Memories of a North Shore Nonagenarian
By Angela Te Wiata
On April 16, 1926, when Max Hart was just five months and 18 days old, a significant event occurred in the history of education at Takapuna on Auckland’s sparsely populated North Shore: the Minister of Education James Parr laid the foundation stone for Takapuna Grammar School.
It was the same year Scotsman Captain John Algie built another North Shore icon, Merksworth Castle on Hurstmere Road, as a symbol of his undying love for his new Scottish bride.
In 1939, 13 years after Mr Parr cemented the school’s foundation stone in place with an ornate trowel with a greenstone handle, Max Hart, was a timid new student as he walked through the gates to begin his secondary education.
Now, nearly 80 years later a thoroughly charming Max Hart, his wife Shirley and their son Adrian spent a chilly winter morning recalling for me and Takapuna Grammar archivist, Wendy Strain, some of the highlights of his time at Takapuna Grammar and his life on the North Shore.
After 90 years Max Hart is still one of the North Shore’s biggest fans.
He was born on the North Shore, educated on the North Shore and has lived most of his life on the North Shore, apart from a short spell overseas after World War II.
His education began at Takapuna Primary School but it was his secondary education at Takapuna Grammar which shaped Max’s talent and kindled the two passions which were to become an integral part of his life – sculpting and civil engineering.
Most of Max Hart’s working life after he left Takapuna Grammar was dominated by his career as a civil engineer with the Ministry of Works. Among his engineering achievements was the Victoria Park overbridge in Auckland.
During a four and a half year spell in England shortly after World War II he also worked from an office in the historic area of Holborn he designed many of the London buildings which replaced those brought down in one of the heaviest bombing blitzes in military history.
But as a young teenager at Takapuna Grammar another passion was emerging for the talented Max Hart. He enjoyed nothing more in his spare time than sculpting. He began with heads, creating bronze busts of his three children first, Sue, Adrian and Christopher. He was taught sculpture from professional art teacher Lyndon Smith a teacher at Westlake.
It was a passion which has lasted a lifetime, and in the mid 1970s when he was about 50 he began teaching sculpting at Westlake High School night classes.
Max was born on the North Shore on October 29,1925, and as he nears his 91st birthday he is just as sprightly as I remember him when I was a young girl aged 5 or 6. I spent many an afternoon in the cool basement of his Takapuna home in Minnehaha Ave, having my head sculpted in bronze.
His basement was an amazing and cluttered studio with artist’s equipment, and plaster of Paris. I would cross Hurstmere Road from my home on the edge of Lake Pupuke, and run down to the bottom of Minnehaha to the Hart residence and join Max in his studio.
I had to sit so still while he studied my face intently, and he would share small
talk with me. I loved those visits and Max Hart and his family are entwined in my childhood.
My grandfather, Logan Nicks, and his brother Rowan Nicks, (both foundation pupils at Takapuna Grammar) also grew up in the sparsely populated North Shore when everybody knew everybody. It was before the harbour bridge opened in 1959 and those who wanted to drive on the North Shore but lived on the city side of the bridge would take their cars onto the car ferry.
My grandparents Logan and Joyce Nicks socialised with many old Takapuna families and I am familiar with their names, including the Craigs from O’Neills Avenue, the Mahons, the Speedys, the Winstones, Alma O’Neill, the Rees-Georges, and the
Beachmans, to name a few.
Max, and I chatted about how lucky and privileged we were to know the North Shore
when we did.
Max, began his education at Takapuna Primary School, before attending Takapuna Grammar School from 1939/40 to 1943 when he left as a sixth former to join the
air force to train as a pilot. The war ended before he could be sent overseas and he left the air force to study engineering at the University of Auckland.
At TGS he studied, French, Latin, math, English, chemistry and art and has fond memories of teachers Phoebe Meikle and Harvey Thompson (Baldy).
Max said his memory of another teacher “Shorty” Mr Short, (also known as ‘The Major”) was that he was brilliant at math, but not brilliant at teaching math, it made me chuckle. Shorty also taught Max’s father Bryce Hart at Auckland Grammar”.
Bryce Hart was also a well-known Takapuna identity.
“He was a lawyer who went to Takapuna Primary and later to Auckland Grammar by ferry. He also wrote for the New Zealand Herald and did caricature. My sister went to Dio, which I think must have been a status thing,” Max said.
For our interview I took Bryce’s book Bryce Hart – New Zealand’s
Advocate of Laughter which Max edited with Noel ‘Wig’ Gardiner for Max to sign.
A brilliant, quirky book encompassing life and friendships from a bygone era.
On page 18 Max wrote of his father’s caricatures of the staff at Auckland
Grammar: “A full page of caricatures of the staff of the school including
the famous ‘Tibbs’, was published in The Bulletin. I was interested to
note that ‘Short and Sweet’, my Dad’s math’s master Mr Short, many years later was my math’s master at Takapuna Grammar. He was then known
as ‘The Major’,” Max said.
Max said the man known as ‘Military Matters’ was Ken Dellow, who later became his headmaster.
When Max attended Takapuna Grammar Mr Dellow, was headmaster and
lived on the corner of Earnoch Avenue and Hurstmere Road, opposite the old Post Office, now a law office.
Max said students who wanted to bring a car to Takapuna Grammar had to first obtain Mr Dellow’s permission and mostly there was only one car parked at the school and it belonged to a student. Many students came from Bayswater and Belmont.
“I mainly travelled by bike,” Max told me. “On occasions my mate Campbell Craig and I even rowed to school, leaving our dinghy at St Leonard’s beach.”
(Another member of the Craig family, Gordon, was also a great mate of my grand father, Logan Nicks. Angela Te Wiata).
Max played rugby, as he said “it was the thing to do” and recalls ‘Ratty’ Smallfield (Robbie) and fellow student Bert Sutcliffe, a great rugby fullback and a New Zealand cricketing legend.
Sutcliffe was touring with the New Zealand cricket team in South Africa in 1953 when the Wellington to Auckland express plunged into the Whangaehu River at Tangiwai on Christmas Eve, 1953, killing 151 people in New Zealand’s worst rail disaster.
The disaster had a great impact on the New Zealand team. The second test against South Africa began the day before Christmas and a few hours later team member Bob Blair heard that his fiancée, Nerissa Love, was one of those killed. Blair was not expected to bat when the test resumed on Boxing Day but when appeared at the crease to join Sutcliffe, the capacity Johannesburg crowd stood in absolute silence. The two added 33 for the last wicket in a test which earned Blair and the New Zealand team world global praise for their courage.
It was a disaster which shocked New Zealand and for many decades after the tragedy Christmas was never the same for the loved ones of those who died.
For Max and Takapuna Grammar students, the school day began with a show of Royal loyalty when they all sang the British national anthem.
“When the school hall was built, it was used for assembly, I would walk up the main gate, and enter the school on the left,” Max said. “We had girls in our class, 5th and 6th form. I remember we would sing God save the King. it was always sung back then.”
Takapuna Grammar opened officially in 1927 and was the first co-educational school under the auspices of the Auckland Grammar Schools’ Board. It established its own Board of Governors in 1955 but still shares its motto with Auckland Grammar: Per Angusta Ad Augusta. (Through endeavour to greatness).
Max recalls that during World War II air raid trenches were dug at the school in case New Zealand was attacked by enemy bombers. They were where the Special Education Department is now housed in the old student library by St Leonard’s Road.
“We did dummy runs, ducked down in the trenches. As children we just took things as they were, we didn't really appreciate what it was all about at the time, and it was quite fun”.
When I asked Max what did he did for fun, the conversation became quite
“I would fish for piper off O’Neills Ave, down by the beach.”
When Shirley mentioned my Uncle Rowan Nicks to Max, I told her that he became
passionate about medicine when he rescued an albatross, with a broken wing. Uncle Rowan fixed his wing and fed him piper, which he and Grandpa (Logan Nicks) would catch off Black Rock. He taught the albatross to fly again before it was released back into the wild.
When Max talked about the petrified trees at the bottom of Thornes Bay, and the blow hole on the shores of Brett Ave, it brought back another raft of childhood memories for me.
It reminded me that as a young girl my friends and I would put our ears to the ground on our property on the shores of Lake Pupuke and listen to the water gurgling under the ground, We would see eels that would travel from Lake Pupuke to Thornes Bay.
Wendy asked about Merksworth Castle, the imposing stone castle built on Hurstmere Road in 1926 by Captain John Algie with tonnes of basalt carted from Smales quarry on the shores of Lake Pupuke. North Shore people loved Captain Algie’s Castle. It is a heritage building and recently had an extensive makeover to bring it into the 21st century while maintaining its heritage features.
I said as a youngster my friends and I, would go to the Giant’s Chair on the beach below the castle and play in the shallows of Algie’s pool. “It was a fairy play land”.
Shirley then asked me about Under the Mountain, the children’s book written by New Zealand author Maurice Gee and later made into a movie. ‘Wilberforce house’ which features in the book and the movie, was built on our back lawn on the shores of Lake Pupuke. My younger sister Rachael and I put up a pup tent, and we were allowed to stay in the tent during filming, generally at night with dried ice setting the scene.
Rachel and Theo Matheson, the twins who starred in Under the Mountain, were not much older than us. In the story their mother dies and Rachel and Theo are sent to live with relatives in Auckland, where they come across three alien races.
I reflected on Max’s words on growing up in Takapuna: “How lucky we were, so privileged”.
On a wet and wild June morning our conversation and Max’s reflections which stretched back nearly 80 years gave me a great sense of warmth.
Just as Max felt privileged to have grown up on the North Shore, I too felt privileged to have shared some very special moments of nostalgia with a very dear and special friend.
Ron Player – TGS 1945-49
Congratulations on a lovely newsletter. I’m Ron Player PhD, geology, aged 81, now long retired. I was at Takapuna Grammar 1945-49, prefect, cricket and soccer captain. Returned and taught PE for a year in the late 50’s while completing my MSc. Now Australian, but never forget the ‘old school’ and wish you all success and prosperity. My wife is Vivienne (nee Keys) also an ‘old girl’, dux (1956), prefect and we’ve been happily married for 53 years.
Thank you. Memories gain value as time passes.
I can look back now and realise just how scary and uncertain those formative years between about 15 and 20 were. Perhaps the following could be called ‘Finding yourself’. Perhaps it might help some of your current young ones as we all have to do the same self-discovery at some stage.
I had no idea what I wanted to be while I was at Grammar School. I knew I had a bit of a sense for adventure, but so do most boys. I knew New Zealand was very small and a huge world existed ‘out there’. I loved sports, tolerated most taught subjects, and had a bit of a bent for things of the natural world that could be observed, picked up, and pondered about. I remember in the 4th Form a science teacher (‘Bug’ Giles) showed us the Geological Time Scale. It fascinated me at the time and without any real effort I found that I’d memorised it. That in itself was unusual and remarkable for me at that time.
I managed to pass School Certificate, was accredited with Matriculation, but what I was going to do with my life was still a big unknown. In desperation and because my parents said I was ‘good with kids’ I went to Teachers Training College. I liked teaching, but still had an ‘itch’ for more. I was still searching. I did a subject at University while at Training College and one day while wandering in the grounds I noticed a building with a heading ‘Geology’. I asked a friend: “What do you do in Geology?”. “Oh you study about rocks, fossils, minerals and how things work. You have to go overseas.” Rocks? Fossils? Minerals? How things work? Go overseas? I think I was 20 and I remember experiencing a surge of interest that was pretty new to me. I inquired, found that I could take the subject, enrolled, and that was the beginning for me. Everything ‘before’ was in one compartment; everything after was ‘my life’. I was going to be a ‘geologist.’
My message? Young people should never give in when searching for what they can do with their lives. They should never panic. They should learn to let time pass but keep their wits alert, and their ‘mental search channel’ wide open.
Also, quite remarkably, I have always remembered what a teacher wrote in my autograph book so many years ago when I finished primary school----
‘The world is wide in time and tide, so do not hurry,
And God is guide whate’er betide so do not worry.’