbyterian Church it served for some
years as a Bible Class Camp with redundant railway carriages serving as bunkhouses. Now I
believe the School has come under Regional Council Control with its day to day
management resting with a local Committee.