In Hong Kong, it’s not what you know that’s most important, but who you know – especially fifty years ago in the search to obtain finance to build a new school.
In the early 1950s, the headmistress of the ‘old’ Peak School, Miss Bicheno, appealed to a former pupil to try and arrange some essential repairs to her run-down classrooms. The old boy was Michael Wright, then the Hong Kong Government’s chief architect, who more than exceeded her hopes by starting a drive within government to build a new, larger school nearby. By early 1954, the ‘new‘ Peak School had been built on the former site of the Peak Club in Plunketts Road. At first, the two campuses worked in tandem with younger children attending the older school. A few years later, however, the entire student body was consolidated in the new buildings and the old site, dating from 1915, was later transformed into the Victoria Peak Fire Station that still services local residents today.
Allison Werner (nee Fisher), now in her 80s, was a contemporary of Michael Wright’s youngest sister at ‘old’ Peak School and is still a part time resident of Hong Kong, spending half the year here and the remainder on the Italian island of Capri. She remembers a warm and friendly environment in the three classes within the original complex. “We lived in Bowen Road after we moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1929 and I went to Peak School for three years before my parents sent me away to boarding school in England. We used to travel to school on the Peak Tram. Children who lived on the Peak usually came on foot or by sedan chair,” she said.
When the new school opened in 1954, the modular design was considered state of the art and far superior to the small, old school tucked away in Gough Hill Path. The new school’s first prospectus boasted it had “11 general classrooms, a combined assembly hall and gymnasium with a stage capable of being converted into a music room; a dining hall and kitchen, medical room, a covered playground, two hard playing grounds and a large playing field”. There were 17 teaching staff, including “specialists in music, art, handwork and speech”.
When Jenny Hodson (nee Johnston) went to Peak School aged six in the sixties, there was a still a grassy playground, although she went home every day for lunch rather than eat the two-course hot meal that students could buy in winter for HK$1.70. Some of her contemporaries were Stuart Harley, Sarah Snoxall, Kristen Stonham and the Minns sisters, many of whom, like Jenny, still live in Hong Kong and are schooling their own children at the Peak. “I was there for three years before returning to England to boarding school. I have a few random but quite strong recollections: playing clackers and sevens at recess; swapping stickers; and, sneaking into the upstairs toilets to watch one of my friends take out her glass eye. It’s funny what we remember from childhood.”.
In Jenny’s day, the girls’ summer uniform was a white dress, zippered down the front with a grey pinafore in winter. Boys wore green shirts made from a fabric called ‘clydella’, as well as grey flannel shorts. Mr John Son, the ‘School Tailor’, visited twice a week during term time to measure up the students.
Even though the central design and structure of the school has changed little over the past fifty years, there are still some noticeable differences. A white, sail-like canopy has replaced the wood, steel and tar structure that once protected the lower playground from sun and rain. The upper playground is now completely covered in asphalt and there are no more large trees, although there is climbing equipment and plenty of room for tennis, football and netball courts.
Another profound change has been in the school fee structure. Even accounting for inflation, the first fees charged by the government , before the English Schools Foundation took over the school 33 years ago, seem quite parent-friendly. Tuition was HK $120 per annum with the year divided into Christmas, Easter and Summer terms, according to the first prospectus. However, school fees could double if parents wished their children to drink a small bottle of milk daily. Moreover, extra lessons in Latin or French cost HK$15 a month, payable to the PTA.
School rules were also a little different – except for the usual ones relating to conduct and payment of fees. In wet weather, for example, pupils were expected to change into clean, white tennis shoes upon entering the school and change again each time they left. Students were also barred from using “ball-point pens, chewing gum and comics" – with a few exceptions, namely ‘Eagle’, ‘Girl’, ‘Swift’ and ‘Robin’.
The school has served generations of expatriate and, increasingly, local families by providing an introduction to the English curriculum and a solid base from which to pursue further education, either in Hong Kong or overseas.