Special prize for gardening

“We are giving the prizes here to the Belgians”

At the end of the year most schools in New Zealand follow the long-standing tradition of holding a prize giving ceremony to recognise the achievements of their students. These days the prize might be a book, a certificate, or perhaps a badge. A hundred years ago, the established practice was to present the successful students with books.

However, the outbreak of World War I and fundraising efforts throughout the war meant that children at some schools went without their prizes. Instead, the money was donated to causes such as the Belgian Children’s Fund and the Red Cross Fund. Barney Malone, who was about 6, wrote to his father on 19 Nov. 1914. Part of his letter reads:

“We are having holidays on the fifth of December. The break up is next Sunday. We are giving the prizes here to the Belgians.”

Some schools went without prizes for the duration of the war. Wellington College included this report about their fundraising in the 1919 War number issue of the College’s Wellingtonian magazine (p.13):

The boys who attended the College during the period of the war also played their part in helping the Empire’s cause. Their effort was necessarily chiefly in the shape of raising money to swell the various funds for patriotic purposes. By the end of 1918 the College had subscribed £2,942 4s. 1d. to patriotic funds. A large proportion of this was subscribed by the boys themselves through the regular weekly subscriptions collected every Monday. From the outset of the war the boys decided to forego all school prizes and all prizes for sports, and the winners of those cheerfully received certificates in order to devote all the prize-money to the patriotic funds. We may safely say that the holders of these certificates are prouder of them than they would have been of the prizes they would have received in normal times. The fact that there was no lessening in keenness, either in school work or in the various sports competitions, shows that they had learned the lesson that the game is best played for the game’s sake.

Rewarded with a book

However, books were still given out, and the reward book industry was a good money spinner for publishers. Many of them issued books specially intended to be given as rewards and prizes, sometimes in named series of books, for example The New two-shilling series of reward books or Collins’ bumper reward books. Local booksellers and shops ran adverts when new stock arrived at the end of the year.

If their school had not donated the yearly prize money to the war effort, children in New Zealand during World War I were generally given books from Britain. At that time most local publishing for children focused on the market for school textbooks rather than recreational reading.

Reward books were intended to be improving and not go against the moral values of the time, so during wartime a child was quite likely to be given a book about the events of the war, told from a perspective which supported the Empire’s cause.

“For Attendance”

A book given as a prize almost always included a bookplate. This would usually show the name of the school or institution giving the prize, the student’s name and class, what the prize was given for, and the date.

While prizes were often given for achievement in a particular subject, sometimes it was enough just to have turned up regularly, or to have tried your best. Inscriptions “For attendance” (usually for Sunday school), and “For improvement” are commonly seen. Below are some examples of inscriptions and bookplates for prizes given during World War I. The books are part of the Dorothy Neal White Collection.

Prize inscription in Cyril Kerr's reward book, given for gardening.Cyril Kerr's prize, From Billabong to London. Record page

In 1915 Cyril Kerr of Northland State School, Wellington, was presented with From Billabong to London by Mary Grant Bruce. Unusually, the inscription for his special prize for gardening was written directly into the book rather than on a bookplate.

Prize inscription in Eric Maunsell's reward book.Eric Maunsell's prize, Our soldiers. Record page

In 1916 Eric Maunsell of Arthur Street Public School, Dunedin, was presented with Our soldiers by W.G.H. Kingston. Like many prize books that were given out, this was not brand new. It was published in 1910, but must have been seen as a fitting prize for the times. It contains historical accounts of British military campaigns during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Prize inscription in Jessie Walker's reward book, given for spelling.Jessie Walker's prize, Wonderful stories. Record page

In 1917 Jessie Walker of Momona Public School was given Wonderful stories: winning the V.C. in the Great War as a reward for her achievements in spelling.

Prize inscription in Charlie Oliver's reward book.Charlie Oliver's prize, The boy allies on the North Sea patrol. Record page

In 1918 Charlie Oliver, Standard 4, received a copy of The boy allies on the North Sea patrol, or, Striking the first blow at the German fleet by Robert L. Drake. There is no note of where Charlie went to school, or what his prize was for, but the bookplate is particularly decorative.


Find out more about how New Zealand children contributed to the war effort, and the books they read during World War I, in the exhibition A child’s war , on until 27 February at the Turnbull Gallery.

By Mary Skarott

Mary Skarott is the Research Librarian, Children’s Literature.

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