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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 2, November 1982

Early Initiative in Nelson – The United Christians

Early Initiative in Nelson – The United Christians

The committee of gentlemen who advised the New Zealand Company on the planning of the Nelson settlement persuaded the Company to set aside a proportion of the proceeds of the land sales in order to set up a trust fund which would, inter alia, provide for the foundation of a college. The college would, in fact, provide secondary education for the sons of the gentlemen purchasers of the land. No provision was made for the elementary schooling of the children of the working-class emigrants – not even an infant school such as was planned by the leading settlers who went to Wellington nor a school for the children of mechanics such as was supported for a brief period by the colonial government in Russell and Auckland. Nor was any encouragement afforded by the Company to the cause of elementary education in Nelson by the granting of free passages to teachers, though this had been done in the case of a few teachers going to Wellington.

After the arrival of the first settlers in Nelson in February 1842, the first public expression of concern for the education of the children appears to have been made by Captain Wakefield, the Company's local agent. An entry of 9th March in the diary of J. T. Thompson, a surveyor, records Captain Wakefield's remark: "We are going to have to start a school. These children are running about the fern doing nothing. They may as well be taught to read and write". Before any affective action was taken by Captain Wakefield, however, a group of working class people on March 27 started to hold a Sunday School in "a rush-woven cottage on the banks of the Maitai." These pioneers who called themselves the United Christians, counted among their page 13number Weslyans, Independents (i.e. Congregationists), Baptists and Quakers. The secretary of this small organisation was Isaac Mason Hill, a Quaker and former machine-fitter of Birmingham. The United Christians themselves imparted to the children "such humble information as they themselves possessed". Sarah Higgins, who attended this school as a girl, has recorded how she regarded Mr Hill as her teacher. As the name of their group suggests the United Christians set out to cater for the needs of all children of Christian parents to whatever sect they belonged. They acquired a plot of land in Tasman Street from the New Zealand Company and built the Ebenezer Chapel which was intended to serve as a schoolroom as well as a place of worship. The chapel was officially consecrated on 4th December 1842, but before it was opened for worship it was already being used to accommodate a Sunday school to which children flocked. Encouraged by this response the United Christians opened a day school in the Ebenezer Chapel on 31 October 1842. It was from this day school and Sunday school that preceded it that the Nelson School Society developed.