First state secondary school opens

7 April 1856

Nelson College, Principal’s residence at left, 1861 (Alexander Turnbull Library, A-109-002)

The first state secondary school in New Zealand, Nelson College, opened in temporary premises in Trafalgar St with a roll of just eight boys. It eventually attracted boys from around the country as well as the local area. It now has a roll of over 1000 and continues to take both boarders and day pupils.

The original wooden school burnt down in 1904. A new brick building, opened in 1907, suffered severe damage during the 1929 Murchison earthquake. The school’s clock tower collapsed during the severe shaking, showering the main entrance with rubble. Remarkably, only two boys suffered injuries.

Notable old boys include Nobel Prize winner Ernest Rutherford, Victoria Cross recipient Leonard Trent, Commonwealth Secretary-General and Deputy Prime Minister Don McKinnon, and two Labour prime ministers: Wallace (‘Bill’) Rowling and Geoffrey Palmer.

Perhaps the school’s biggest claim to fame is its association with the game of rugby. A Nelson College team played Nelson Town in what is believed to have been the first game played in New Zealand, in May 1870.