Te Awamutu School (Former)

135 Roche Street, Vaile Street And Palmer Street, Te Awamutu

  • Te Awamutu School (Former).
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: L Williams. Date: 24/12/2009.
  • The original front door.
    Copyright: NZ Historic Places Trust. Taken By: L Williams. Date: 19/01/2010.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 767 Date Entered 15th October 2010


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes the land described as Sec 58 Town of Te Awamutu (CT SA20B/1435), South Auckland Land District and the building known as Te Awamutu School (Former) and its fittings and fixtures. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the registration report for further information.)

City/District Council

Waipa District


Waikato Region

Legal description

Sec 58 Town of Te Awamutu (CT SA20B/1435), South Auckland Land District

Location description

The building is on the corner of Vaile and Palmer Streets; it is on one of four parcels of land with the common address 135 Roche Street. It backs onto a grassed section on the corner of Roche and Vaile Streets.


One of the earliest purpose built state school buildings in the Waikato, Te Awamutu School (Former) is situated in central Te Awamutu adjacent to its original site and was where noted historian James Cowan received his early education. Schooling had been provided for local Maori children by the Church Missionary Society (CMS) at the Otawhao mission in the late 1830s, but this ceased during the New Zealand Wars of the early 1860s. Te Awamutu was established as a European settlement after the confiscation of Tainui lands in 1864. By the 1870s Te Awamutu had begun to grow as a service town for the rural district. Pressure on the Auckland Education Board from the community resulted in the school being established in 1877 in a public hall, an unsatisfactory arrangement. In late 1879 the first stage of this former school building was designed and was completed in April 1880.

The original building, a simple kauri weatherboard structure with a shingled gable roof, consisted of one classroom with two porches on one side, each with its own entrance, but under one gable roof. It was designed by the Education Board architect Henry Allright and built by Aucklanders Thomas Oram and Hugh Gray. An extension in 1894, consisting of another classroom at the rear, was designed by the then Education Board architects Mitchell and Watt and built by Edmund Murphy.

The school roll continued to increase and in 1911 another classroom with a large porch connecting it to the original building was erected. Within four years this was also inadequate, and in 1921 most of the classes shifted into a new building on a separate site. The old school continued to be used for the infant classes, despite objections regarding its insanitary condition. In 1952 the school finally moved out. The grounds were gazetted to the Borough Council who bought the building in 1955 and for a few years it was leased out to the Te Awamutu Kindergarten Association during the day and various clubs, community groups and evening classes in the evenings. By the late 1960s the main lessee was the Te Awamutu Little Theatre group who fought for the building’s preservation when new civic buildings were to be erected on the site. In 1974 the Borough Council shifted the 1880 and 1894 parts of the school building to an adjacent site, formerly the school’s horse paddock. It continues to be used by the amateur dramatic group known as the Little Theatre.

Te Awamutu School (Former) is significant for its representation of the early period of public education provided under the 1877 Act and the fast growth of the rural service town of Te Awamutu. The school was an integral part of life in Te Awamutu for more than 70 years and influenced the lives of many pupils.

Te Awamutu School (Former) is significant for its representation of the early period of public education provided under the 1877 Act and the fast growth of the rural service town of Te Awamutu. The school was an integral part of life in Te Awamutu for more than 70 years and influenced the lives of many pupils.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

Te Awamutu School (Former) was built in 1870 to provide education for the growing population of Te Awamutu for over 70 years. The place has historical significance being closely associated with the 1877 Education Act, which was a landmark in the history of state responsibility for schooling.

The building's relocation, albeit within its original site curtilage, illustrates attitudes to timber structures as portable architecture in the mid to late twentieth century, and strong community interest in retaining historic, visual and architectural elements of their past.

Architectural Significance or Value:

Te Awamutu School (Former) has architectural significance as one of the earliest purpose built state schools in the Waikato. It reflects the development of education in the Waikato region from the 1870s onwards.

The building is a representative example of a school constructed to an early Auckland Education Board design under the Education Act 1977. The school also has value as a surviving example of an early educational building designed by Education Board Architect, Henry Allright.

Social Significance or Value:

Te Awamutu School (Former) has social significance as it played an important role in the life of the local community as a place of education for over 70 years. The school was important for establishing strong connections within its pupils, staff and the wider community and continued to be valued with affection for many years after it ceased to be used as a school.

The building continues to play a major role in the social and cultural life of Te Awamutu as a venue of social events for the community for more than 50 years. Since 1959 the old school building has provided an important venue for community education, social and recreational groups, in particular the only amateur theatre in Te Awamutu.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

Te Awamutu School (Former) reflects the development of state run education in New Zealand, being built soon after the 1877 Education Act that made education free, compulsory (for children aged between 5 and 15 years), secular and nondenominational, came into force. The history and development of the school reflects the (at times uneasy) relationship between the locally elected school committee and the state appointed Auckland Education Board.

(b) The association of the place with events, persons, or ideas of importance in New Zealand history

Te Awamutu School (Former) is associated with author and historian James Cowan who contributed a large body of published work to New Zealand’s historiography.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place

The community has a strong association with the Te Awamutu School (Former) during its former use as a school and then as a venue used for social events. This was demonstrated when public pressure saved the building from demolition and was subsequently relocated to an adjacent site. Well attended school anniversary celebrations have included affectionate reminiscences from former pupils.

Summary of Significance or Values

This place was assessed against, and found it to qualify under the following criteria: a, b, e.


It is considered that this place qualifies as a Category II historic place.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Allright, Henry

Allright (1827-1906) was born in Kent in 1827. After training as an architect, he emigrated to New Zealand in 1854. From 1856 he was employed in various positions by the Auckland Provincial Board of Works, becoming Provincial Engineer in 1874. In 1877 he was appointed architect to the Auckland Board of Education. He held this position for 15 years during a period of major building expansion following the passing of the 1877 Education Act. In 1883 he was appointed engineer to the Waitemata County, although he retained his position with the Education Board. He retired from the Education Board in 1892 and entered into practice as an engineer, from which he retired in 1901. He died in 1906.

From 1881-85, he was a member of the Auckland Institute of Engineers.

Mitchell & Watt

John Mitchell (c.1859-1947) and Robert Martin Watt (1860-1907) were in partnership at Auckland by 1892.

Mitchell was born in Ramelton, Northern Ireland, and received his architectural training in Ireland before emigrating to New Zealand in 1888 and settling in Auckland. He became known for his early use of reinforced concrete. In 1893 he invented a baked earthenware block which was used in domestic construction. He left for England in 1912 and was involved with a prefabricated housing project at Bournemouth. He retired in 1922 and returned to New Zealand.

Watt was born in Scotland and studied architecture in Glasgow with the firm of Barclay Bros. He immigrated to New Zealand about 1878 for health reasons and practised in Auckland both on his own account and in partnership with Mitchell. In 1960 he was elected president of the Auckland branch of the New Zealand Institute of Architects.

Mitchell and Watt were appointed architects to the Auckland Education Board in 1892. Mitchell undertook new work while Watt undertook rebuilding projects and renovations to existing buildings. Their work includes schools at Te Mata (1905) and Maungatautari (1905), additions to schools at Cambridge (1900) and Dargaville (1905), the Seddon Memorial Technical College (1908-13). Non-educational buildings include Mt Eden Congregational Church (1900). Watt was responsible for the design of the Ley's Institute, Ponsonby (1905-06).

Farrell, John

No biography is currently available for this construction professional

Additional informationopen/close

Historical Narrative

Te Awamutu School was established in 1877 as the settlement began to grow as a European town and service centre for an expanding farming district. In 1880 a school building with one classroom was built close to the centre of town in Roche Street by the Auckland Education Board. The passing of the 1877 Education Act which made the provision of schools and schooling the responsibility of Boards of Education coincided with the development of the rural economy and population expansion in the town; this resulted in the erection of the school.

Te Awamutu School was not the first school in the district, one having been established in 1839 by missionaries at Otawhao (the earlier name for the area) for the local Maori and Pakeha-Maori children, closing in 1863 as racial tensions increased. After the confiscations of Tainui land by the government, Imperial Regiments occupied Te Awamutu during 1864-1867. Te Awamutu’s initial years as a colonial settlement were unsuccessful and it was not until 1873 that members of the local community began requesting the establishment of a school for its children. In May 1876 the Auckland Education Board finally agreed to the establishment of a school, by which time there were 40 eligible children.

The first school classes were held in the public hall in January 1877. Land that had formed part of the Camp Reserve adjacent to the 40th Regiment’s redoubt was set aside for educational use and in 1879 the Board agreed to provide a purpose built building.

Te Awamutu School was designed in 1879 by Henry Allright (1827-1906), architect to the Auckland Education Board. Allright designed several similar structures in the Auckland region. The construction tender was won in November 1879 by Thomas Oram and Hugh Gray, builders, and James Stitt, painter, all of Auckland, at a cost of £446. The one acre plot was an L shaped section, with the school building straddling Allotments 53 and 55 and facing northwest to Roche Street. The teacher’s residence was nearby on Roche Street and the horse paddock for the pupils’ horses was on Allotment 58, the corner of Herbert Street (now known as Vaile Street) and Palmer Street. The building was completed and opened for its first classes on 5 April 1880.

The school was associated with prominent local businessmen such as Henry Lewis who kept the Te Awamutu Hotel in the 1880s and J.B. Teasdale who ran a livery stable and was a local body politician. The chairman of the first school committee was James Mandeno, a builder and architect who was also chairman of the Town Board. Several former pupils of the school became nationally important in sport, finance and historiography e.g. H.R.H. Chalmers who became general manager of the Bank of New Zealand; and James Cowan, an author and historian who published a large number of monographs on local and Maori history. During his lifetime his writing did much to shape the way New Zealanders perceived their history.

The school when built had a single classroom measuring 40 x 21 feet (12.2 x 6.4 metres) with a coved ceiling, and two porches on one side, each with its own entrance approached by ‘massive wooden steps’. The height ‘to the collar ties of the roof’ was 16 feet (4.9 metres). The design included Gothic elements such as the pointed top to each door and the label mouldings (hood mouldings) above the windows. The interior was lined with matched timber and all was made of heart kauri. The doors were of local workmanship. The specification included an open fireplace with wooden fire surround and mantelpiece, three ventilators in the roof and a louvered ventilator in the two main gables. The rear (southeast) wall contained two windows, the southwest wall seven windows and on the northeast wall there were one or two windows plus doors opening into each of the porches. In each porch was a hand basin, fed with water piped from an external tank, with a bucket beneath to catch the dirty water. The children were provided with two detached lavatories.

In 1880 the North Island Main Trunk Railway reached Te Awamutu, and the town’s businesses and population numbers began to expand as new economic opportunities arose. By 1885 the school was too small for the number of pupils and a shed at the rear of the school, already in use for classes, was fitted up to take the junior classes. The locally-elected School Committee asked for permission to take out the dividing wall between the two porches. The building was considered ‘so badly planned that a fire is more ornamental than useful’. The school had a bell mounted on the gable ridge of the original double porch.

The school roll continued to grow rapidly such that in 1893 there were 103 children, of whom 94 might attend on any one day. Despite intense lobbying by staff, parents and the committee the Board deferred any decision regarding expansion. However a report from their inspector in October 1893 that stated 113 children, six of whom were 15 years or older, were occupying a space of only 840 square feet (78 square metres), resulted in a decision in November 1893 to enlarge the school. Board Architects Mitchell (John Mitchell (c.1859-1947)) and Watt (Robert Martin Watt (1860-1907)) designed an additional classroom and the tender of builder E. Wrigley for £220 was accepted in January 1894.

The new room measured 23 x 21 feet (7.0 x 6.4 metres) and was in the same style as the original, although its windows were spaced further apart. The expansion included a lean-to porch behind the original porches (now one space); this was accessible from the rear porch and from the new classroom. The new porch was equal in size to the combined former two porches, but of considerably less stud height. The former rear windows were retained in the common wall between the two classrooms; there was a communicating door between the two classrooms. The new classroom had one rear window in the gable end wall. The new classroom had no ceiling, only timber match-lining under the corrugated iron roof.

In circa 1903 the school was described as having two classrooms and two smaller classrooms, so it would seem that the divided original porch, or the porch plus the new lean-to, were being used as classrooms. In 1911 another extension was built, consisting of another classroom connected to the original building by a large porch. The classroom was built on the southwest side of the original and designed in a similar style with a matching gable front facing the road. The windows of the original front gable end were altered and a new row of centrally hinged casement windows installed above the sash windows. One of the original windows on the southwest side was altered to form a door into the new porch. The additions and alterations were designed by Education Board Architect John Farrell and built by George H. James. At some time after 1894, probably in 1911, the shingles were removed and the roof covered with corrugated iron. The supporting lathes were retained.

Within four years the additional space was again inadequate, and with some classes having to use a church hall nearby the community pressured the Board for a larger school. The secondary classes moved to another church hall in 1920, and in 1921 new school buildings were opened on a site in Teasdale Street. Despite this there was still a shortage of space and towards the end of 1921 it was suggested that the old school be used for the infant classes. Possibly at this time the open fireplace was removed and replaced with a freestanding enclosed fireplace with chimney flue; undated sketched additions to the 1911 plan include the addition of ‘Infant’ to the title, the new fireplace position with the old recess scribbled out, a new side door and steps in the lean-to and repositioning of a window in the lean-to. The side door with canopy is seen in an historic photograph.

From 1922 the old school building continued to be used for infant classes, even though in 1929 a deputation to the Minister of Education described it as having outgrown its usefulness, over-crowded, much deteriorated, the site ‘insanitary’ and that a ‘good deal of sickness among the children and teachers had been caused by the conditions…’. Repairs were undertaken in 1932.

Large numbers attended the Golden Jubilee in 1939, which was a combined celebration with the centenary of the mission school; attendees included a few who had been at the school in its first two decades, reflecting that even after 30-50 years the school was held in high esteem.

In July 1945 it was announced that the old Roche Street school building was to be abandoned and children would ‘no longer have to be educated in conditions that were far from ideal’. The rooms were emptied of equipment and furniture but three months later an official visit from Education Board members and the Department of Education reversed the decision. Despite objections, some classes were shifted back in 1946 and another class in 1947 so that by May 1947 all rooms of the old school were again occupied. This necessitated some repairs.

In April 1952 the high school was using the school for evening classes; it was also being used as clubrooms by the Te Awamutu Highland Pipe Band. By May 1952 the school building was empty and no longer required by the Education Board.

In 1953 the land was created a reserve for the purposes of municipal buildings. During 1953 the school was used for a kindergarten. In June 1954 the Te Awamutu Free Kindergarten Association was formed and leased the old school building after alterations and approval from the Department of Education. Title was issued to the mayor, councillors and burgesses of the Borough of Te Awamutu in 1955. The Borough Council bought the school building for £300 with the intention of making it available for local organisations. In 1955 it was also occupied by the Junior Chamber of Commerce and in 1956 the Te Awamutu Lyceum Club. Other organisations interested in using one or more rooms were the Pipe Band, Te Awamutu College, Scouts, Cubs, Chess Club and Watchtower Society. By the 1950s or 60s an external door had been cut from the 1894 classroom. There may have been another external door in the rear wall of the porch.

Te Awamutu Kindergarten remained in the building until the end of 1959, with a roll of 80 pupils. From the late 1960s the building was leased by Little Theatre, an amateur theatre company.

In 1973 when the site was required for the municipal buildings, Little Theatre and other community groups and individuals pressured the Borough Council for the old school building’s preservation. Council acknowledged the building’s historic significance in March 1974 by shifting the 1880 and 1894 parts of the structure to Allotment 58 which backed onto the original site. The shift entailed levelling a terrace on the side of the hill and turning the building 180 degrees. The building on its new site continued to be leased by the Te Awamutu Little Theatre for use as clubrooms, theatre and workshops. At that time Little Theatre was the sole drama group in the town. The local branch of the Lions Club undertook the task of renovating the building.

Little Theatre made some modifications to the building, both before and after its relocation. The most significant of these was the removal of most of the original rear wall of the 1880 classroom to open the two rooms into one space as auditorium and stage, the remaining portion forming the proscenium arch. Alterations to the foyer included the introduction of elements from other buildings: two doors from a house in Paterangi and a ceiling rose from Nelson. In 1991 the lean-to was extended to make a larger workshop and the external door from the 1894 room became an internal door to this new space. A new external door with canopy was created to give rear access.

In 2002 the subsidence caused by the building’s position over a stream bed caused concern; rather than shifting the building again, remedial work was undertaken to prop up the corner of the building.

The Little Theatre group initiated the erection of a commemorative plaque to inform the public of its significance. The building is part of Te Awamutu’s heritage trail and is marked by an interpretive sign board. It is included in the heritage inventory for Waipa District. The Little Theatre group remains as the tenant of the building.

Physical Description

The building is situated on a street corner in central Te Awamutu on a terrace cut into the side of a hill to form a flat platform. The front of the building faces southeast and presents the distinctive original gable elevations of the front and porch to the roads. Other nearby buildings are occupied by the Waipa District Council, the Fire Brigade and St John’s Ambulance Association, plus some workshops and residences.

The building is timber framed clad with 195 millimetre wide timber weatherboards, with long run corrugated iron on the roof. The main ridge runs southeast to northwest ending in gables at each end; an extension on the southwest side has a lower shorter ridge that runs southwest-northeast and also ends in a gable. The main ridge sits over the two original (1880 and 1894) classrooms, now the auditorium and the stage. The short ridge sits over the original two porches (1880), now the foyer and men’s toilet. A lean-to structure (1894 and 1991) with a gently sloping roof forms the northwest part of the building. Beneath this roof is the workshop, part of which was once a porch and two toilets accessed from the foyer. Two metal ventilator chimneys extend from the main ridge.

The windows in the front gabled wall consist of three pairs of double hung sash six light windows each with a three light casement sash above. Above the central window is another three light window, possibly centrally hinged, and above that is a roughly triangular wooden fixed vent with wooden louvres and a decorative hood moulding above. Similar hood mouldings are above the two windows in the southwest-facing gable end wall (original two porches); on the northeast wall truncated hood mouldings are above the single window and the set of three windows. The 1880 windows have plain sills, but the 1894 windows have a decorative moulded trim beneath the sills.

The building now contains three main rooms: the porch (1880), workshop (1894 and 1991), and the auditorium and stage (1880 and 1894) with toilets contained within the porch and the workshop. A partial division, the proscenium arch, between the auditorium and stage is all that remains of the rear wall of the 1880 classroom; only six boards across the room remain of the top of this wall. The window hardware of these two spaces is different. A mezzanine storage area has been built over the back of the stage, accessed by steep stairs, but all is of temporary construction. The wall lining in the 1880 classroom shows joins where the fireplace was removed but the new (believed to date from early 1920s) has been well-matched with the original. On the northeast wall the original positions of the windows are traceable through the joins in the wall boards. The wall boards are 8½-inch (215 millimetre) wide tongue-and-groove with bead planks, laid horizontally. The two windows (1894) on the southwest side of the stage area have been blocked up but are extant; they now have a common wall with the new workshop.

The auditorium has a coved ceiling of tongue and groove boards with beaded edge similar to the wall boards; the struts holding the ceiling are visible. There is no ceiling in the stage area (1894 classroom) but the roof is lined with boards. The position of the flue from the pot-belly stove is marked with a metal patch on the ceiling boards. The grids beneath the ventilator chimneys are extant but have been covered with sheets of hardboard to prevent dirt dropping through.

The two original doors from the porch to the 1880 classroom are four panelled. The 1894 door from the stage to the 1894 part of the workshop is four panelled but the top two panels are glass. The doors leading from the original porch into the men’s toilet and into the workshop are introduced doors from a similar period.

The new workshop extension (1991) has MDF wall board and flooring. Only a small part of the 1894 rear wall remains, the rest having been removed for the 1991 addition. The original wallboards are similar to those in the main rooms. The roof lining of the 1894 extension (stage) consists of match lining with exposed rafters and a North East South West beam supporting roof trusses, with no ceiling space.

In the ceiling of the men’s toilet the hole through which the bell rope passed is visible.

Construction Dates

1879 -
design drawn

Original Construction
1880 -
construction completed by beginning April

1894 -
additional classroom built onto rear (southeast side); lean-to porch built on northeast side

1911 -
additional classroom with large connecting porch built on southwest side, window remodelled as door from 1880 room to new porch; front windows remodelled

1911 -
shingles replaced with corrugated iron

1914 - 1921
external door opened from lean-to; open fireplace and chimney removed and replaced with freestanding fireplace

1974 -
1911 extension demolished/relocated, 1880-1894 building relocated and orientation turned 180 degrees; 1911 door from original classroom made into external door

1991 -
rear porch extended; external door from 1894 room becomes an internal door to this new space (workshop)

2004 -
disabled toilet installed

Construction Details

Timber, corrugated iron

Completion Date

23rd July 2010

Report Written By

Lynette Williams, Gail Henry, Linda Pattison

Information Sources

Barber, 1984

Laurie Barber, Frontier Town: A History of te Awamutu 1884-1984, Auckland, 1984

Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1903

Cyclopedia Company, Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations, Wellington, N.Z, 1897-1908, Vol. 3, Canterbury Provincial District, Christchurch, 1903

Kellaway, 1981

J. Warwick Kellaway, Education 150: From Schoolhouse to Classpace in the Waikato-Bay of Plenty, Hamilton, 1981

Other Information

A fully referenced registration report is available from the NZHPT Lower Northern Area Office

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.