Ministering to the young

Knox in its grandeur above the Gardens Corner, Dunedin. Photo courtesy of Knox College.
Knox in its grandeur above the Gardens Corner, Dunedin. Photo courtesy of Knox College.
Otago Daily Times editorial manager Philip Somerville, who grew up at Knox College, where his father was Master, reflects on the college's first 100 years. It celebrates its centenary this weekend.

The esteemed founders of Knox College might well be flabbergasted if they returned in 2009 to see what has become of their dream.

Instead of the 94 students there were by 1914, the roll now stands at 212. Half of these are now women, an unthinkable outcome 100 years ago.

The founders would be impressed by the quality of the modern rooms and facilities and surprised that trainees for the Presbyterian ministry, once a substantial number in the college, had disappeared.

This is not to suggest they were not forward-thinking. From the start it was clear Knox was to be more than just a place to board.

The tutorial system and close attention to individual student academic performance ranked high in priorities, as it does today, and the founders set up Knox - although built on Presbyterian money - for men of various faculties and made it open to different denominations.

Part of the idea was that in their formative years, and in a Christian environment, different types of students would rub shoulders and be better prepared for a life of success and service.

A fair proportion of the men and women at Knox today have little interest in or knowledge of Christianity and, other than through the shared library, student day-to-day contact with the adjacent Presbyterian Church's Centre for Ministry and Leadership (formerly Knox Theological Hall) is minimal.

Yet, Sunday afternoon chapel services remain well attended, attracting 60 to 70 on average, and the Christian roots are blended into college life and ritual.

The mix of students down the years has, indeed, helped to stimulate debate and, in the early decades, a Christian concern for humanity was strongly nurtured.

Perhaps that played a significant role in the creation of the welfare state by the post-1935 Labour Government.

Arnold Nordmeyer, a Presbyterian minister, and Gervan McMillan, a doctor, lived at Knox in the mid 1920s and worked together at Kurow, where Dr McMillan developed ideas that were to underpin the Social Security Act of 1938.

Sir Arnold has come to be known as the architect of social security, while Dr McMillan also played a key parliamentary role.

The other four Cabinet ministers from Knox were all members of the National Party, not altogether surprising, as many students have come from conservative, often privileged, backgrounds.

The college also boasts 16 Rhodes scholars, while recent sporting stars include Lesley Nicol (Rumball), netball, James Ryan, rugby and Hamish Bond, rowing.

The number of medical professors, including most of the deans of the Otago Medical School, led to the pointed phrase "the Knox Mafia", and the current university vice-chancellor, Sir David Skegg, is a former resident and former assistant master.

These are among the to-date 6200 residents of the hall.

My favourite story about changing norms at Knox goes back to 1964 and the student "tradition" that women were not allowed to eat in the dining room.

The Governor-General, Sir Bernard Fergusson, was to attend Sunday dinner and was bringing his wife and her lady-in-waiting.

The students blocked the corridor with stacked bicycles, only removing them in the last hours before the guests arrived.

Five years later, the much-loved matron, the formidable Miss Paterson (Ella), was invited to dine on her retirement, and the tradition began to die when women fellows were appointed.

A 1976 resident fellow, Prof Siegbert Prawer, was asked about the difference between Knox and Oxford colleges and is reputed to have said that at Knox the situation was reversed.

"All the conservatives were in the Junior Common Room and all the radicals in the Senior Common Room".

Each of the six masters has also brought his stamp to the college, the first five all being clergy.

William Hewitson, an Australian, a man of booming voice and kindly heart once said: "To manage Knox you have to wink with both eyes and jump with both feet".

Ernest Merrington, another capable Australian, was know as "Glum".

He did, however, raise a smile during the famous flour incident of the mid-1930s.

Led by Douglas Kennedy, later a director-general of health, students drilled a hole in the dining room roof and the "top table", including Dr Merrington, was showered with flour.

Hubert Ryburn "ruled" for 23 years and was known for his authority and the high quality of his chapel sermons.

Chapel was held each night after dinner until the 1980s, and a roll was kept into the 1960s.

Jack Somerville was, as he wrote, "liberal in theology, in political inclination and in social conduct" and the extent of his tolerance was tested by students.

The warmth of his personality won him much respect, loyalty and friendship.

Historian Alison Clarke, who has completed an impressive centennial history, outlines Peter Marshall's passion, drive, hard work and visionary leadership of a dedicated team which brought the college through some of its most difficult days when university numbers fell.

Women were admitted under his watch (1983), and some of the undesirable excesses curbed.

He was also of liberal persuasion.


Under the current long-time Master, lawyer Bruce Aitken, the cultural life of the college, and particularly its music have flourished.

He has emphasised ceremony and tradition.

Latin is frequently used, chapel often follows "high church" liturgy and a beadle (ceremonial officer) with college mace has been introduced.

Proper jackets and ties for men are essential at dinner every night except Saturday.

Old-fashioned manners, like not leaving the table until everyone has finished eating, are encouraged.

"Dining together is a very important part of college community life," Mr Aitken said.

Students appreciated traditional touches that were now uncommon elsewhere, he said.

Studying at Otago, I was fortunate to be invited to join some socialising and the fun. Utter discretion, both from the "lodge" where I slept and in the other direction was essential.

I also had the honour to be elected to the students' club executive and had a start, of sorts, in journalism when co-editing the college magazine.

I remember writing after the bike race (the across-town pub crawl) of a hard-as-nails student, later to become an Otago All Black, colliding with a telegraph pole on the last leg up Opoho Rd.

I thought it appropriate to commiserate on the condition of the poor begotten pole.

Intercollege "raids" were commonplace in the 1970s and "bathing" has survived, off and on, much of the 100 years.

It must have been particularly pleasant when kitchen slops or eels were part of the brew.

A rare and extreme punishment among the boisterous set was "countrification".

Stripped to pyjamas, blindfolded and dumped on a country road, the miscreant would then have to find his way back.

A favourite drop-off point was a back-country road near Cherry Farm psychiatric hospital.

"Fresher" initiations swung between fun, bonding activities and the potentially humiliating or dangerous, while many of the other high jinks were harmless and hilarious even if some were, to put it bluntly, juvenile.

I remember the massed college howl at the full moon on Bracken View as also spine-tingling.

Anyone who believes binge-drinking by some students is a new phenomenon can think again, even over the many decades when alcohol at the college was officially banned.

One manifestation is in the unsanctioned Anchormen's Club which is held off college premises and which began in 1967.

To qualify students have to consume six jugs (super anchors is 10 jugs) of Speight's in four hours and must still "conduct himself with suitable dignity and decorum". Minders (the "spit crew") keep watch.

The premier rivalry, exemplified by the annual Cameron Shield sporting contests, is with Anglican-based Selwyn College.

Once, when Selwyn held the shield, one of the divinity students had written on a bare patch of wall "watch this space".

The sporting encounters were going anything but well so one wit wrote there, "How long, O Lord, how long."

As well as those who made the most noise and stood out, often for the wrong reasons, there were also various sports teams, Christian cell groups, the choir and many, many quieter "Knoxies", with different interests and outlooks on life.

Students of earlier eras might spend all their university life in residence.


Knox, though, still has many of its first-years returning for a second stint, and about a dozen in 2009 are back for a third year.

The principal founders, church leader Andrew Cameron and businessman and benefactor John Ross, who between himself and his family donated the equivalent, in today's money, of several million dollars, would, indeed, struggle to recognise what became of their efforts, generosity and vision.

They would, one suspect, be disappointed by the changed less-religious nature of society and, consequently, Knox.

They would, nevertheless, be pleased that academic passes are as high as they ever have been and at the fellowship that continues.

They might also reflect positively on the way my father summed up Knox when he wrote: "By and large, the history of the college is a history of friendship made and recalled, of maturity growing in formative years, of discovering something about living with others as well enjoying the benefits of a very full education."


• Papers lap up saucers

The Grand Interplanetary Hoax of 1952 would have to be Knox College's prank of the century.

It was aimed at this newspaper and it struck its target fair and square.

Not for many years was the secret told, and its fame was featured in a 2002 television documentary.

Sir John Scott (at Knox 1950-54), an eminent Auckland doctor, emeritus professor and former president of the Royal Society, told the full story to the 1994 Skeptics' Conference.

The scheming began at the "supper parties", the rich social gatherings of the era. Students, bored with swotting, would meet from about 9pm in different rooms and discuss and debate issues at hand.

A group, acting on frustration with the Otago Daily Times' preoccupation with flying saucers, its pomposity and what they saw as its trivialisation of major worldwide events, decided to launch an attack.

They prepared a detailed and sophisticated plan, timed to activate when the students had scattered back home.

On the night of December 6, 1952, they began ringing their local newspaper - there were also follow-up letters - with sightings of a green and a blue disc.

Timings and flight paths were co-ordinated and, as part of the scheme, late reports also dribbled in, some pretending to be from women and children.

Newspapers around the country reported the sightings and, as hoped, the ODT was well and truly suckered by the "enigma of the sky".

A fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society who was consulted told the paper: "You cannot possibly ignore straightforward, intelligently written reports like these ... I cannot give explanations offhand."

Flying saucer devotees, for their part, were pleased to be able to cite "fully authenticated reports from New Zealand", especially because of a correlation between the speed of the green disc after it disappeared off Invercargill and a puzzling unexplained flying object seen by the crew of a United States Air Force bomber over the Gulf of Mexico.

Although the excitement did die down, the Weekly News of July 12, 1953 featured an article headed "Mysteries that Fly Past in the Night".

"The New Zealand sighting of 1952 and the B29 report are frequently quoted as being the most convincing evidence to support the reality of UFOs," Sir John said in his report to the Skeptics.

Not surprisingly, the perpetrators were staggered by the success of their deception.

One of the participants revealed the hoax in 1969, but the news did not spread. Even after another explained the ruse to The Press in 1978, not everyone believed him.

That confession was prompted by an article published in the newspaper, complete with a map showing the paths of the discs (similar, as it happens, to the students' planning diagram).

Sir John concluded his account to the Skeptics by saying: "I hope that young people continue to behave in the way we did, particularly if they maintain into later adult life a sense of fun, a sense of proportion and an approach to the Establishment which is responsible on the one hand but sceptical and critical on the other."

Sir John and some of the other perpetrators of the hoax are attending the Knox celebrations this weekend. Without doubt, they will be reminiscing about supper parties, months spent scheming and the night, 57 years ago, of the flying saucers.

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