2020 is not the first time the College of Creative Arts has been impacted by world events

An advertisement for evening classes at the Wellington Technical School

An advertisement for evening classes at the Wellington Technical School during Arthur Riley's tenure as Director.

The 1890s–1920s were dominated by annual epidemics including smallpox, polio and the plague as well as two influenza pandemics (1890–94, and 1918 Spanish Flu). None of this daunted Sir Robert Stout, who is credited with instigating the establishment of what we now know as Toi Rauwhārangi the Massey University College of Creative Arts, back in 1885. As Minister of Education (later to become Prime Minister) he oversaw the engagement of Hall of Fame member Arthur Riley (below left) who, against a backdrop of prolonged agricultural depression, soaring unemployment, and population-decimating disease outbreaks, opened the Wellington School of Design 134 years ago on 13 April 1886.

By 1905 the School of Design had morphed into New Zealand’s first coeducational multi-purpose Technical School (then College), which taught and trained students from secondary school through to night classes, technical and adult education. Under the leadership of William La Trobe, the Wellington Technical College (WTC) provided a range of creative and practical tuition designed to meet the needs of the new Dominion. Courses aimed at servicing the practical and cultural needs of the country included art, painting, engineering, casting, woodcarving, plumbing and more. Industrial employment fluctuated during the pre-war years, but the roll at WTC grew exponentially, as people sought the knowledge and ability to build the new nation. Many educationalists of the time believed the only education was an ‘academic’ one, but WTC addressed a gaping hole. Through four determined and visionary directors in its first 50 years, all of whom battled to obtain more and better accommodation for the school, the Wellington Schools of Design and Art endured to become the beacon of national creative excellence they are today.

 An art class at the Wellington Technical School
An art class at the Wellington Technical School, Ref: PAColl-3271-2. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22751398

Rolls dipped during WWI, when evening classes, typically attended by young men after work, dropped off. Remaining students changed their focus to support the war effort, with students undertaking ‘patriotic work’ such as fundraising for refugees or supplying tent buttons for the army. After the war, rolls again grew with the addition of returned servicemen looking for the right kind of vocational skills to find employment.

In September 1918, the big issue confronting the Wellington Technical College was accommodation. Located on Wakefield St, the lack of equipment and accommodation were labeled as ‘disgraceful’ and ‘intolerable’ by the Evening Post, and not appropriate to a college in the heart of a city like Wellington. The Post cited the lack of facilities as leading to a falling off in secondary industries in the city.

Within two months the influenza pandemic was ravaging Wellington and on 12 November 1918 it was announced that the Wellington Technical College would be closed for day and evening scholars until further notice. It would not open again until February 1919.

While it was closed, the College commenced a search for a new director to replace William LaTrobe, following his appointment to the role of Superintendent of Technical Education for the Dominion. In February 1919 it was announced that La Trobe’s replacement would be Mr John Henry Howell, former director of the Christchurch Technical College.  However, in March Howell was rendered seriously ill with influenza while still in Christchurch. He wasn’t well enough to take up his role in Wellington until September 1919.

the Wellington Technical College, 1920s, from Harrison, Noel The School that Riley Built, 1961
The Wellington Technical College, 1920s, from Harrison, Noel, The School that Riley Built, 1961

1919 was also the year the government gave the current Pukeahu/Mount Cook site for the Technical College to move onto. The main block was completed in 1924, but with much remaining incomplete the chaos of multi-use teaching spaces continued, while the rolls in both day and evening classes grew.

By 1930 the Great Depression was making a significant impact in New Zealand, with widespread industrial rioting, many abandoned families and poverty rife. The Coalition government’s response was to make ‘retrenchments’ and set up many forms of ‘relief’. For education, while cutbacks were less, the depth of the slump highlighted the inadequacy of apprenticeships and training to meet the needs of both the economy and the unemployed.

Despite the dire social and economic situation, the Technical College continued to operate successfully, with students organising fund-raising events that drew on all their skills in art, music, engineering, science and craftsmanship, the results of which were directed to the poor or the victims of the 1931 Napier Earthquake.  Students also put their hands to the building work not yet completed at the College. In 1931 a dedicated art wing was opened for the School of Art by the then Minister of Education, Harry Atmore.

The opening of the Art wing
Evening Post 11 June 1931, Alexander Turnbull Library

By 1935 things were almost ‘back to normal’, and with better employment prospects and no requirement for students to stay at school until aged 15, the school roll dropped once again. However, along with the first Labour Government and Peter Fraser as Minister of Education, came an appetite for a more inclusive and comprehensive education, one that addressed the needs of all students and met the demands of industrialisation. In the background and under the leadership of School of Art alumnus and recent Hall of Fame member, Gordon Tovey, the tide was turning and now the teachers themselves could see the benefit of creative arts, including Māori visual arts and crafts, being included as part of the core curriculum.

Gordon Tovey
Gordon Tovey. Photograph supplied by Luit Bieringa 

In 1939 the Technical College added technical correspondence courses to its curriculum for students in remote areas, modelling it on the Army Education and Welfare Service. During the war import restrictions and war needs boosted local industry and doubled the demand for local workers, while at the same time the military call up reduced worker numbers. The College responded by establishing short intense courses in order to supply skilled people for essential industries – fitters, turners, welders, cooks and drivers. Once again classes grew, and when the leaving age of 15 was finally ratified in 1944, a proper apprenticeship system that related to the needs of industry was put in place.

By 1960 the roll stood at 1100 students in the day school, and 5000 attending night classes. The Ministry of Education then agreed to the division of the two institutions with Wellington High School remaining in the same buildings and Wellington Polytechnic moving further south on the site. Whilst new buildings were completed there was still some shared spaces and prefabs that, while ‘temporary’, still remain today due to continued demand for space.

In 1962 New Zealand’s first three year design diploma was offered at the Wellington School of Design, which later morphed into the first university degree in design in 1992. In 1999 the polytech completed its merger with Massey University, establishing the College of Creative Arts as it is known today, and now including music, fine art, Māori visual art, as well as its renowned range of design subjects.

134 years after its establishment, the College is proud to have taught many of Aotearoa’s most successful artists, industrial designers, fashion designers, photographers, illustrators, filmmakers, musicians, book and game designers – giving them the tools to create their futures, contribute to our culture and our counterculture, and respond to the demands of economic growth and decline.

Our history is one of endurance, resilience and determination in the face of national and international trends and events, underpinned by a quintessential New Zealand flavour that often grabs global attention, and well-deserved accolades.

Rā whānau ki a Toi Rauwhārangi!


The information in this article is drawn from The School that Riley Built, Noel Harrison, 1961. More information can be found on Te Ara, New Zealand History, and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage websites.

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Toi Rauwhārangi
College of Creative Arts
Wellington, Aotearoa