A step back in time: student life in the 1920s

Have you ever sat in a classroom in one of the University’s older buildings, such as Old Choral Hall, and wondered about the staff and students who came before you?

A century ago in 1922, Old Choral Hall was known as the Science Building. The wings on each side of the original 1870s Choral Hall were the first purpose-built buildings on campus. Opened in June 1919 by Acting Prime Minister Sir James Allen, the science students described the building as ‘finer than any other of its kind in Australasia’.1

In contrast arts, commerce, music, and law students were crammed into the ‘Old Grammar School’ building on Symonds Street which Auckland Grammar had vacated in February 1916 when it moved to Epsom. The editor of the student magazine Kiwi noted that: ‘the Auckland University is not only the worst wooden University in the world – it is the only wooden University in the world!’.2 Work however had begun on the new Arts building (the ClockTower) and student common rooms in Princes Street and gave the students hope that the University would at last ‘have a building to point to as its home’.3

Who might you have met on campus?

In 1922 there were 1,045 students (788 men and 257 women) enrolled at Auckland University College. Of these, 954 attended lectures onsite and another 91 were studying remotely for various reasons. Fifty-one students were graduates, 651 were undergraduates and 252 were younger, non-matriculated students who were studying towards the equivalent of today’s University Entrance.4 The large number of men students compared to women reflects the return to College of men whose studies had been interrupted by the First World War. The College employed 30 teaching staff and was one of four affiliated colleges of the University of New Zealand.

Could you study the same subjects?

Students could study a wide range of subjects including classics, English language and literature, French, German, mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, geology, education, economics, history, mental science, law, commerce, music, engineering, and architecture. In 1922 you could also study dental anatomy as part of the College’s ongoing and eventually unsuccessful campaign to establish New Zealand’s second dentistry school.

Did students party like they do today?


Crew of the Nixie Land Cabaret float which featured in the 1922 procession.5

The highlight of the university year was the Capping Carnival. Held in June to coincide with graduation, the Carnival included a procession, a revue and a graduation ball chaperoned by the wives of senior academics.

Much of the Carnival merriment in 1922 revolved around a craze sweeping Auckland for a fermented milk product called the Bulgarian bug which would apparently cure all manner of ills. Not only was the revue titled ‘The Bulgarian bug’ but the Queen Street procession began at the Ferry Building with the arrival of the King of Bulgaria and his consort on the S.S. Bacteria and featured a 20-foot green, scaled ‘bug’.6

During the procession students collected donations from the crowds of onlookers for university students in Europe suffering starvation and other deprivations following the First World War.  The Student Association noting that without experts in medicine, sanitation, engineering, and economics ‘irretrievable disaster will befall mankind’.7

Discover more:

Katherine Pawley, Special Collections



Featured image: composite image created from a 1919 photograph of the Science Building and photograph taken by author in March 2022.

1. Auckland University College Students Association. (1919). The Kiwi: Official organ of the Auckland University College. (14), 11.

2. Auckland University College Students Association. (1922). The Kiwi: Official organ of the Auckland University College. (17), 9.

3. ibid

4. Report of the Auckland University College (1923) Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR). E-7, 12. [https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/parliamentary/AJHR1923-I-II.]

5. Photograph of the crew of the Nixie Land float, 1922. MSS & Archives Vault 130, file 44. Special Collections, University of Auckland Libraries and Learning Services. [https://archives.library.auckland.ac.nz/repositories/2/resources/483]

6. Students’ “Day Out”: carnival in Queen Street. (1922, 21 June) New Zealand Herald, 8. Accessed through Papers Past.

7. Auckland University College Students Association. (1922). Souvenir of the sixth carnival.