Memories of school days through the eyes of a Lapun B4: Patricia Poircuitte (neé Spence)

At a recent small lunch gathering in Sydney, we happened to be three B4s from the Wau Valley area, together with children and grandchildren. In due course talk came around to schooling in New Guinea. The younger ones were intensely interested in what school was like in the “olden days ‘in PNG. I was urged to jot down a few reminiscences, if, for no other reason, to compare education then and now in the territory.

My Father, Bert Spence, was one of a few men in the Wau area who, in the early 30s, formed a small delegation to confer with the minister of Queensland Education—either Frank Cooper (1932-38) or Reg King (1929-32)—as to the feasibility of establishing a small school in the Wau area. At this time, the local children were either schooled at home by parents, or by correspondence. Eventually, all the right boxes were ticked and yes, we would be given a school building, teachers and all basic requirements for primary education. Unfortunately, the main criterion for opening the school was that at least eight children of school age enrolled. I say unfortunate because only seven such children could be rounded up. So my sister, Nancy, who was then only about four and a bit years old, and not of school age, was quietly placed on the school roll to make up the head count. I wonder if her name was called at roll call each morning. And Wau had its school, thanks in large part to my father.

Permission to establish a school was one thing but getting a roof over the kids’ heads was another hurdle. Government officialdom, being then just what it is today, was pretty slack in providing the school buildings so for some time lessons were given to the kids on the verandah of Burns Philp’s Wau store. Eventually, a school house was built, a very small one, but as the township grew and more children were enrolled, the building was enlarged to become two rooms. The photo on page 127 of Tales of Papua New Guinea, taken in the front of the school, is the enlarged school, the original building being in the background. By the way, the teacher in the centre of that photo is Jean Stevens.

My earliest memories of this school were of using slate boards and pencils and copy books from which to learn and practice our letters and numbers. Exercise books were probably in short supply and reserved for the older children. We learned history and geography from school readers handed out by teachers who explained and supervised. I recall a photograph of a statue of a Roman Soldier in the front of one of the readers, captioned “faithful unto death”. I believe it was a statue from the ruins of Pompei. We read stories from Aesop and learned the names of the world’s continents and great rivers. Our “sums” were first learned on the black board, then as we progressed we used the arithmetic card system. These were cards printed with ten simple problems and exercises. I say “simple”, but I hated maths so much that I would pray for a card of easy problems. They were issued randomly and were all different so that when we wrote our answers into our books, no cheating could occur. Not a bad idea, in hindsight. All our teachers were very good and very strict and not averse to using the cane on both girls and boys when necessary. Over a period of about six to seven years, our teachers were Messrs Garvie, Howard, Dooner, Stamper, Woolley and our lady teachers were Mrs Frazer, Mrs Stevens and Miss Tindale. I remember Mrs Frazer teaching us singing whist she accompanied us on a very old “dulcitone”, an instrument that few today would know about. It is a small piano, about two feet long, where the sound is made by small tuning forks.

Some of the pupils came to school from great distances such as Kaindi and Bulolo and would be brought in on the back of a lorry, usually provided by New Guinea Goldfields. At 3 pm, they would again be picked up by truck and taken home. The rest of us walked. I clearly remember the day Mr Dooner lectured us that as the “main roads” had been widened, we were now to walk on the side footpaths and not in the middle of the road. Looking back on it, I can’t imagine what difference it would have made as cars were a rarity and the roads were never paved anyway.

We always looked forward to our lunch breaks as mum would have delivered our lunches of freshly made sandwiches and treats, together with “mouli water” (lemon juice), all packed up in a Buka basket and dispatched by one of the haus bois. The term “Buka basket” relates to the island of Buka off the east coast from which this style of basked originated. I still have one on my kitchen table. The locals from Buka had quite black skin. Lunch was always eaten under a grass-roofed “rotunda” with a dirt floor, but later on, a larger tin-roofed, concrete-floored shed was erected for us. We thought it was sheer luxury. We played games after eating, boys kicking a ball around, playing marbles, etc., while the girls played hop-scotch and girlie games. We were incredibly unsophisticated and simple, but we knew nothing else.

The last couple of hours on a Friday were for religious instruction, when Padre Sherwin and Father Glover would each have one of the two rooms for their flock, after which they would go to the only tennis court in the town and play a few strenuous sets of tennis. There was certainly no religious rivalry between these two fine gentlemen or in the little town of Wau.

On another afternoon in the week, after school had finished for the day, Major Ayres, a dapper little retired British army major, would come and teach elocution to those children whose parents had elected for them to stay behind and learn the finer points of “correct speech” in the true British way. Mr Ayres must have been interested in the arts because he became involved with Mrs Hoyle and Mrs Brough in producing school plays and pantomimes.

Clearly I remember the coronation of King George VI in 1936. All the school-age kids were allocated a coronation medal to mark the occasion and these were kept at Rabaul ready for distribution, but because of the violent volcanic eruptions of 1937, the medals, when we finally received them, were very heavily tarnished, probably by the sulphurous fumes from the eruption. But we all thought that the coloured mottling effect made them even prettier. Also, to mark the coronation, each child was given a tree, our own special tree to plant and maintain, which we placed around the school’s perimeter. As I recall, they all thrived but, of course, we never saw them grow to maturity because everything came to an abrupt end in 1942 with the Japanese invasion.

Compared to modern teaching methods and facilities, our tiny school was almost archaic, but the diligence of the teachers must have sown the seeds of learning in quite a few receptive minds for our school provided a primary school education to quite a few adults who went on to outstanding careers in various fields.

When the school year ended in 1941 and prizes were given out, mine being a book of Greek mythology that I never got to read, and everything was locked away for the next year, none of us knew that our lives were about to change forever; we were about to be evacuated to cities we knew nothing about and didn’t want to live in. I was almost 11 at the time. 

As I call a halt to my memories, I am reminded of the words of novelist Graham Greene in The Power and the Glory: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”


Leave a Reply