It takes a village: Turning a small Otago school into a museum

by Guy Frederick / 20 May, 2017
Photo/Guy Frederick
Dorothy Walker revisits Cambrian School, which closed in 1954.

Visitors to Cambrians are welcome to get schooled.

A black-and-white photo of the “class of 1952” sits above the fireplace at Cambrians School, near St Bathans. Of the nine children pictured, seven-year-old Dorothy Walker (née Harley) was related to six of them. When the school closed two years later, her sister and two brothers were all on the roll.

She remembers balancing on the bar of first cousin Edwin’s pushbike on the 2km ride to and from home, clothed in thick woollen layers during Central Otago’s freezing winters.

“In class, our desks would be arranged in a semi-circle around a big pot-bellied stove, which kept our fronts warm – but our backs were a little chilly,” says Walker, who lives in Gore but often spends time at a family home in Cambrians.

“In the hot summer months, the windows would be wide open and the nor’westers would blow through the room.”

A leather-bound copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Good Wives was given to her as a farewell gift when the old school – which was built in 1885 – was moved to Becks to begin a new life as a Sunday school.

But the village of Cambrians was never the same without it. Walker’s late brother, Donald, donated land so the building could be returned and in 2006, buoyed by a huge dose of community spirit and fundraising for repair and repainting, the school was brought home to the valley, where it’s open to visitors who can tinkle on the pianos and learn about the Welsh settlement’s colourful history.

By all accounts, the school’s last sole-charge principal, Alan Vuglar (also pictured in that 1952 photograph), was a bloody good man. “He helped the local farmers when they needed an extra hand, and never once used a strap,” says Walker, who went on to have three children of her own.

“We were so lucky having such a great teacher in that environment who created a real family feel.”

Perhaps he also played a hand in her future career – as a primary school teacher. 



This was published in the April 2017 issue of North & South.

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