News & Communications

BGH In Memoriam

John Taylor, Former Headmaster and current Patron of the Old Boys

It is a great privilege to speak about the inimitable Bruce Hamilton, outstanding all-round schoolmaster, colleague and friend, on behalf of the Headmasters and Staff who worked with him over his 22 years at Rathkeale.

It is especially good to be back in this multi-purpose hall, where I first experienced the school's unique turnip-crushing marching style into Assembly, which so many in this room will remember so well.

We all felt bereft when Bruce died during lockdown, but it is wonderful at last to have this opportunity to give him the statesmanlike send-off which his service to, and achievement at, Rathkeale so richly deserved.

One such major achievement was Bruce's superbly written History of the Rathkeale. For example, his letter to his twin brother Don, after the new school's first week, entitled "Present at the Creation", is a masterpiece of richly ironic humour, worthy of Evelyn Waugh and well worth a re-read.

After much cajoling, I was going to say badgering, John Norman and I were eventually allowed to write a section on the author himself.

John concluded his section by saying that BGH was like a mighty Ruamahunga boulder who remained constantly in place to support the School's breathtaking progress over the first 25 years.

While I might not have compared Bruce's elegant figure to a boulder, the analogy rightfully characterizes Bruce's abiding commitment, service and achievement on so many fronts, as he was indeed the rock behind the scenes of Rathkeale's successful establishment.

Following his own secondary education at Wanganui Collegiate, Bruce gained his MA (Hons) in English at Canterbury University.

Throughout his teaching career at Christ's, after his OE's at Shore, St John's Leatherhead, and Rugby, BGH was a superb example of the great tradition of the all-round schoolmaster.

How fortunate Rathkeale was that Reggie Hornsby, doyen HM of Christ's, allowed John Norman to take the one member of his staff who was going to make such a difference!

How does one measure the huge impact BGH had on so many lives, both staff and students - including so many here today?

From "King Lear''

Kent: You have in your countenance that I would fain call Master
Lear: What is that?
Kent: Authority"

Many who have experienced that "authority", especially that withering stare, will have wondered why Bruce, the complete schoolmaster, did not offer himself for Headmastership years ago.

In fact, I asked him exactly that question myself before I applied for Rathkeale, as I would not have applied if he had wanted it, especially as he had the ideal companion for such a task in Sue.

His answer? "God no! Go for it!!"

I think the answer was two-fold.

The most important one was his sheer enjoyment of teaching, firstly of English and latterly of History, in both of which he excelled.

Nor would Head-mastering have allowed Bruce the time to write the histories of Rathkeale, King's and Wanganui Collegiate, the latter in conjunction with Don. They all required much careful research and wise judgement, and all now are justifiably the bench mark for school histories in NZ.

Another lesser reason may have also been that, with the best will in the world, HMs are occasionally wrong and have to put up with a good deal of flak.

As a very able teacher who liked to be right, and wherever possible to see things in black and white, BGH might have found it hard to accept the necessary compromises that HMs have to endure - not to mention the continual round of public relations. There were always far more important things to do than that!

No school has ever been better served as its Deputy HM for 22 years - his only rival might have been his twin Don, who also did similar mighty things at Christ's College.

Characteristically, Bruce stood aside in 1986 to make way for Bruce Levick, who maintained similar high standards, with his special qualities of thoughtfulness, attention to detail and a wickedly dry sense of humour.

As John Norman did, I enjoyed totally loyal and trustworthy support from BGH, even when he disagreed with the occasional decision or innovation.

He was a fearless upholder of standards among Staff and Students alike.

Colleagues who were late with estimates and final orders seldom erred twice.

His "Time Gentlemen Please" was always immaculately delivered at the end of morning-break.

His punctiliousness and sense of duty never faltered, whether it be about the school, turning up for dreaded school dances, much loved Sunday Jobs, boring strategic planning seminars, hilarious Staff Sewage Lake Ballet rehearsals, or compulsory Sunday Chapel in this very hall.

It was well known that you could set your watch to the Rathkeale Athletics Day programme, an abiding legacy of Chief Track Marshall Hamilton.

Oddly enough, for a person with a military sense of discipline, Bruce's hatred of Compulsory Military Training and School Cadets was legendary, and the subject of many satirical comments!

A key BGH legacy though was the quest for academic excellence. To that end, he was i/c the timetable, but always zealous to ensure that staff workloads, always heavy, were fair.

The school had some redoubtable characters, who will bring back many a wry smile today.

In days when one had to teach in state schools to gain one's teacher registration, independent schools found it difficult to attract certificated teachers and, as a result, a good number of the Rathkeale Common Room in those early days were not teacher trained.

However, Bruce always got the best out of them all - people like Peter Quinn, Jim Welch, Bernie Greenlees, all of them right at the centre of the rich tapestry of Rathkeale.

He was able to deal with even the delightful Keith West Watson's occasionally monumental wobblies, so skilfully engendered by his students..

As the debate continues to rage about whether teaching should be teacher or student centred, BGH demonstrated that the best teachers achieve both - both the stimulating imparting of content, and the insistence that students should think, learn and speak for themselves.

As a result, BGH's proteges achieved highly in Bursary and Scholarship History, as well as winning 2 Lizzie Rathbone awards.

He loved telling historical anecdotes about English Kings, (especially George the 3rd), the Russian Revolution and the Third Reich. He well deserved what was widely rumoured to be the first carpeted classroom in NZ!!

Though he kept staff up to the mark in his liaison role between HM and Common Room, he was always a great friend on numerous unsung occasions.

His masterly and fearsome wit at staff meetings and especially farewells was much looked forward to by all, complemented by many nameless and unremembered acts of generosity and hospitality, greatly supported by Sue.

Bruce always cut an immaculate figure at staff functions, well deserving the nickname of "the Admiral" in his double-breasted reefer jacket.

He cut a dashing figure on the dance floor, though it could fairly be said that he favoured the quickstep and the fox trot over rock and the roll and the twist and shout!

Versatility is the hall mark of the complete teacher, and Bruce had that in spades. He taught even French when the timetable demanded it, bringing that subject alive with anecdotes about his brother's pronunciation difficulties in France.

It was well known that there was huge collaboration between the Hamilton twins as they used the same teaching notes and swapped exam papers, very sensibly halving their respective History workloads.

That same heaven-sent versatility occurred outside the classroom

BGH was variously master i/c Cricket, 1st XI Player/Coach, Ist XV Coach, Squash Player/ Coach, and little known but true, the coach of the Ist Hockey XI, 1964-65!

His insistence on the proper technique was legendary. That included the classic swing pass, perfected in his UK OE, all demonstrated in his own distinctive very high stepping style.

However, few ever tried to emulate his distinctive trench mortar bowling style on the cricket pitch!

Many will remember the black, then grey, then green tracksuits BGH wore - and his insistence on smart turn out at all times, an abiding tradition Rathkeale has much to thank BGH for.

It is marvelous to see Bruce's name about to be forever associated with what was possibly his favourite arena of the School, the Oval Cricket Pavilion. It could also have been associated with the Library and the Squash Court, in the establishment of both of which Bruce was a prime mover.

He could easily have become very set in his ways, but he never shirked the responsibility in moving with the times - for example, in the successful establishment of the coeducational Trinity Senior College.

For all that he achieved, on so many fronts, Bruce could have been overtly very proud.

But he could not abide humbug of any sort, and did not much enjoy personal praise, as was superbly caught by WH Auden,

"Praise? Unimportant, but jolly to remember when falling asleep"

Rathkeale has arguably one of the most beautiful natural school environments in the world, and is deservedly famous for it.

That environment has been a very formative part of the College's distinctive ethos, but that special character has been created mainly by the teachers and the students who have lived, learned and worked here over the past 56 years.

In my view, no one has contributed more to that very tangible Rathkeale ethos than Bruce Hamilton.

What a wonderful legacy BGH has left behind!

From Wordsworth's "Prelude"

We were brothers all
In honour, as in one community
Scholars and gentlemen, where furthermore
Distinction open lay to all that came,
And wealth and titles were in less esteem
Than talents, worth and prosperous industry

Bruce Hamilton was that hugely talented, very modest and totally committed gentleman and scholar by which, and for which, Rathkeale was founded.

Vale, BGH - Great Schoolmaster, Colleague and Friend par excellence.

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