When Auckland Grammar School opened for business 150 years ago in an old immigration barracks, the annual tuition fees for day boys were just short of $1000 at today's value.

Times have changed - sort of. Grammar, like all state schools now, isn't allowed to charge tuition fees. But it does ask parents to pay a donation, set this year at $1250.

In wealthy Epsom, and ringed by a school zone that pumps up property prices, Grammar is an elite school, but insists it is not elitist. It has produced one prime minister - the caretaker Sir Francis Bell who took over briefly upon William Massey's death in 1925 - and a New South Wales state premier, Thomas Bavin.

Its most famous former pupil is the late Sir Edmund Hillary, who, with Tenzing Norgay, was first to reach the top of Mt Everest in 1953.

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It has also been the school of many All Blacks, including Sir Wilson Whineray, Grant Fox and Kel Tremain, Olympic medallists Sam Webster and Hamish Carter, cabinet ministers including Sir Doug Graham and Jonathan Hunt, medical researchers such as Sir Peter Gluckman and Sir Graham Liggins, the novelist John Mulgan, the painter Charles Goldie, businessmen including Sir James Fletcher and Richard Chandler, test cricketers including Jeff and Martin Crowe, and their film-star cousin Russell Crowe.

Grammar was declared open by Queen Victoria's second son, Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, on Monday, May 17, 1869. Alfred, who sailed to New Zealand on the frigate HMS Galatea, which he commanded as a Royal Navy captain, was on the Royal Family's first visit to the colony.

The man who would later rule a German duchy didn't seem to have much to say about the school - despite his avowed interest in education - judging from a Herald report of the opening.

Following lengthy orations by an education official and the Governor, Sir George Bowen, Alfred got straight to the business of declaring the school open, "and I would also request the headmaster to grant a holiday to the pupils until Wednesday-week".

Which was met by several rounds of hearty cheers from the pupils - for the holiday perhaps, or for the dignitaries, or for both.

One of the speeches laid out the initial direction - well known to boys who've read about it on the wall of the school hall - established by the Auckland Provincial Council for a "College and Grammar School, or schools, on the isthmus on which Auckland stands".

It was to be a place of classical learning that was open to all.

"In addition to the usual course of education in the English language and mathematics, and in such branches of learning as the trustees for the time being may direct, all students attending such college or schools shall, if they desire it, receive instruction in the Greek and Latin languages.

"Persons of all classes or races who may inhabit the colony are to be in all respects equally admitted to such college or schools."

Finally, an unspecified "proportion" of places were to be for "free scholars", with no tuition fees charged.

This was eight years before the 1877 Education Act made primary schooling free to year 8. It would be decades before free state secondary education became the norm.

Education academic Professor Howard Lee, of Massey University, says allowing about 5 per cent of secondary school pupils to attend without paying fees was considered ideal in the lead-up to the "free-places decision" in 1903.

After that the Government funded at least two years at high school for children who passed the Standard 6 (year 8) proficiency exam at the end of primary school.

Film star Russell Crowe attended Auckland Grammar.
Film star Russell Crowe attended Auckland Grammar.

A 1903 review found there were about 1000 of these state-funded "free places", at the 30 secondary schools which were financed mainly by the donation of rental properties. Auckland Grammar's first such property endowments were made by the colonial administration of Governor Sir George Grey in the 1850s.

The reviewer's opinion was that the fees charged by the secondary schools were "remarkably low", at £5 to £12 a year (around $890 to $2136 today). The Government was paying £6 for the majority of the free places.

Until the end of the colonial period there was little employer demand for secondary education and it was considered a luxury, says Lee. But in the 1890s, as the country recovered from an economic downturn, working-class families began to want more education.

Along with free training at technical schools for those who passed a Certificate of Competency, the free places at the academic schools helped to more than double the state secondary school roll to 7063 students by 1909.

If the costs of education haven't changed at Grammar, the quality and range of its buildings certainly have.

An old immigration barracks in Howe St, Freemans Bay, was the first building in which Auckland Grammar operated. Photo / James Richardson, Auckland Libraries
An old immigration barracks in Howe St, Freemans Bay, was the first building in which Auckland Grammar operated. Photo / James Richardson, Auckland Libraries

The school building for around 70 boys opened by Prince Alfred in Howe St, Freemans Bay, had been destined to be an industrial school, then a hospital, before the provincial council gave it to the Grammar trust.

Grammar moved to Princes St in 1871 for a few years, then to several temporary sites, before settling into a new building in Symonds St for more than 30 years.

Girls were admitted to Grammar from 1888 until 1909, when Auckland Girls' Grammar was opened at the old Howe St site.

In 1916, the boys' school opened its distinctive main block, inspired by the Spanish-Californian Mission style, at Mountain Rd, Epsom, which has remained its home since.

And as the 150th birthday clicks by, Grammar has plans for a new building expected to cost $11 million. Dubbed Te Ara Mātauranga - Pathway to Knowledge - it will house a new library, classrooms, a lecture room, study spaces and a 7th formers' area which 150th steering committee chairman Scott Milne says will be more than a common room.

Some $4.2m has been raised or pledged for the project so far.

Milne says the school's 150th is important in part because of the contrast between the massive changes in Auckland and what has stayed the same at Grammar, such as its ethos of open access, merit-based progress, working diligently and giving back with voluntary work in the community.

Headmaster Tim O'Connor says that wherever it can, Grammar has remained true to Grey's founding principles.

The late Martin Crowe was an outstanding cricketer even when he was student at Auckland Grammar School, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Photo / supplied
The late Martin Crowe was an outstanding cricketer even when he was student at Auckland Grammar School, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary. Photo / supplied

"We are obviously restricted by a zone. If you look at the multicultural component, it doesn't matter where you come from, you are all treated in exactly the same manner. You are measured on your performance, not who you are, and that we will develop you as a young man of character.

"I don't think Governor Grey could have ever thought that 150 years later the school would have 37 different ethnicities."

Sir Peter Gluckman - medical scientist, president-elect of the International Science Council and former chief science adviser to the prime minister - recalls that he was "the little nerd of the class" when he started at Grammar aged just under 12 in 1961.

"I was one of those unfortunate kids who was a year ahead of themselves.

"It was a great school. It was an incredible experience for learning how to learn and setting one up to think and to learn."

Auckland Grammar School in Symonds St in 1916, before the move to Epsom. Photo / Henry Winkelmann, Auckland Libraries
Auckland Grammar School in Symonds St in 1916, before the move to Epsom. Photo / Henry Winkelmann, Auckland Libraries

Gluckman singles out for high praise maths and physics master Fred Orange - "one of the great teachers of all time".

Apart from physics, two maths classes, chemistry and English in his senior years, "the only other thing I did was I learned to play bridge. We tended not to go outside at lunchtime; the top class tended to sit inside and play bridge day in and day out. We all became reasonable bridge players.

"The only downside when I hit university was that I had never done biology: the top class wasn't offered biology. The only biology I had done was in general science [in his junior years].

"I was lucky in my first year [at the University of Auckland] and had two great teachers, Professor John Morton in zoology and Cath Tizard [later to become Governor-General] as a zoology tutor ... They were key players in determining my career that followed."

Former All Black Grant Fox remembers meeting the future cricketing great Martin Crowe - who died in 2016 - early in his career at Grammar, which began in 1976.

"I remember a very early grading - they had streaming days for class - I met a fellow student by the name of Martin Crowe. So on one of the earliest days of my time there we were forging a lifelong friendship. That's an enduring memory I have, sitting in the hall, these two guys started chatting.

A drawing of a new building planned for Auckland Grammar, Te Ara Mātauranga. Image / supplied
A drawing of a new building planned for Auckland Grammar, Te Ara Mātauranga. Image / supplied

"I was a Tibbs House boarder from a Waikato farm in a small rural community. Auckland Grammar was a bit daunting initially ... a big school of 1200 boys.

"It was a very disciplined environment, very achievement-orientated, which I relished.

"John Graham was the headmaster and certainly his drive and his standards set a great example. His leadership of the school was motivational for me, very much so.

"I respected immensely that he had been an All Black, but it was the person he was and the way he led and how he encouraged people to strive to be the best they could be that was motivational."

Fox believes his making the most of the opportunities that came his way at Grammar - being noticed in the First XV and selected into Auckland age-group and New Zealand school-boy teams - set him on his path to rugby excellence.

"If I had gone to the local high school there's every chance I would never had had the rugby career I had and my life would certainly have been on a different path."

Anthony Hoy-Fong, a successful New York chef and businessman, says there were no cooking classes when he attended Grammar from 1991 to 1995.

But he credits the school for helping him to thrive in the "cut-throat" environment of New York, where he co-owns a restaurant, runs an online cooking course and is a consulting chef.

Auckland Grammar School headmaster Tim O'Connor. Photo / supplied
Auckland Grammar School headmaster Tim O'Connor. Photo / supplied

"Education and prioritising that, discipline to study your craft, whatever that is - those are skills I learned and apply to this day that have helped me in my industry.

"When I was at Grammar I was a two-maths, two-sciences boy. I was heading down that path and I studied business and computing at university."

He worked for a business consultancy, ran the family fruit and vege shop, then headed off to follow his love of cooking in the US.

"One of the things Grammar will teach you is to follow your passion and give it everything. That's what I did, even though it was a little bit of a risk."

Auckland Grammar milestones

• 1869 - Opened in Howe St, Freemans Bay, roll about 70
• 1871 - Moved to Princes St
• 1878 - Moved to Symonds St
• 1962 - Tibbs House boarding hostel opened
• 1916 - Moved to Mountain Rd, Epsom, its current site
• 2000 - Trialled Cambridge International Examinations
• 2018 - Roll 2500
• 2019 - Replaced NCEA level one with its own assessment system