Most people don’t know the historical significance of the mighty oak tree that stands outside Waitaki Boys’ High School.
Nor would they know that Sunday marked 100 years since it was planted.
The century-old oak tree is one of many mementos treasured by the school from when King George V’s son, Edward, Prince of Wales, who later reigned briefly as Edward VIII, visited Waitaki Boys’ High School on May 17, 1920.
It was the first of two royal visits the school hosted in the space of seven years.
“[It was] a rare event even for a public school in England, and described at the time as greatest honour ever conferred on the school’,” Waitaki Boys’ High School deputy rector Roger van Booma said.
In those days, Waitaki Boys’ was very much a colonial school, and a proud part of the British Empire, Mr van Booma said.
“Schools like ours were seen as breeding grounds for the Empire,” he said.
The Prince of Wales’ 1920 royal tour of New Zealand was, in part, to thank the Dominion for its contribution to the Empire’s effort in World War 1.
About 700 Waitaki Boys’ pupils served during World War1, 119 of them dying. The Hall of Memories, a monumental memorial to those pupils who gave their lives, is a daily reminder of those sacrifices.
“When you look through the yearbooks from the time, they were full of remarks about the physical attributes of the pupils – basically whether they would be good soldiers,” Mr van Booma said.
Waitaki Boys’ had a proud tradition of producing soldiers and officers, particularly in the Navy, and the Prince of Wales probably visited the school because of those military connections, Mr van Booma said.
The visit to Waitaki Boys’ was also personally endorsed by British Navy Admiral Sir Lionel Halsey, who had been impressed by the school when he visited in 1913 to unveil a memorial to Antarctic explorer Robert Scott.
Prince Edward arrived at Waitaki Boys’ in the afternoon of May 17, 1920, after travelling from Christchurch, and started by inspecting the guard of honour and the school’s military band.
He spoke at a school assembly, where rector Frank Milner read a message from the Prime Minister, and then planted a memorial oak to mark the occasion.
At the assembly, the Prince of Wales thanked school pupils for their “kind welcome” and congratulated the school for its “splendid record in the Great War”, the Oamaru Mailreported.
He also paid tribute to those who lost their lives in the war, making special mention of Victoria Cross recipient Sergeant Donald Forrester Brown.
“I have been very much impressed with what I have seen here, and particularly with the guard of honour drawn up in front of the school,” he said.
“All of you boys have careers before you and I know you will uphold those traditions in your careers if you follow the example of the old boys who have fought and won in the Great War.”
He asked Mr Milner to give the pupils a holiday, but they were due to break the following day for holidays anyway which was “better still”, he told them.
The prince’s school visit made news all over the world.
The school’s 1920 Waitakian yearbook describes how important the royal visit was, and the status the monarchy held at the time.
An article by pupil Reuel Lochore reads: “For New Zealanders, the year 1920 will be chiefly remarkable by the visit of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to our Dominion”.
“Truly as an individual his power of inspiring confidence and affection is unique,” Reuel wrote.
“No-one who witnessed the scene in the big schoolroom when the prince entered could doubt the eager and devoted loyalty of those fervent lads, or could fail to realise what an inspiration the prince’s visit is.
“It is they, not the older men and women, whose thoughts and actions will be influenced most completely by the remembrance of the day they when they saw the prince face to face.”
Seven years later, the Prince of Wales’ brother Prince Albert, the Duke of York, visited Waitaki Boys’ High School and performed the official opening ceremony of the Hall of Memories on March 16, 1927.
Before officially unveiling the memorial window at the hall, he addressed the school’s assembly.
“I am very glad to have this opportunity of visiting this school for I have heard a lot about it from my brother,” the Otago Daily Times reported him saying.
“I propose to say very little today because a hall of memories requires very few words. Its associations and all that it stands for call for silence rather than speech. But I do ask you not to let those words of Memories’ become merely an empty name to you.
“Remember that this room stands for all that was best and noblest in those who gave their lives for the Empire.
“Remember the loyalty and sacrifice of those old boys and see to it that the generations which come after you shall also learn the lessons which they taught, for as they served their country in war, so must you service her in peace.
“And if you cherish those ideals of truth and right for which they fought, you will be completing the task they began, and their lives will not have been given in vain.”
After the ceremony at Waitaki Boys’ High School, the royal party motored to town where it is estimated about 10,000 people were congregated in the streets, many occupying vantage points on the tops of verandas and buildings.