Treasure Trove: This Really Cool ‘Prize Bound’ Book Awarded By My Old High School Nearly A Hundred Years Ago

While browsing one of the second-hand book-stalls at my local market, as I am wont to do on a Saturday morning, I found… THIS!


The cover caught my eye immediately: while my school crest has changed over the last hundred years, the school name – Wanganui Girls’ College – hasn’t. (The spelling of ‘Whanganui’ has changed, but that’s a don’t-mention-the-War kind of thing).

The book itself is Charles and Mary Lamb’s ‘Tales From Shakespeare’, which was published in 1913, and retells in simple language and narrative form the plots of twenty of Shakespeare’s plays. It was written, so the authors tell us in the brilliant piece of psychology which is the preface, to serve as an introduction to Shakespeare’s plays for those who are too young to be allowed to read the actual plays.

It was awarded to a Gwen Bell, who presumably graduated from the college in 1920, for being first in English, history, cooking and drawing, second equal in dress (possibly dress-making?), and third in French. In other words, young Gwen was quite the high achiever.

20170204_150619According to Wikipedia, the practice of awarding specially-bound books to outstanding students originated in Europe as early as the 17th century and continued in Britain (and, evidently, parts of the Commonwealth) until the mid-twentieth century. Publishers would produce unbound manuscripts, usually of works in the Humanities, and sell them to educational institutions, which would then contract a book-binder to add an appropriate cover. An award plate would then be completed for the front of the book, and it would be given to the student in an annual prize-giving ceremony.

Whanganui Girls’ College was one of the first secondary schools to be established in New Zealand, accepting its first intake of students in 1891, two years before New Zealand women became the first in the world to achieve universal suffrage on the same basis as men. Miss Christina Cruickshanks was the third principal of the school, being appointed in 1910 and remaining at the school until 1932. She was an extremely educated woman, even by modern standards, holding a Master’s degree in biology and chemistry, and had already taught at several other New Zealand schools. Today WGC is the only single-sex school in Whanganui, with a role of around 600 students.

The modern school crest. ‘Ad Astra’ (Latin) is ‘to the stars’ – in other words, strive for the highest – and ‘poutamatia’ (Maori) expresses much the same sentiment.

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