Remembering Robert Town: A Garston School Adventure

Teaching at Garston School was never boring, and we’ve had a fair few “education adventures” over the years. One of the best was the wonderful week when we brought an old gold mining shanty town to life.

"Robert Town Garston School Brings History To Life" says the sign.

In 2006, not long after Kathryn O’Loughlin, aka Ms O, and I began teaching at Garston School together, we got excited about Garston’s local history and decided on a big whole-school study about gold mining.

Garston and the surrounding area are intimately connected with New Zealand’s gold rush era. Indeed, only ten years earlier, L&M mining were still extracting vast quantities of alluvial gold from a huge open cast mine in the next-door Nokomai valley. 

Miners and water-race men who sadly never made it back to China are buried in our local cemetery, and long water-race lines still wind around both sides of the Garvie mountains. Even more exciting, one Garston School family still had a small gold claim in the Nevis valley. 

Ordinary And Boring Won’t Work

At first, we focused the study around the poem Gabriel’s Gully which we read in the form of a picture book. We looked through old books and illustrations of gold mining days, read, wrote, talked to parents and local historians. 

“Boring!” sighed the kids.

Hmm! Clearly the “standard social studies practices of the day” weren’t grabbing our students. So how could we bring this study alive and make it meaningful, fun and relevant? 

“Why don’t we build gold-miners’ huts among the trees on the hill?” Leanne and I enthused, pointing to the kids’ winter sledging site.

“I’ve got a few contacts,” mused our intrepid teacher aide. (The understatement of the year — Pam knows everybody!)

Kathryn gazed over at the empty space next to the school. “I wonder if Gavin Roberts would lend us his paddock?” 

“What do you reckon?” we asked the kids. “Do you want to bring history to life?”

Of course they did.

So the idea was born. And everyone — teachers, parents, community members and every kid in the school joined in to create Robert Town.

The Gabriel's Gully Poem surrounded by photos on the Garston School wall.
Pop into Garston School and you’ll see this memento of Robert Town hanging prominently in the corridor.

Gavin’s Empty Paddock Turns Into A Shanty Town

What would be in a gold-miners town? we asked the kids. 

They did some research and came up with a list: houses — of course and a hotel. General Store, Baker, Butcher, Blacksmith, Bank, and of course a Gaol. 

How will we build them and what will we use? we questioned. The kids had heaps of ideas, but what materials would be available today?

Home they trotted with their queries. And back came the answers: canvas, timber, mud, stones, branches, poles… 

So that’s what we used. All over the valley families searched their barns, dusted off old tents and tarps and scrounged through piles of junk to reveal a hut-building treasure trove.

The schoolroom buzzed with conversation as the kids gathered to plan their huts. The initial “everyone-shout-at-once” tactics from some groups had the teachers searching for earplugs. But other groups were more savvy and taught their friends how to cooperate and listen to all ideas. Soon the room was filled with designs.

Finally, it was time to let the kids loose to stake their claims. 

Up went the frames — only to collapse when the tarps went on. Time for a re-think — and a few lessons in tying knots. It took most of a day —  filled with laughter, tears and hard work — for the kids to build their huts, each with a stone-ringed fireplace outside and places to sit. 

Some groups went all-out with bedrolls and furnishings inside. Others decided to rough it — getting the shelter up was challenging enough for them. 

One of the many canvas huts built  Garston School's Robert Town adventure.
One of the many canvas huts built on Garston School’s Robert Town adventure. Looks like this group was canny enough to use the old playground climbing bars for their hut frame. Not exactly traditional, but it did the job.

Cooking And Clothes

Next day we all learned to cook the old-fashioned way.

Kids scattered every which way gathering sticks and cones for kindling and raiding the school woodpile for larger logs. The younger children watched and whispered at a safe distance while the older ones tried to set and light their fires. (Luckily, we had a few modern materials on hand —  newspaper and firelighters — which weren’t so common back in the 1860s.)

With the fires organised everyone got to work mixing up sticky dough and winding it around green willow sticks. The damper turned out pretty much as you’d expect — half raw and burnt. We sweetened it with golden syrup (which may or may not have been in a miner’s pantry but definitely made the damper easier to eat.)

Naturally, we had to look the part too, so we pored over old photos of solemn-faced miners and their families. Then everyone began to beg, borrow or steal make up suitable old-fashioned outfits. 

Garston boys and girls playing Toss the Horseshoe in their old-fashioned clothes.
Tossing horseshoes. in our old-fashioned clothes. By the end of the day, the girls were particularly glad that long skirts aren’t everyday attire at Garston School.

Cast Of Characters — Fun For The Adults Too

To make a fully functional town we needed adults and they turned out in droves to man the stores. 

Albie Edwards came to set up a small forge. He insisted that we learn the difference between a blacksmith (who forged many iron implements) and a farrier (who shoes horses.)

“You have to cash in some gold to claim your lunch,” we told the kids. Luckily, Mick and Mo got their gold-mining gear working to show them how it was done.

Leanne, our third teacher, became the banker, Bernie a buxom lady publican. I was the grey-haired barmaid (it was a wig in those days) dispensing cups of orange juice or water. 

“Hear ye! Hear ye!” called Pam, in her town crier role, while Peter donned his top hat and a suitably sombre expression as the local undertaker. 

Terry, with a constable’s helmet perched up top, left the farm to fend for itself so he could protect the stagecoach. Ms O, of course, was the indomitable school ma’am. 

Three ladies serving a young customer at the Robert Town General Store.
Vicki, Michelle and Lou “sell” Daisy some lunch at the Robert Town General Store.

Mums manned the store and bakery dishing out home-cooked bread to their hungry customers. The butcher handed out well-cooked sausages and patties. Behind him hung plenty of ducks and rabbits (we are a rural school after all, and the kids did a lot of hunting back then) which didn’t make it into the menu.

The final touch was Peter Robson’s real live stagecoach, pulled by a team of Clydesdale horses.

Oh, and there was one other group which I’ll tell you about later.

Journeying To Robert Town

We wanted to give the children a sense of how hard it was to travel back then, and that people walked long distances , so on the day that Robert Town went live, the journey began a few kilometres away on our farm. 

All the schoolkids —  boys in ragged trousers and braces, girls in long skirts and bonnets — gathered beside our house. With bundles in hand, or tied to poles, we traipsed down through the paddocks to Blackmore Road. There we met the stagecoach, which took us in small groups down the road and through the paddocks towards Garston. Finally, everyone walked over the hill and down the track to claim Robert Town as our own.

Coach and horses travel through Garston's rough pasture over the hill to Robert Town.

The Town Comes Alive

All morning we prospected, played “Oranges and Lemons” and Marbles, tossed horseshoes and lived in our houses, stores and town. People came from far and wide to join in the fun. Even some Lumsden school kids came with their teachers to sample life in the olden days.

Albie, the blacksmith, sweated over his forge making chains and tools. Mick’s knudson wash was in full swing and the stagecoach gave rides to the village and back.

After lunch from the bakery, butchery and hotel we gathered for the Garston School’s Robert Town concert. Of course, we’d been learning songs and dances of the 1860s. Andrew Sellens played his violin — the first time I can remember him doing that for a school event, though he’s played for us many a time since. 

The Kingston Flyer Gang Stage A Daring Raid

Just as the concert ended the stagecoach rolled back into town, carrying the wealthy Lady Jean with a big bag of gold for the bank. Suddenly whoops and hollers rang out and masked robbers galloped through the town. Surrounding the coach, Angus Ross and the infamous Kingston Flyer Gang kidnapped Lady Jean and grabbed the gold.

The intrepid policemen took off after them, with hordes of excited children at their heels. In no time at all, they rounded up the gang, rescued the lady and retrieved the gold. Fortunately, Robert Town had a sturdy gaol so in went the robbers. 

Two boys "capturing" a bandit in the Garston School re-enactment of a stagecoach hold up.
Chris and Renato bringing Angus, leader of the daring Kingston Flyer Gang to justice.

I think the funniest part of the day came when the kids tossed Ms O in gaol along with the outlaws.  Then, they threatened to throw away the key unless she gave them no homework for a week, a promise she was happy to make. After all, if they didn’t do their homework she didn’t have to mark it.

An old shed was turned into the Gaol for the day.
The old shed made a perfect Robert Town Gaol.

It was the perfect end to the day and the school term.

There’s no sign of Robert Town in the field today, and all those school children have long since grown and gone. I wonder how many of them remember the week that Garston’s gold mining history came to life and the many, many things they learned?

The photos in this post come from the Garston School Robert Town photo album. The school has many photo albums to record the many adventures and projects we’ve enjoyed over the years.

More About Garston And Its Kids On TOML

Garston and its school have been my home for more than 30 years now, and the connections run deep.

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