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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 2, Issue 3, November 1968

Nelson College for Girls — The First Seven Years

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Nelson College for Girls — The First Seven Years

By modern standards there is something haphazard about the way the girls' section of Nelson College came into being. There had been prolonged agitation in the district for the establishment of such a school but the Nelson College Governors were unwilling to commit themselves until it was certain that the boys' school would not suffer from such an action. In February, 1882, however, when the Nelson School Commissioners again asked the Governors to consider the matter and also offered to help with finance, their offer was accepted and a committee was set up to make the necessary preparations.

At first it was thought that the school could be opened by the July of that year and that a house should be bought for the purpose. Later it was decided to build and three acres were bought in Trafalgar Street South. This land had been the property of Henry Adams until the Bank had foreclosed and it was bought now for £1,000.

That was in early May. By May 17 advertisements had been placed in all the leading papers of the Colony inviting architects to submit plans for a building which would house 150 pupils and 40–50 boarders and promising a £25 prize for the best effort. Nine architects responded and on June 9 the plan of Mr. C. E. Beatson was chosen. Tenders were called on August 10 and, after some initial difficulties, the Council decided on September 4 that Mr. W. Bethwaite should be the builder. As the school was to be opened early in February, this left just under five months for the completion of the project.

At the same time as plans were called for, advertisements appeared for a Lady Principal and a Second Mistress. There were fifteen applicants for the first position and fourteen for the second and at a meeting held on July 13, two sisters were chosen. There is no record of any interviews but perhaps the knowledge that both women had a degree, a most unusual qualification for women in those days, made this procedure unnecessary.

Miss Kate Edger, who was appointed Principal, was 25. She had graduated B.A. in Auckland in 1877 and M.A. at Canterbury in 1881 and had taught for five years at the Girls' High School in Christchurch as Second Mistress. Miss Lilian Edger, also an M.A., was rather younger and had taught with her sister for a shorter period in the same school. There is evidence that both had second thoughts about their appointments and Miss Lilian went so far as to ask Professor Brown to write to the Board on her behalf about the possibility of release from her contract. She had a very good reason for this. Some time after the appointment had been made she had become page break
The Staff at Tea in the Grounds, 1888Left to right: Miss Harrison (Mrs. Mellsop), Mrs. MacArtney, Mrs. Mirams, Miss B. Richmond, Miss Morgan (Mrs. Cooke), Miss Watson (Mrs. W. Atkinson), Miss Edger (Mrs. Evans).

The Staff at Tea in the Grounds, 1888
Left to right: Miss Harrison (Mrs. Mellsop), Mrs. MacArtney, Mrs. Mirams, Miss B. Richmond, Miss Morgan (Mrs. Cooke), Miss Watson (Mrs. W. Atkinson), Miss Edger (Mrs. Evans).

page 18engaged to a young man who had recently returned from England and, naturally enough, did not want to delay her marriage too long. This news must have come as somewhat of a shock to the Council, and especially to one member of it who had confidently spoken to Professor Brown some time before that about the "sheer impossibility of either of the Miss Edgers, but especially the younger, getting married." Perhaps he felt that such an Olympian height of scholarship must inevitably preclude marriage.

A matron, appointed in October from 46 applicants, and a third mistress, appointed in November, completed the permanent staff and the project began to take shape. A prospectus was drawn up, lists of necessary books, maps and other equipment were supplied by Miss Edger and three pianos and £50 worth of casts and photographs for the art classes were ordered in England. From the letters which passed between Miss Edger and the committee, and from the amount of business discussed at the monthly Board meetings, it is obvious that every effort was being made to have the school open on time. Details connected wish a possible formal opening ceremony, however, received scant attention. No invitation to perform this task was sent out until January 11, when it was decided that the Governor, in his capacity as Visitor to Nelson College, should be asked to preside. When both he and the second choice, Mr. Justice Richmond, declined by telegram the idea of an official opening seems to have been dropped. With the building unfinished and what furnishings there were very hastily assembled, perhaps it was just as well to begin on a minor note.

A letter which Miss Lilian wrote to another sister two days after they opened gives a graphic picture of conditions:—

Sunday 4th February, 1883.

Dearest Eva,

You see we are safely in our new home, though amid a good deal of confusion. The architect told us again and again that we couldn't get in, but we declared we would and so we did. On Monday the furniture began to come up, and the carts came more and more frequently every day till it became quite ridiculous and the people in the town all remarked on it! There were only four little bedrooms that the workmen wore out of, so the furniture had to be put anywhere. There wore two other rooms ready, but we wanted hot water upstairs, so they had to be upset again.

On Tuesday we had the desks up, the schoolroom was full of timber and all sorts of things, but when the desks came of course the room had to be cleared.

On Wednesday afternoon we brought our own things, and all came to sleep here. We just managed to get into our rooms….

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There was nothing whatever to use in the kitchen except one small stove; no table or anything. The dining-room was crowded with furniture, so we had our first two meals on the desks in the schoolroom.

Fortunately, Thursday was a public holiday, so only a few of the workmen were here.

We got up before five and cleared out and furnished most of the rooms and marked some of the linen. We were able to use the gas last night, and one bathroom this morning—we are shaking down pretty well…..

We began school on Friday. There is no cloakroom, so the girls have to put their hats on the floor beside them. There is no ink, as we have had to send to Wellington for inkwells. There is only one room—really two rooms, but the partition will not be up for a week or so. We shall have to use the dining-room and the upstairs sittingroom as schoolrooms. We had no blackboards on Friday, so we examined our girls rather under difficulties. However we managed it and have classified them roughly….

It is a good beginning, is it not? …. We have begun our day in spite of everything, so now we shall carry on through everything. I think we shall have some very nice, good girls …. Your loving sister,


These "very nice good girls" numbered 68 on the first day and 78 a fortnight later and their ages ranged from 6 to 18 or 19. Of this total 15 were boarders although only 12 had been provided for initially, and they came from Blenheim, the West Coast, the southern districts of the North Island, the East Coast and even one from Auckland. Their parents paid £3/3/0 a quarter for tuition and stationery and £12/10/0 for board. There were extras of course, and these were to include drawing and modelling, pianoforte and singing. Miss Dorothy K. Richmond was appointed to teach drawing soon after the College was opened and we find from a letter of hers written in March, 1883, that she had to use her own studio as the school one was not finished.

It would be fascinating to know the full story of that first year and the few glimpses we do get are tantalising in their incompleteness: tenders were called for fencing and plans for planting considered; major deficiencies in the building were noted—a frigid science room with south-facing windows, and a sunless diningroom that was too small and had to be used as a passage way each time classes changed; there was trouble with the builder who was not to be paid until "the architect was fully satisfied"; an extra house was purchased for use in cases of infectious illness; the first letter of resignation was received by the Council and in it Madam Summerhayes, a page 20music teacher, complained of the "unnecessary and unladylike interference—and constant supervision of your Lady Principal"; an additional teacher of junior status was appointed; and drill was organised for all pupils by Sergeant Alborough.

The Lady Matron had the chief responsibility for the boarders after school hours, and was assisted in this by the staff who took them for walks, accompanied them to church and supervised their prep. All the staff were resident but Miss Edger seems to have had doubts about her own fitness by natural disposition and experience for the supervision of boarders and to have withdrawn, with the permission of the Board, to a position of nominal control. It cannot be said, however, that she held aloof from the general non-academic activities. We read of her supplying the need for physical training by assembling some of the girls on the gravel in front of the building and teaching them to swing Indian clubs, a current fashion. In a letter to a Board member in 1889, she pleads for the appointment of a master to take a singing class: "Up to the beginning of this year I have taken the class singing chiefly myself, but I have never been satisfied either with my own teaching of it or any one else's among the staff. So this year, feeling quite in despair over it I let it drop, intending to take it up after a time and make another attempt …. "She must, in addition, have had quite a heavy teaching load because a report for the last quarter of 1883 shows that she took English Grammar, Composition and Literature with a group of 26, Physical Science with a group of 30, Latin with a group of 18 and Physical Geography with a group of 21.

The haste and partial confusion which must have characterised this first year seems to be reflected in the arrangements for the final ceremony of the year in December. The reports of the examiners were presented but the certificates which marked the successes did not arrive in time—indeed some of the results were finalised only half an hour before they were announced.

When the presentation of certificates was made, however, it was done in fine style. The Bishop of Nelson presided and honoured guests were the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Chancellor of the University of New Zealand and most of the members of the University Senate. The members of the Senate were all asked to speak and Professor Sale of Otago University, responded rather ungraciously He stated that he didn't approve of impromptu speeches, that he didn't approve of undue education for women and would be horrified if one of his daughters had earned "some of these certificates" and that he would "be sorry to see the grace and charm of women sacrificed to the power of the intellect". Mr. C. Y. Fell, in his reply declared that he had yet to learn "that educated women lost any of their charms".

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1884 is enlivened, for the historian at least, by a momentous battle of wills between the Lady Principal and the Lady Matron, Miss Elizabeth Bell. Both must have been women of strong character and decided views and the clash of personalities within the Boarding School must have made conditions very difficult for those who had to share the accommodation. Some indication of the mounting tension can be gained from the Board minutes. On June 6 letters from Miss Edger and Miss Bell were read and both ladies were requested to attend a meeting on the 9th to discuss their difference. On August 8 two letters from the Lady Principal were read. Both concerned the Matron and the second recommended that her services should be dispensed with, and the Secretary was instructed to see her. On August 11 Miss Bell resigned and it was agreed that she should leave at Christmas. September brought further letters from Miss Edger on the same subject and the Secretary was again instructed to confer with Mis Bell and then to call a special meeting. Five days later the time of leaving was brought forward to the end of the month but before this date the following statement was recorded: "The Governors have had their attention drawn again to the very unpleasant position of affairs at the Girls' College. As it has been arranged that in any case Miss Bell is to leave at the end of the month the Governors, in view of the increasing unpleasantness, now consider it will be better for Miss Bell, as well as for all concerned, if she can make it convenient to leave this week."

It is interesting to note that Miss Bell was later appointed Matron of Nelson College and presided there from 1886 until 1893 when she was dismissed, ostensibly because a complete reorganisation was being made.

The change of Matron was only one of the staff changes in 1884. Miss Bell was replaced by Mrs. Joseph Mirams, Miss Lilian resigned, Miss Watson moved up to her position and Miss C. Harrison was appointed. Miss Edger herself does not seem to have been very settled. In a letter to her sister Dorothy, Ann Richmond, who taught French and German wrote: "I believe all the teachers are going to resign soon—not from any ill feeling but from a desire for freedoom. Miss Edger wants to go to England." It was the Boarding School and not the lure of overseas travel which caused her to write her first letter of resignation in August, 1885, however. Her decision caused some surprise and this surprise was expressed quite forcibly in a Board memo. "It has come upon the Governors somewhat as a surprise that, with a staff of four resident teachers including the Lady Principal and exclusive of the Lady Matron, and a list of Boarders now unfortunately reduced from 25 to 11, the strain upon the head and assistant teachers should be as great as is represented in Miss Edger's letter". It was over a month before a com-page 22promise was reached and Mr. Fell was able to report that Miss Edger was willing to resume her position provided she was allowed to live outside the College and have no responsibility for the boarding establishment. There was to be no reduction in her salary although she was prepared for this.

In spite of the initial caution of the Governors, the College had been established at a very difficult time. The Colony did not escape the world depression of the 1880's and this was reflected in the school by a drop both in the number of boarders and the total number of pupils. From 105 in 1884 the roll dropped to 75 in 1886, to 67 in 1889 and to 64 in 1890. The economic conditions were reflected also in the salaries offered to new staff. Two assistant mistresses were to get respectively £150 and £120 annually, and a prospective House Governess was to get £30. Notwithstanding there were 32 applicants for the positions of Assistant Mistress and 29 for that of House Governess. The Matron bore much of the brunt of the new trouble and she complained to the Board about the weight of work on her shoulders when it was found impossible to afford a House Governess. She cannot have been very pleased when Mr. Fell suggested that the low number of boarders was her fault and that she should raise the numbers to 25 in six months.

There are many signs of a worsening position as the 1890's approached. In 1887 the school was refused a telephone and the next year the telephone in the College Office was disconnected and the Government was asked to find a room in a public building for the office itself to save the cost of rent. Miss Edger was given six month's notice of a £50 drop in salary, an assistant mistress was given three months' notice of a similar cut, and one was given three months' notice of dismissal. Even the custom of having outside evaminers was discontinued and Miss Edger had to prepare and read the end of year examination report herself. The boarding fee was reduced from £50 to £40 a year and just how inadequate was the provision of money for the running of the College can be gathered from these letters to the Secretary. From Mrs. Mirams in 1886 …. "As Miss Edger and Miss Milne have left the College taking all their furniture away, the sittingsrooms in consequence are left very bare and we think that a few things are necessary to make them habitable." …. a very modest list of requirements followed. Again from Mrs. Mirams, 1889 …. "Would you kindly send me the cheque for the housekeeping expenses as I am quite without money." From an Assistant Mistress, Miss Watson, on June 9, 1886 …. "It is now the 9th of the month and the cheques for the salaries for May have not arrived. Would you kindly forward mine without any further delay. In future I should be much obliged if I could have mine the day after the Governors' meeting."

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In November, 1889, came the first indication that Miss Edger was again contemplating resignation, this time because of her impending marriage to the Rev. W. A. Evans, one of the most stimlating young preachers in the town. This news was received with the greatest regret and at the break-up ceremony that year Mr. Fell said that the Governors appreciated the work of Miss Edger to a depth he could not express in words. By then it was known that Miss Edger had consented to return after her marriage but her third and final resignation came in March, when she asked to be released in June.

Her imminent departure was the signal for a major reorganisation. The Matron was given notice and the Principal's position was advertised at £250 a year with the very clear proviso that she must live-in and be responsible for the general supervision of the Boarding School. Even at the lower figure, 20 applications were received and a Miss B. Gibson of Christchurch was appointed. We get the impression that the first seven years had been weathered with some difficulty and that the school was now being battened down for any storms which might follow.