Mount Cook Infant School building 1877

Children are lined up outside Mount Cook Infants’ School in 1877.
Credit: Alexander Turnbull Library, Evening Post Collection. Reference: EP/1975/3057/23-F. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

First schools on Mount Cook

In the 1870s educational opportunities for school-aged children in Wellington were limited to small public schools or private tuition. However, 1875 saw the establishment of separate girls’ and boys’ schools in a building on the northern side of Buckle Street, on the Tory Street corner. Two years later, across Tory Street, Mount Cook Infants’ School opened for three to eight year olds. It was New Zealand’s first kindergarten school.

Rapidly increasing rolls at both the boys’ and the girls’ schools put pressure on the space. In 1878 Taranaki Street Boys’ School opened on a site opposite Webb Street. Buckle Street Girls’ School remained at the Buckle Street site. In 1906 all three schools came under the leadership of one headmaster. From the late 1880s until the 1920s there were ongoing issues with overcrowding and, later, with the standard of the buildings.

In 1925 plans were made to build a new school to accommodating all three schools. A year later Mount Cook Main School opened on Buckle Street. In the mid-1970s Mount Cook School had moved again, into a wooden building further away from Mount Cook, down Tory Street. The old brick building on Buckle Street was demolished.

Wellington City Council had long felt that an educational role was more suited to Mount Cook than a penal or military one. In 1895 the council asked the government to set aside the Mount Cook reserve for a university or other educational institution, instead of a prison or asylum. Overcrowding at the nearby Mount View Lunatic Asylum meant alternative accommodation was sought. However, the option of moving to Mount Cook was rejected by Inspector of Asylums Dr Duncan MacGregor.

The idea of a home for education was proposed again in 1898 when Victoria University College (later Victoria University of Wellington) was looking for a site for their campus. Instead the college was briefly based in Thorndon, before moving to its present location in Kelburn.

Wellington Technical College

Wellington College of Design was founded in 1886, and by 1905 it was starting to outgrow its premises on Mercer and Wakefield streets. Wellington Technical College, as it was now called, was becoming increasingly popular with primary school leavers after becoming the first New Zealand school to provide a general secondary education with a technical bias. Mount Cook was mooted as a possible location for a new campus by college director William La Trobe.

The government, however, initially rejected use of Mount Cook, even though it was no longer needed for penal purposes. Wellington City Council favoured a John Street site, coincidentally where Te Whaea (the New Zealand National Dance and Drama Centre) is currently located. La Trobe persevered with Mount Cook, envisaging a vast campus: ‘There is ample room for technological laboratories, museum, art galleries, storehouses for the archives of the country, on the same site.’

In February 1918 an ‘influential deputation’ representing education, business and industry bodies lobbied the government to ‘place at the disposal of the educational authorities ... about four acres of land at the southern end of the Mount Cook reserve … [and that] sufficient grants in money be provided to enable the college, without long delay, to be established on that site.’

wellington technical college in 1934

The main Wellington Technical College building can be seen in the centre of this photograph taken in 1934 during the construction of the National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum.
Credit: Alexander Turnbull Library. Reference: 1/1-023103-G, Photograph by Sydney Charles Smith. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand, Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

Work started in 1920, with prisoners from the Terrace Gaol used to clear the brick kilns, level the ground, and remove a gaolers’ quarters and workshop. A foundation stone was laid in March 1921 by Governor-General Lord Jellicoe. In May 1922 the first students moved in, while building work continued around them. The main two-storey block was finished in 1924 and the new school was officially opened. The college was relocated in stages to the new facilities over the next 10 years as other buildings and wings were added.

Wellington Polytechnic and Wellington Technical High School

By 1960 there were 1100 students at the day school and 5000 adult students doing technical courses. The Education Department decided to divide the secondary and tertiary sides into separate institutions – Wellington Polytechnic and Wellington Technical High School (later Wellington High School). The high school retained the existing buildings and the polytechnic moved south to adjacent land on Wallace Street, where new facilities were built.

While the new campus was constructed, the polytechnic shared rooms in the high school and added a number of prefabricated buildings. It started progressive occupation of the new buildings in 1970, completely vacating the high school building two years later. The polytechnic continued to develop and expand.

Polytech becomes a university

In 1992 New Zealand's first university design degree was developed and delivered conjointly by the polytechnic’s School of Design and Victoria University. In 1997 Wellington Polytechnic and Massey University agreed to a merger. It wasn’t until 1999 that the merger was completed, and that same year the university added the former National Art Gallery and Dominion Museum building to its Wellington campus.

Wellington High School rebuilds

The expansion of Wellington High School started in 1967, when land on Taranaki Street was purchased and plans for a new school were drawn up. It wasn’t until 1977 that the rebuilding began, with the main classroom and administration block completed and occupied in 1980. The remaining blocks were completed in 1983. During the 1984-85 summer holidays the original brick block was demolished, but the hall was retained, as was an adjacent cafeteria. The cafeteria reopened in 1985 as PolyHigh early childhood education centre, and the refurbished hall opened in 1995.

Updated on 23rd July 2015