Opinion: Condition of St Stephen’s School at Bombay is a disgrace

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St Stephens school pukekohe

St Stephen’s School, Bombay – waiting to be demolished?
Photo courtesy of Maori Television

Every time I drive past the gates of the former boys school at Bombay, St Stephen’s, I feel anger.

The school which was closed down by the Government in 2000 after months of controversy involving reports of ‘bullying and mismanagement’.

Seeing this once proud school, sitting idle in extremely run-down condition leaves me disgusted because there is no need for such a valuable facility to be abandoned like it has.

It does not help either to to hear unsubstantiated rumours that the Trust which ran the school has sold the 300 or so acres that goes with the school.

You live here. You wake up every morning and you see the guys next to you. It’s your family. Your home.

It is alleged that the new owner, a developer, is gong to let the school reach the point where council will be forced to apply a demolition order. At that time, the buildings will demolished and be replaced by some sort of residential development.

Currently the rugby field, which was the pride of the school in its heyday, is now ploughed up and leased by a local commercial grower.

I put a call into the St Stephens and Queen Victoria Schools Trust to find out the current status of St Stephen’s but the property manager is on leave until next week.

To understand why this present situation exists, one only has to read what former student, Dallas Seymour, has to say.  Dallas is one of the school’s only two All Blacks (the only one living) and he is devastated at what transpired to cause the school’s closure.

His opinion can be seen online and he states: “It hurts because it was handled so badly.  The Church and the Trust Board were constantly fighting and that has left a lot of bad blood.

“Additionally, the history of the school hasn’t been preserved. A lot of the records are gone and the land is just a mess.

“There is a movement to reopen the school, which I support and obviously the model will need some changing.

“But 150 years of history has got to mean something.”

St Stephen’s School has a marvellous history: It was the first school in New Zealand to celebrate 100 years and attracted three of the finest principals a school could ever ask for – Pat Smyth, a leading educationalist in the Maori language; L E ‘Joe’ Lewis, who was responsible for setting the school up alongside mainstream schools, establishing agriculture courses and extending playing fields mainly for rugby, something that St Stephen’s School became renowned for; and Frank “Scotty” McPherson who carried on in Mr Lewis’ footsteps.

All three were strict disciplinarians, a trait that produced some outstanding men but discipline gradually declined after the sudden death of Scotty McPherson in 1984.

Political rhetoric

A former student released a video on YouTube in 2011, anonymously, saying the present owners should be ashamed at the neglect that has befallen the school and last year, TV One reported that there were moves afoot to re-open St Stephen’s School.

In the bulletin, the St Stephen’s and Queen Victoria Schools Trust Board conceded that reopening the doors would be costly.

“That would be millions and probably beyond the board’s resources in its current form,” chairman, John Fairbrother, said.

He also stated that the trust has cleared it debts.

And old boys say that with good management and innovative thinking, the school can remove the stigma of bullying and poor performance that dogged it in its final years.

“We’re going to ensure that what we have to offer is like no other programme in New Zealand,” former student, Joe Harawira, said.

And Shane Jones, former Labour MP, said he believed a product can be created “that meets the needs of lots of modern Maori families”.

At the time of the TV One report, a feasibility working group was looking into the possibility and it would decide “if the St Stephen’s tradition can be passed on to a new generation of students.”

I am looking forward a reply from the St Stephens and Queen Victoria Schools Trust Board’s property manager who should, almost one year after the TV One report, have some clue as to the current status of the feasibility study.

The day St Stephen’s closed its doors

I can remember well the day when St Stephen’s School closed for the last time. It was in early December 2000, just as the school holidays were nearing.

It was a sad day for Maori, Pakeha and Islanders alike because this school had produced some of the country’s great leaders, was a dominant secondary school in the rugby arena and was an example of a mixed community living in harmony.

The school had a history stretching back to 1844 when it was established by Bishop Selwyn in Parnell, Auckland, and it had occupied the Bombay site since 1931.

On December 8, The New Zealand Herald reported the then Minister of Education, Trevor Mallard as saying that Government funding to the school would be cut because of concerns for the health and safety of its students and about its management.

Mr Mallard also said a new state-funded Maori boys’ school would be set up at the site – with a new name. ‘It could open its doors for the 2002 school year.’

In the same article, head boy Leonard Andrews, stated that his three years at St Stephen’s had been everything to him.

“You live here. You wake up every morning and you see the guys next to you. It’s your family. Your home,” he said.

The 17-year-old, who was going on to study law or business the next year, was disappointed and he believed media coverage of bullying incidents at the school had been exaggerated.

He was cautious about plans for the new school: “I’m used to broken promises from adults. I will hold the Minister and the Bishop to that, he was quoted as saying.”

The new school has never eventuated. Over the 13 and a half years it has been stripped bare of its historical décor with the ornate carvings and tukutuku panels removed from the wharenui (meeting house) and has been the target of vandals, resulting in broken windows which have been boarded up.

At one stage the Army used the school for exercises resulting in the part demolition of the once amazing gymnasium and other organisations including the fire services have used it for training purposes.

If I was the school’s property manager, I would be embarrassed as to what has transpired these past 14 years, so I look forward to hearing from him next week when he returns from leave.

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About the Author
Rex Warwood is a well-known local with a passion for Franklin and its people. He has been spreading the news in our area since 1979 and has held various journalism and Editor positions. Contact Rex at rex.warwood@welovepukekohe.com.
  1. Angus Watson Reply

    The boys who were raped while attending this school might have a different opinion. Destroy it, forever.

  2. Donna Mark Reply

    Kia Ora Rex thanks for this article. Over the years we’ve had a lot of whanau attend Tipene, including our son. He formed many friendships there and still maintains those friendships. We also became part of the “Tipene Whanau” and thanks to FB can still how those families are doing. From what we see there, those young men are all successful people. It is sad to see how neglected the site has become. In the dining room there were photographs of students and pupils over the years. One particular set showed a young teacher from very young right into old age, then gone in the following years. I often wonder if the site should have been registered with the historic places trust particularly the chapel and headmasters house.

  3. Paul Puna Reply

    Hi Rex

    I thought your article was a fantastic read, an good to get an outsiders view on our belovered school. Like Johnny Smyth, Tipene was home away from home for 5 years 94 to 98.
    If I could I’d do it all again.
    As Old Boys we are doing alot of positive things to promote Tipene an show that the Tipene spirit is still around. This will be highlighted when we take the field against the Wesley Old Boys on Saturday 13 September.
    Nga mihi
    Paul

  4. Charlie Timutimu Reply

    Kia ora Rex

    Great article Rex, it takes me back when I was teaching at Tipene and playing for Bombay RFC with the late Lewis Maxwell. I do share a tear or two for Lou and the now desilate St Stephens. Lewis and I were both Old Boys from the 60s and when it was closed by ERO and the Labour Gov at the time, my wife was the Principal of Tipene and she has never recovered since its closure.
    When I returned to teach at Tipene in 1989, I saw that the school was going to be in deep trouble when the then Principle handed over the Hostel Manager’s role to the Trust Board. From that moment onwards the Principal was only incharge of the school from 9 to 3, Monday to Fridfay. and for the rest of the time, the Hostel Manager was incharge. For such a small schooh 200-250 Maori pupils, this does not work with having 2 rangatira in a school.

    Regards Charlie

  5. John Smythe Reply

    Thank you Rex for this article on our school,it was my home for 5 years 1980/84.
    I named my son who was born in 2000 Tipene and dreamed that by now he would be a student there.
    Those were the best years of my life.

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