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What's In A Name? The House System at St Hilda's

Chapel/Assembly April 2022 - by Principal, Jackie Barron MNZM

We all have a name. Our names are important – they are part of our identity, they are how others recognise us. Names show a belonging to a family, clan, iwi. In times past, names told people where we came from or the trade our family was involved in. They are the one thing that we truly have for our entire life, and they are ours.

When we look around us for formal place names, we find that many of them honour the men who shaped and wrote the history; many were the early planners of any city or town and that reflects on the times and the attitudes. Men held the money, men made the decisions, they owned the businesses, led the city and, many times, our street names reflected that.

For families and the men themselves, there was great honour in having a street named after you, and it shaped our cities and towns.

Grater Street, just up the road from John McGlashan College, was named after my great grandfather Charles Grater, who was the town clerk of Maori Hill. At the turn of last century, many suburbs had their own council, before they all merged into the Dunedin City Council, so I understand why it might be hard to move away from the past.

The lack of women's names as street names has been recognised recently by The Women of Otepoti Recognition Project who want to have some of our street names changed to honour the amazing women who were so influential in building our community. The group stated:"The intention is to shine a light on women who lived in Dunedin and who made a significant contribution, not yet recognised."

While thinking about the men whose names adorn our streets, I reflected on our House names which have long been a part of our school history. In 1919 and 1920 an influenza epidemic had kept St Hilda's closed and when the students returned to school they were all divided into 4 ‘patrols’, based on the Scout system, and students worked together in those groups. I wondered if maybe that was their version of the 2022 ‘bubble’ where they tried to keep the students in small groups?

In 1922 the patrol system was abolished and the Houses as we know them were introduced.

While it is a fantastic system, the names of the houses have troubled us for some time and, given the houses were established 100 years ago in 1922, it is fitting that we reflect on their names and why they may not be appropriate any longer for a girls school in 2022.

Let’s look at Nelson first ...

Horatio Nelson was a famous English naval commander. In 1794 he lost his right eye in a battle against the French, and then an arm while he was fighting the Spanish - but he kept on fighting!

Finally he was shot and killed at his famous victory over the French and Spanish at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, becoming one of Britain’s greatest war heroes. As he sailed into battle, Nelson hoisted his famous flag signal, which became the House motto: “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

Nelson was regarded as a highly effective leader who held the rank of Admiral in the Navy, and is often revered as an almost god-like patriotic hero in England, but while he might have been a heroic victor who gave his life for his country, he also argued strongly against ending slavery - part of the point of the naval battles he fought was to keep British control over the Atlantic Ocean in order to keep the slave trade going ...

So perhaps not entirely Admirable after all ... ?

What about Wellington?

The Duke of Wellington also served in the British army, and was one of the leading military and political leaders of the 19th century - he participated in over 60 battles during his military career but his most significant success was his defeat of the French leader Napoleon at Waterloo in Belgium in 1815 - cue ABBA!

It was as he led his troops into this battle that he said the words that became the House motto: “Up and at ‘em!” After his military career, Wellington became the Prime Minister of England - twice! His nickname was the Iron Duke, because he was so forceful - but part of this forcefulness was seen in his refusal to grant Jewish people any freedoms and equal rights in England - he voted against anything in Parliament aimed at ending discrimination, calling them an inconvenience, un-English, un-Christian - and rich. An Iron Duke indeed.

So, who was Lawrence?

Sir John Laird Muir Lawrence trained as a civil servant, specialising in administration and logistics. In 1829 he went to India, which was part of the British Empire, and worked as a tax collector and magistrate after learning two Indian languages.

While there he worked hard to end the practice of suttee, where women would sacrifice themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre, as well as the practice of abandoning female babies. But during this time, several wars broke out as various Indian groups, especially the Sikh community, sought independence from British rule. Lawrence gathered up supplies and guns and made sure that they got to the battlefront, ensuring British victories, and was named ‘the Saviour of India.’

It is this skill of organisation and preparation that gives us the motto for Lawrence “Be Ready!”. The British crushed the uprisings, punishing the Indian people mercilessly, and there were many massacres and atrocities done to the Indian people by the British soldiers to punish them for rebelling. To his credit, Lawrence called for mercy to be shown to the defeated people, but almost 1 million Indians died in the rebellions and the aftermath. Despite his criticisms of the horrendous treatment of the Indian people, he was eventually appointed to the most important colonial role in the whole British Empire, as the Viceroy of India, a role he accepted along with all its honours, awards, wealth, titles, luxuries, and power.

‘Saviour of India’?

And last but not least, who was Havelock?

Major General Sir Henry Havelock started off life as a lawyer but when his family lost their fortune he joined the British Army - his brother had fought at Waterloo with Wellington. Like Lawrence, he ended up in India where he also took the time to learn two Indian languages fluently; he also renewed his faith and led Bible studies and church services for his fellow soldiers. He fought as a Captain in many battles in India - many of the same ones where Lawrence was ensuring supplies and munitions got through to the army - and was charged with the task of pursuing and utterly destroying the rebels - many of whom were from the Sikh community - subsequently winning a reputation by the British as a great military leader.

During the Benghal Mutiny in 1857 - otherwise known as the First war of Indian Independence - Havelock and his soldiers were caught in a prolonged siege of a town, but despite the odds his army eventually overcame the rebels, hence the House motto: “Never Give In”. Interestingly, a road in South London named after Havelock was changed in 2020 after a petition to the council by the Indian community there. It is now called Guru Nanak Road, named in honour of the founder of the Sikh faith, rather than after someone who suppressed and massacred them.

The men our school houses were named after were great commanders, warriors, pioneers and explorers. But they were also colonists, racists, warlords, and invaders. Times have changed and we are not sure it is appropriate for our Houses to be named after men, in the first instance, but also men who, while changing the face of the world, it could be argued, did not change it for the better.

The British royal family are even recognising that the exploration and colonisation of countries under Queen Victoria’s reign, and as part of the establishment of the Commonwealth, caused huge harm and devastated indigenous people. On their tour of the Caribbean, two weeks ago, The Duke of Cambridge spoke of his "profound sorrow" over slavery during a speech at a dinner in Jamaica. Prince William said slavery was abhorrent, "should never have happened" and "forever stains the British history".

So, if the royal family can reconsider the actions of the past, we definitely can. Different times call for a different approach. I am not sure why Sister Etheleen chose the names of men who were sailors and soldiers for the houses in a school that was all about girls and women. Maybe she was pressured by others to recognize those men’s achievements in a fervour of patriotism after WW1, or it could have been that the dominance of the British education system was such that she felt they had to recognise those battles and historic events. Maybe she thought the qualities of those men; their bravery, persistence, leadership and loyalty to the crown were traits she wanted the students to aspire to.

I understand and value the history and importance of the house names. I belong to Lawrence because my mother was in Lawrence when she boarded at St Hilda’s in the late 1940’s, so the sense of connection with our past is not lost on me. While those names have stood for 100 years, just as the street names have honoured men of the past, we don’t believe they are still relevant or appropriate for St Hilda’s Collegiate in 2022. While being respectful, thoughtful and cherishing our past as part of the rich legacy of this school, I ask for your considered contributions in thinking about some new house names.

We need to find house names that honour the contributions of women in our school, our community, their expertise and values. Names which more closely align with who we are and who we will be as a school going forward.

We could name the houses after significant buildings in the school’s history – Kilburn, Whitby, Grange,

Or significant women – the first dux, first boarder, first sacristan, first head prefect. There are lots of options and I really want to hear your thoughts.

I think we have an opportunity to reshape our narrative, and give the school a gift of new house names to take the houses through for at least the next 100 years.

I look forward to hearing your ideas.

Please email or to share your thoughts on this matter.


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