A site for sore eyes

Burwood High school
Burwood High school before the bitumen was laid

Original Burwood High School teacher John Griffith joined the school at its temporary site in 1955. He recalls the eager expectation – and the reality – of the first day teachers and students saw their school in its permanent location.

We arrived expectantly at our newly ready school in February 1956, after the previous year’s stay in unlined steel huts beside Ashburton Railway Station. We anticipated that our new school would be ready. The site had been excavated on the south side, while the north side was a steep slippery slope to the valley. The school had been planned to be on the level ground against Burwood Road; but no-one had realised that Burwood Road was to be widened into Burwood Highway. Rather than pay more for a new site, it was decided to move the main building farther north, which required excavating the hillside of the area sloping down to Gardiners Creek.

The buildings were ready; but after heavy rain the excavation embankment was slippery clay and the slope to the north of the school had been churned up by the builders. From Burwood Road it was risky to enter over the slippery mud. A teacher used a builder’s plank to create a narrow walkway into the school. This quickly became slippery with mud and students stood by to watch the teachers enter in the hope of a slip!

Students then entered, taking the chance that no-one would bounce on the plank and unbalance others, causing an inadvertent muddy backslide. (Subsequently the teachers all decided it was desirable to come to school early!) In due course reporters arrived and took photos of the area, the plank and the students. The Minister for Education eventually arrived, but declined the opportunity to brave the slippery board into the school.

The following day a bulldozer arrived and a convoy of trucks came with road fill from farther up Burwood Road. We watched from windows as the bulldozer dug itself inescapably into the mud, and with its motor screaming dug itself even deeper. An even larger bulldozer then arrived, attaching itself to the first one, and in turn dug itself into a pit. It too worked its motor to a noisy climax. Finally a third bulldozer was brought up, stationing itself high on the hillside, and with a heavy chain freed each bulldozer in turn from the sticky clay.

With three bulldozers on hand, the valley was filled and compressed, and topped with a layer of gravel. But in the rush, no-one had thought to plot the sewer line at the base of the valley, or to fit new sewer vents in place. Some time later the school sewer line blocked. But where was the sewer? Extended pits were dug up to 15 feet deep to locate the sewer. It was then decided that it was at the bottom of the former valley; but noone could remember where that was exactly. It took an age to find and repair, during which time the school could not operate, and students got a holiday.

All told, since the extra buildings fitted awkwardly and at considerable expense onto the narrow and unstable site, it probably would have been cheaper to dismantle the school in sections and shift it eastwards to the more expensive vacant site (owned by the Blind Institute) on Station Street.