Oak Grove School

This school was owned and operated by the East Indian Railway. The locality was called Jharipani – meaning cold water. It was situated up in the Himalayas just below Mussoorie at about 4500 feet above sea level. This arrangement made it more comfortable for students to study in the near temperate climate as opposed to the suffocating heat of the plains in the summer months. But, and looking back it must have been a big but, it was one thousand miles away from home and we had to travel by train, specially chartered by the railway. Leaving was always such sweet sorrow. Actually two trains were chartered, one for the girls and one for the boys. In those days, boys and girls travelling together was an absolute no no. Even the trains travelled a day apart. This trip took two full days and part of a third. There were no connecting passages between carriages and the masters in charge of the train had their own compartment with no way of reaching any other part of the train whilst it was in motion.

How we survived these trips boggles the mind as many hair raising exploits were performed without the masters being aware. One that nearly ended up fatally and of which everyone became only too well aware was when a student by the name of Calder opened the door that lead directly into the carriage during a game of Blind Man’s Buff and the blind man, a boy of about ten years, walked right out of the carriage while the train was moving. He rolled a across another set of tracks down an embankment almost to a river. The emergency cord was pulled and when the train came to a halt many older pupils and the masters who had been informed that a boy had walked out of the train, ran back to find the lad walking along the track crying his eyes out and saying “I’ve hurt my thumb”. Supervising 160 boys aged from five to seventeen years must have been a headache. The boys had to be fed at Kelners restaurants which were established at the larger stations along the way. This was, in itself, a major operation.                                                                                                                                                                                         

On arrival at Dehra Dun, we were bussed about ten miles to Rajpur, then we had to walk five or so miles to Jharipani up a very steep track which was only meant for foot traffic, including horses. Smaller children were carried up in a Dandy which was a type of basket. This was supported by four men with poles across the shoulders of each of the two men at the front and back. On my first visit to the school I was carried up in one. All the luggage was carried up on the backs of the short but very tough hill tribesman who were apparently born into virtual slavery. The enormous loads that they carried defies the imagination. A wide strap went around the bottom of the lower one of two or even three large boxes. This strap then passed across the forehead of the carrier who had to be in a squatting position. When he stood up he took the considerable weight on his neck and back. Back home two coolies would carry each box from our home to the railway station and the going was flat. That gives one some idea of the strength of the hill tribesmen. There were lots of stories of a man carrying a piano up the hill and dropping dead when he put down his load. No doubt this was embellished by the students.

At school all our time was strictly monitored, and being based on strict army lines. We had to march to everything; meals, assembly, church parade, study, even to bed. Yes, even going up to bed was strictly organised in terms of seniority, each class going up to bed fifteen minutes after the junior class below it.

The day started with reveille- a loud bell- at 6-40am.We then had thirty minutes to wash in cold water, dress, clean shoes and brush ones hair. The top blankets and sheet of the bed had to be folded back in half so that when the servants came to make the bed they could see if anyone had disgraced himself by wetting the bed. When this happened more than once the culprit was made to stand by the office with the wet sheet over his head. I don’t know if it ever cured anybody. On the dorm Sgt’s. whistle everybody fell in at the head of the stairs with the dorm Sgt. standing at the doorway complete with cane. He was also the P.T Instructor. While we marched down to study, the Sgt would quickly inspect us for brushed hair, tie properly on and shoes clean. Frantic efforts were always made to smooth down unbrushed hair and shine the front of the shoes on the back of the sock on the other leg. Anyone catching the Sgt’s eye for not coming up to standard was tapped on the head or shoulder with the cane and told to fall out. These poor unfortunates were then attended to with the same cane being applied to the posterior rather painfully.

On coming down from the dormitory we went to our classrooms for a period of study. Breakfast followed at about 7-45 am after which we had about forty five minutes of free time before assembly. Before and after every meal Grace had to be sung. Assembly was at 9-00 am when hymns were sung, a bible passage was read and daily notices were given out. As the school was mainly Church of England, the Catholic boys had to go to a different location for their devotions. We then marched to our classrooms for the remainder of the morning lessons. Lunch was followed by some free time then back to class till about 4-pm. Sport and other activities were arranged for this time, followed by dinner. A little more free time preceded a return to our classrooms for study and complete previously prepared home work. Then up to bed in the order stated earlier.

This routine continued for a major portion of the year but had to be adjusted during the monsoon season. Then it would rain heavily for about three months and a lot of activities had to be planned carefully to keep 160 boys occupied in their otherwise free times. This must have been a major headache for the masters and prefects. Very occasionally, during the monsoons , the day would dawn beautifully. The sun would be shining and the birds singing. The routine then was for the senior prefects to”rush” the Head Master and request a holiday. The Head Master would then approach the Principal who would declare that all three schools, boys ,girls and juniors, would be granted a day off— till it rained. By lunch-time we were back in school, but we had enjoyed a marvellous half day. It was pouring with rain again.

The Girl’s school was situated on a separate hill to the Boy’s and Junior schools and there was a very nice grassed valley in between. This was used for Prize Giving Day, Fancy Fair, Church Services, and cricket- at different times of course!.! There was absolutely no fraternisation between the boys and girls. The nearest one got to each other was at church services, when the boys and girls choirs stood alongside each other and many a daring wink and or smile was exchanged. I was often guilty, but oh, what a thrill!!

Senior boys were able to arrange to meet sisters of boys, who were in their dormitories, for a Fancy Fair date. They then had the privilege of walking up and down the valley with this young lady. Duncan was able to do this the last year he was at school, but Jim arranged his own date with the Head Master’s daughter.  He was always more daring. Oh, they were considered so daring. They were able to sample the simple delights of Lucky Dips, Ice Creams and other arranged activities. Holding hands was strictly forbidden. Remember this was in the late 20’s and early 30’s. Perhaps there were assignations arranged at less public times, but being a junior I was not privy to that information. We juniors had to content ourselves by inventing and sucking dry rumours concerning our older heroes.

Looking back, school days were severe but good. The biggest complaint was about the food. It was very plain and never nearly enough, leaving us always hungry. Some older boys, brother Jim included, would break bounds at night to go down to a local bazaar and use their pocket money to buy “Sam”. This was the nick name of a local spicy food cooked up specially for these boys. They had to go two miles in the dark and it was dangerous considering the snakes and wild animals. Leopards were quite plentiful in that part of the hills. There were severe penalties if they were caught, but I don’t remember if any one was. I do remember one occasion when the milkmen, who had to come from a valley quite some distance away, brought a tiny leopard cub to the school. It was given to one of the masters who had children at the school. We used to watch them playing with the cub until it grew too big  and rough. Then it was sent to some zoo.

Our rival school was St. Georges which was situated on a plateau in between us at Jharipani and Mussoorie, where many more boarding schools were situated. The rivalry was fierce and we competed in hockey, cricket, tennis, soccer and boxing. As the playgrounds had a gravel surface no rugby was played. Even dive intercepts in soccer were not heard of.  Any slip or fall always resulted in skin off and first aid treatment with liberal applications of iodine.   

I went into Std. 4. That was the lowest class in the senior school. After being in school for a few days I was approached by a boy who had come up from the Junior school and had been boss of the class in Std. 3. He said something like “Do you want to be boss of the class”? Not being sure what was involved, I replied “Oh Yes!” “Then you will have to fight me for it” Not wanting to back down I agreed. This boy was taller than me and had received some boxing lessons. Besides, his name was Vallient. With all these advantages he pummelled hell out of me. The unofficial place for such fights was behind the bell where a watch was kept out for any roving masters. But Vallient had one disadvantage, he was slightly coloured, and I had been instructed from a very young age that you never give in to a person especially if he was coloured. So I had to endure having to fight this chap for three or four days in every break between classes. I did get in a few punches, but he pummelled me almost at will. Anyway after those three or four days, Vallient suddenly gave in and I was the undisputed boss of the class, despite all the bumps, lumps and bruises on my face. It did seem to add a visible air of authority to my new found exulted position. Why the masters didn’t query my altered appearance I will never know. I soon learned to take boxing lessons.

The standard type of punishment was strokes of the cane on the posterior while the culprit was in a bent position to tighten the trousers over the target area. One to six cuts were administered according to the gravity of the offence. Only one master Mr Pilcher caned you on the hands. I received “the cuts” from all the masters but only held resentment against one master a Mr Lubeck, the science teacher. He was vicious and brutal and at times drew blood. This person came to live in Auckland but I had no desire to renew his acquaintance.

Oak Grove School, judged on today’s standards, was harsh, but I feel it was still fair considering the harsh conditions of those times. It is so easy to judge historic events from today’s point of view. All mediums of expression tend to do this, often to the detriment of that historic occasion. Perhaps in another fifty years the events of today will be looked on with equal disapproval, a disapproval born of changing attitudes and advancing knowledge.

My first year in boarding school didn’t show much success apart from my ‘ Boss of the class ‘ status. I didn’t even pass, so was held back in std. 4 for another year. This was probably an advantage as I was now back with my age group. On returning home after the first year at school we were presented with our new baby sister, Mary Elizabeth, but always called Joy, having brought Joy to our parents after three boys. She was always a lovely child and grew to an equally fine woman.


Having older brothers in the school had many advantages and did protect me from bullying. But when they left school having passed Senior Cambridge examinations, I found it rather hard on my own but I settled down in time. I was made team captain for the hockey and soccer under fourteen teams. I was quite chuffed, and we didn’t do too badly either. I even won some prizes for academic achievements, but Urdu, which was a compulsory subject, was the bane of my life and I rarely did well in the written portion of this subject. I was only fair in the oral.

That was the year that my parents decided to leave India and emigrate to New Zealand. India’s Home Rule movement was gaining momentum under Mahatma Gandhi and my parents were far sighted enough to realise that there would be precious little employment available for the two older boys. So in September 1933 I was taken out of school before I was able to sit for the Junior Cambridge Certificate. Duncan came up to the school to escort me down, as Jim, Dad and a Mr Duncan Ayo had already left for N.Z. What was so upsetting for me was that my family had given up our family home in Jamalpur and moved to Agra, into the home of Mr and Mrs Ayo. Mr Ayo was the Headmaster of a local school and the house was in the grounds. At this stage my formal schooling ended and my education really started. Being the youngest of the boys I was never taken into the confidences of my parents. I can remember them talking to Jim and Duncan about leaving India and both New Zealand and Argentina were mentioned as possible countries to go to. Thank God we eventually arrived in N.Z. Even though I had no idea where the country was. When the head master of the boys school, Mr Gibbs received word that I was to be taken out of school with a view to being taken to New Zealand, he called me into his office and informed me that Duncan was coming up to take me out. He then showed me where N.Z. was on the large globe in his office. I was not impressed, and neither was the Headmaster at my ignorance.

Before leaving India we visited relatives in Calcutta, Kulti and Jamalpur. Here we stayed with the Beard family and I visited the Gurnet family who lived next door to the house that we had lived in. It was hard looking at what had been my home and not be able to go in as Indians were now living in it. My racial prejudice was quite strong at that stage and there was no way that I was going to see Indians living in what had been my home.

Staying with Mr and Mrs Beard (the children were all at school in Darjeeling), I vividly remembered, and still do, the time before I went up to O.G. when Sheila Beard told me that a boy by the name of Archibald Samuels had deliberately put stinging nettles on her leg. Now at nine years old I was firmly convinced that Sheila was my girl friend. So I challenged Archibald to a fight. This took place in the corner of the grounds of the Railway Institute. An older boy by the name of Stafford Cudetti was the referee. We wrestled and then tried boxing. This went on for quite a while, and although I don’t know who won he never worried Sheila again. I was quite a hero!!

On returning to Agra we then had to pack up surreptitiously and leave Agra by train in the middle of the night for Bombay. The reason for the stealthy shift came to my knowledge years later. Mr Ayo was deeply in debt and wished his family to get out of India before those he owed money to became aware of his permanent departure. Why my parents didn’t become aware of this deception I will never know. But worse was to follow in New Zealand. What I could never understand was that both my parents were very colour prejudiced yet they could not see anything wrong with this man Ayo even though he was very very dark. They were to pay dearly for the trust that they placed in him and we all had to suffer. While travelling by train from Agra to Bombay, George Ayo, the oldest of the Ayo family, acted as our servant and travelled in the servants compartment which was really basic. This was to avoid paying another fare, as servants travelled free when travelling with their masters.

Leaving India was traumatic for my mother. I remember her standing at the stern of the ship S.S. Moldavia as we sailed away from India. She was crying bitterly as she saw India fading in the distance along with her hopes and dreams and with a very uncertain future ahead. She was never really happy again. Mum and Dad certainly made a huge sacrifice for us boys and Joy, our young sister. The children did benefit from this , but Mum and Dad received very little joy or benefit from it. Perhaps they are getting their reward now.

– Bon Ross. 

This content has been reproduced from a document shared on email by Margaret Mohamed on March 09, 2015.


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