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A visit with Miss Catherine Smith

Mrs V Seaton —

We were delighted to welcome Catherine Smith along to our gala dinner and I have subsequently had the pleasure of meeting with Catherine to hear some stories of her time at Columba from 1938 – 1944.

Catherine was a student at Columba from standard five (year 7) to the upper sixth form (year 13). She was in Iona house and was a prefect for her last two years at school, when she moved to being a day student. Much later, Catherine was President of Columba Old Girls’ Association, and she was a member of the Board of Governors (1971 – 1976). We are most grateful to Catherine for the support she has provided to students through the Iona Scholarship Trust, with recipients subsequently winning awards such as a prestigious scholarship to Cambridge University, and one being appointed a Rhodes Scholarship.

Life at Columba in the 1940s had similarities to today but some stark differences. Catherine explained that students stayed in their own classroom in the hall block, with the various subject teachers coming to them. Boarders were in dorms of four students, changing rooms each year.

Boarders could apply for Saturday leave (10.00am – 5.30pm) three times a term and students made their own entertainment with each dorm rotating for planning the Saturday night fun, such as quizzes, games, and plays. Outings included walks down to the Dunedin Art Gallery (near Logan Park) every six weeks. This was a total of seven kms wearing full uniform. The Pineapple track was tackled in crocodile fashion, also in full uniform! Black velvet dresses were the required attire for dinner on Saturdays and for outings.

A great memory was the 25th jubilee in 1940. Catherine recalls gathering outside Constance Hall and being given an ice-cream as a treat – the Parents’ Association still kindly gives our students ice-blocks as special treats so that must be a long-standing tradition!

Everyone likes to hear about student escapades, but it seems Catherine was a well-behaved student. There were few misdemeanours and duty prefects ensured uniform was worn correctly before outings – hat straight, gloves on, and, of course, blazer buttoned! Students were not permitted to visit milk bars and, as is the case today, eating on the street was not allowed.

There was some mischief though – students held competitions to guess the length of the Sunday sermon, and boarders who had brothers at the Otago Boys’ hostel were allowed arranged visits from them in the garden on Sunday afternoons – apparently, there were a great many 'brothers'! When balls were held in Constance Hall, staff escorted the boarders back to Bishopscourt at the conclusion of the evening.

Of course, the war years meant a lot of hardship. Catherine said that rationing was in place and each student was given a ration of butter for the week. When the saucer of butter was finished, there was just jam on toast. In today’s world, we cannot imagine the worry that parents and teachers faced. Apparently, each student had a tiny container pinned to their kilt containing name, address, blood group – and a cork, the purpose of which was for the children to put between their teeth to absorb the shock of bombing in the event of an air raid. However, Catherine said they just pressed on with things and focused on the day-to-day requirements of school.

The students loved their Latin teacher, Miss McQuilkin, who later became the Principal, because she delivered their lessons by asking students to act out scenes. Catherine said she “never cottoned onto algebra though”.

Catherine had a rich life after her time at Columba. She trained in Dunedin as a Karitane nurse, then working stints in Dunedin and in the UK. In 1961 she changed professions and took up the role of Matron (today we would probably say operations manager) of the Dunedin Dental School, a role she fulfilled for 27 years until her retirement in 1988.

It truly was a pleasure to meet with Catherine. After my visit, she was off to walk her daily 5,000 steps, all recorded on her fitbit. Catherine, we look forward to welcoming you back to the College for many more visits.