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

The Elementary Schools of Early Nelson — A Case of Community Development 1842–1856

The Elementary Schools of Early Nelson
A Case of Community Development

page 11

(J. Dakin of Wellington has made an Intensive study of the early education in the Nelson Province before the Central Board of Education took over. We print the full text but a typescript with full documentation of all references is held at the Nelson Provincial Museum and may be consulted by any one interested.)

In their discussion of early initiatives in elementary education in New Zealand the educational historians have singled out the pioneering ventures of the early settlers of Nelson as being especially significant for the subsequent development of primary education in this country. Butchers avers that the Nelson School Society "instituted the first and in many respects the most successful systems of public schools in New Zealand and the one which, more than any other, served as a model for the national system of education adopted for the whole colony in 1877". Campbell credits the early settlers of Nelson with having evolved, in conditions of great difficulty, "a little school system that was ultimately to become an inspiration to the whole of New Zealand". The Cummings in their recently published history, while noting the shortcomings of the Nelson School Society's schools, have pointed out the "significant fact" that "the onus for maintaining and developing them was placed in the hands of the committee themselves".

In view of the historical importance attached to the schools of the early Nelson settlement it will be worthwhile to examine in some depth the circumstances and the manner of this early educational development from the time of the arrival of the first settlers to the early years of the provincial era when the provincial government took over the elementary public schools. In order to appraise the extent and nature of community involvement in the organisation of elementary education during this period it will be necessary to take account of the role of the church schools and private venture schools as well as the schools of the Nelson School Society. Some attention must be paid too, to the condition of elementary education in Britain of the early 1840s from which the settlers came and to the social background of those engaged in the advancement of education in Nelson. How important, for instance, was the part played by such well educated leading personages as Fox, Dillon and Domett and how much of the development can be attributed to the spontaneous efforts of the rank and file of the community?

A good deal has already been written about the early Nelson schools and reference will be made to these writings from time to time.

Elementary Schooling in Britain

When the first Nelson settlers departed from Britain in 1841, the great majority of the elementary' day schools attended by children of the working class of that country, were run either as private enterprises or as non-profit public institutions owned and managed by local charities or by one of the two major voluntary agencies. By far the most numerous were the private enterprise schools which ranged from the humble dame schools – often little more than child minding centres – to pretentious academies. Most charity schools had been set up by private endowment and were often associated with churches. The voluntary agency which supported the greatest number of page 12elementary schools was the National Society "for promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Church of England". Its most influential rival agency was the British and Foreign School Society whose aim was to promote "the Education of the Working and Manufacturing Classes of Society of Every Religious Persuasion." This agency was supported mainly by the noncomformist churches. In Scotland public schooling was, to a large extent, controlled by the Church of Scotland. Many British children who did not attend day schools went to church Sunday schools at which the rudiments of religion, reading and sometimes writing were taught. The overall picture was that of educational provision organised by national bodies such as churches and their associated agencies or by private individuals or groups acting on their own account. There was little independent initiative on the part of local committees. Although the central government had started making small grants to the two main voluntary agencies in 1833 and had appointed the first inspectors in 1839, the development of a state-controlled national system of voluntary education lay far away in the future.

On the basis of a parliamentary return rendered in 1833, the British Authorities estimated that in England and Wales only 9 per cent of the population was attending day schools, whereas the proportion of the population aged between 5 and 15 years was 24 per cent. Eleven per cent attended Sunday schools. It was later shown that the figure of 9 per cent was an underestimate. Nevertheless the attendance at day schools was considered to be grossly inadequate. Progressive thinkers of the time considered that at least some 16 percent of the population should have been attending day schools if the youth of the country was to receive a basic education.

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.

Matthew Campbell

It was at this juncture that Matthew Campbell, who was to become the leader of the promoters of elementary education in the Nelson province, came upon the scene. He arrived in Nelson as a cabin passenger on the Thomas Harrison on 29th October 1842. He could thus have been present at the opening of the day school at the Ebenezer Chapel. It is quite wrong, however, to suggest, as do the Cummings and J. D. S. McKenzie that Campbell was associated with the United Christians from their beginnings. Campbell almost certainly came originally from Appleby in Westmoreland. J. W. Saxton records in his diary that Campbell had worked almost all his life in a foundry. In Nelson Campbell established a shop and in 1845 became associated with A. G. Jenkins in the running of a flour mill. Jenkins, a substantial purchaser of land, took part, like Campbell, in the work of school management. Campbell gained the reputation of being extraordinarily industrious and at this period he seems to have devoted all his time that was not taken up with his business to the development of Nelson's elementary schools. He was no highly educated patrician who patronised schools. His style suggests rather the background of an artisan or member of the lower middle class. He told Saxton that he had never attended school in England. On going on board the Thomas Harrison, however, "he saw numbers of children and considered they would be neglected on board at the end of the voyage. He thought how delightful it would be if he could rear them up under his own care, free from the divisions of the religious world". In religion Campbell was not a follower of any particular sect and was described by Fox as being an Independent or Congregationist. In an obituary in the Colonist it is said of him that "so closely did he ally himself with each denomination of Christians that he appeared to belong to all". Congregationalism's insistence on the absolute independence of each local church and its espousal of voluntaryism in education seem nevertheless to have been principles as dear to Campbell as they were to Jonas Woodward, the Congregationalist champion of voluntaryism in education in Wellington. Campbell was no smooth-tongued advocate. He had "much of the conventicle twang of voice" and "his utterance was so slow and hesitating as to be difficult to understand." There was no doubt, however, about his sincerity and the clarity of his ideas.

page 14

The Foundation of the Nelson Society

Campbell seems to have taken over the management of the day and Sunday schools of the United Christians from the time of his arrival in the settlement. He did some of the teaching. Campbell found the Ebenezer Chapel satisfactory for the continued accommodation of the schools. During 1843, in association with the United Christians and some new settlers, he set in train the process by which a grant of land for a new school was obtained from the colonial government. The result was the allocation of a site near the Eelpond in Bridge Street and the building of a school. The organisation which was formed in 1843 for the promotion of this project was the Nelson School Society. The first proceedings of the Society to be recorded were those that took place at the time of the opening of the school on 7th April 1844. The names and occupations of the officers and committee members of the new organisation are worth noting. The trustees were Campbell, A. G. Jenkins, his business partner, Dr Renwick who had travelled out with Campbell on the Thomas Harrison, T. J. Thompson, the surveyor, and W. Hildreth a major landowner in Waimea South. It is perhaps indicative of the social attitudes of Jenkins and Thompson that both of them were censured by their fellow cabin passengers on the Lord Auckland for fraternising with the working-class passengers in the steerage. Campbell was treasurer. The secretary was Wm. Stanton, the well schooled son of a bricklayer from Coventry. The committee consisted of the five trustees and four others who were: John McArtney, a tinsmith from Dundee, Wm. Gardner, a ropemaker from Glasgow, John P. Robinson, a wood turner from Birmingham and Samuel Kealley, a baker. Although not a purely working-class organisation like the United Christians, the Nelson School Society had a strong link with the working-class and a reasonably wide community base.

Even before the inauguration of the new school in Bridge Street, the Society had in October 1843, opened a branch school at Wakefield in Waimea South whither some of the United Christians had moved. From its beginning, the Society extended its activities to the rural areas and set out to establish a system rather than a single school. The foundation stone of the school in Bridge Street was laid on 21st February 1844, by William Fox, the recently appointed local agent of the New Zealand Company who had taken the place of Captain Wakefield killed at Wairau. Fox, later Sir William and a future Prime Minister, was making his first public appearance as the sponsor of an educational undertaking in a long public career in which he was initiator or supporter of many educational ventures including the Educational Bill of 1871. In his speech at the laying of the foundation stone he showed himself to be conversant with the work of such pioneer educators as Raikes, Wilderspin and Birkbeck. He also remarked with approval upon the Society's plan to associate a library with the school. From the outset, it seemed, the Society's aims were community-orientated and not narrowly confined to the elementary education of children. On 7th April 1844 the new school, which was a brick structure with a slated roof and included a teachers' room and library, was formerly opened by Fox. In his speech on this occasion Fox paid a warm tribute to the work of Matthew Campbell "to whose exertions is mainly owing the establishment of this and several smaller schools in the country districts, the whole conducted on the principles of the British and Foreign School Society". The allusion to schools in the country districts page 15doubtless related to various Sunday schools as well as the small day school at Wakefield. A cardinal principle of the British and Foreign School Society was that "the lessons for reading shall consist of extracts from the Holy Scriptures; no catechism or peculiar religious tenets shall be taught in the schools but every child shall be enjoined to attend regularly the place of worship to which its parents belong". This principle that sought to mitigate contemporary sectarianism commended itself to the community-minded leaders of the Nelson School Society. Apart from religious instruction, British and Foreign School Society Schools offered instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic and needlework (for girls), but the restricted nature of the curriculum of the Society's schools is indicated by the fact that up to 1839 the scriptures had been the only reading material used. John P. Robinson, the wood turner from Birmingham, was made headmaster of the new school. He is not known to have worked as a teacher previously, but he had been an active member of the Birmingham Mechanics' Institution and was house steward of that society. Robinson was a man of some education and distinction and later became the elected superintendent of Nelson Province.

The British and Foreign School Society School

While Campbell and his allies were launching the Nelson School Society and establishing its schools a somewhat different section of the Nelson community headed by its official leaders had founded another school. In early May 1842, a request supported by the parents of some eighty children was addressed to Mr William Moore calling on him to open a school and promising financial support to a "respectable committee" which would superintend the institution. Moore had been a village dominie in Forfarshire, Scotland before leaving for New Zealand and had published a popular poem "The Burning of Kildrummy Castle." When he first applied to the New Zealand Company for a free passage to New Zealand, he had been turned down on the grounds that his "occupation was not of the class contemplated by the directors." Nevertheless Moore eventually obtained a free passage under the guise of an agricultural labourer. Once re-established in his profession in New Zealand Moore remained a schoolmaster for most of the rest of his life, ending up as headmaster of the Renwicktown School.

Two public meetings were held to promote the scheme for setting up the school which was to be conducted by Moore. A small committee was formed to undertake the building of the school. It consisted of Frederick Tuckett, Chief Surveyor, Dr McShane, medical officer, Captain England, a substantial land purchaser and justice of the peace, and George McRae. a Highlander who had come out in the capacity of an agricultural labourer but who quickly became a farm manager and proprietor. Tuckett was a Quaker and an ardent advocate of non-sectarian education. The supporters of the scheme decided to establish "an elementary school, which shall be open to all children without regard to the religious opinions of their parents, in which no sectarian views whatever shall be taught". Captain Wakefield, on behalf of the Company, allocated a site in Bridge Street at a nominal rent and undertook to secure a grant of a subsidy equal to the amount of money, up to £100, subscribed by supporters. William Moore was duly appointed schoolmaster and a large committee heavily dominated by the official leaders of the settlement and land purchasers was formed. The school was opened on 12th September – page 16seven weeks before the United Christians opened their day school. The school was known as the British and Foreign School Society and its supporters described themselves, at least for a time, as a branch of that Society. There is no evidence in the extant records of the British and Foreign Society in England that the parent Society owned its obscure New Zealand offspring, although it was aware of some of the activities of its followers in Nelson.

In its first weeks the school had an enrolment of 34. Fees were 6 pence a week for instruction in reading and spelling only; and additional 3 pence a week was charged for instruction in writing, arithmetic and grammar; and a further 3 pence for "higher branches of education." The charge for all instruction given at the school of the Nelson School Society was only 3 pence per pupil per week. Tuition at the Bishop's School at this time was free, presumably because the Bishop had been assigned a grant-in-aid from trust funds by the Company for the pastoral and educational work of the church. By the end of 1843 Moore had resigned and the school closed down. Apart from the depressed economic condition of the settlement in 1843–44, a major reason for the failure of the school was the shock inflicted upon the local community and the school committee by the loss of so many of their leaders in the Wairau affray of June 1843. Captain Wakefield, Captain England and Mr Richardson, editor of the local newspaper, lost their lives in that sorry affair. For a short time in 1844 the school building was used by T. J. Ferrers, a Roman Catholic, for conducting a small school. Then in May 1845 the building was presented to the Nelson School Society by Tuckett on behalf of the British and Foreign School Society, on the understanding that the new owners would organise religious instruction along non-sectarian lines in accordance with the principles of the British and Foreign School Society. The building was then transported to Spring Grove in Waimea South, some 14 miles from Nelson, where a school was being opened by the Nelson School Society.

The Anglican Church

Thus the so-called British and Foreign School was virtually absorbed into the Nelson School Society which became the major, but not the only, provider of elementary education in the Nelson area. An Anglican elementary school, the Bishop's school, had been operating since 1842 and by 1844 had some 50 day pupils on its roll. Bishop Selwyn was insistent that the management of Anglican schools should be firmly under the control of his clergy. The Rev. C. L. Reay and later his deacon, the Rev. H. F. Butt, were responsible for the running of the Bishop's School. A schoolmaster, R. Sutcliffe, a former shoemaker, was engaged, but nothing like a school committee was ever appointed. Reay was highly critical of Campbell and the Nelson School Society and reacted badly to Campbell's conciliatory approaches. Tuckett, in a letter of this period, describes Reay's attitude to Campbell thus:

"The episcopal Minister Reay, with a bigotry and fanaticism worthy of the era of the inquisition, insults him in church by denouncing him as leading the children to perdition."

Reay and the Bishop maintained their hostile attitude towards the Nelson School Society until Reay's departure from Nelson in 1847, but later the Bishop came to acknowledge that the Society's schools performed a worthwhile function.

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Besides the Bishop's School at Nelson, Reay also encouraged the establishment of Anglican schools in the countryside. The Hon. Constantine Dillon endeavoured to foster a school under Reay's auspices at Waimea West but ran into difficulties.

"It is quite extraordinary to me, he wrote, how difficult it is to persuade them (the pupils) to come, especially as at a village about 10 miles further inland where there are none but labouring men settled on small pieces of land they have voluntarily built a chapel and established a school which all boys and girls attend regularly. Five of the men take it by turns to teach them and I am told that they never miss."

Almost certainly this latter school, which was at Wakefield, was the Nelson School Society school mentioned above, but it might possibly have been the school organised at Wakefield in 1843 by the millwright Edward Baigent and later supported by Reay as an Anglican school. Whatever it was, there was no doubt about the abundant spirit of self-help shown by the small, outlying community of working class people at Wakefield. The small school at Waimea West was carried on for some years by Mrs Dillon as a personal voluntary effort.

The Nelson Community and its Plight

At the end of October 1843 when the Nelson School Society was taking shape, the population of the town of Nelson and its rural hinterland was 2942. Among some 900 working males there were 323 farm workers and as many as 272 artisans. 148 men were engaged in business, 82 were farmers and 89 could claim professional status. The community was noted for its elite of well educated gentlemen such as Domett, Monro, Dillon and Cautley. It also included a group of versatile professional men such as Dr Renwick and the surveyors Barnicoat and Stephens. The high proportion of artisans was notable. Ruth Allan has estimated that artisans were the largest occupational group in the main migration to Nelson. In view of the requirements of the various trades in respect of mensuration and the maintenance of records it is reasonable to assume that almost all, if not all, artisans would be literate and would, like the gentlemen and professionals, be anxious to ensure that their children received at least elementary schooling. According to the statistics published in the Nelson Examiner of 16th December 1843, 321 out of a total of 607 children from 6 to 14 years of age were attending day schools. Thus 11 per cent of the population were attending day schools, whereas in Britain in 1833 only about 9 per cent were reckoned to be attending such schools. Even if one is sceptical of the strict accuracy of such statistics they tend to confirm the impression of a young, struggling community eager to promote the education of its children.

Although elements that would favour the early development of education were present in the population, the political and economic conditions obtaining during the period between late 1843 and mid 1845 were far from propitious for such development. The apprehension of Maori hostility after the Wairau affray, the uncertainty concerning land titles and the inability of the New Zealand Company to offer adequate employment opportunities, all conspired to plunge the Nelson community into a state of deep depression and indeed near starvation. During this period there was extensive re-emigration and it was reported that of some 3000 labourers sent out some 930 left the province.

page 18

Faltering Progress of the Nelson School Society (N.S.S.) to 1850

By the beginning of 1845 the total attendance of children at day schools throughout the settlement was reported to be only 183 distributed as follows:

Anglican:Bishop's free School, Nelson 60
Waimea South, Wakefield 15
Nelson School Society (N.S.S.)Nelson School 60
Riwaka School 30
WesleyanNelson Day School 18

This represented a decline of some 140 pupils as compared with late 1843. Larger numbers attended the Sunday schools associated with each institution. For instance 160 attended the N.S.S. Sunday School in Nelson. The appearance of a Wesleyan school (conducted by William Moore) suggests that there was resistance to the N.S.S. undenominational policy. Wesleyan schools were also opened in Riwaka and Richmond in 1845. The presence of the Anglican school at Wakefield was probably a factor that led to the closure of the N.S.S. day school there. The N.S.S. day school started at Riwaka soon lapsed to Sunday school status. In May 1845 when the old British and Foreign School Society building was transported to Spring Grove, it was reported that 100 children there were "totally without the means of education". Nevertheless the Spring Grove school, starting as a Sunday school, did not achieve day status until October 1847. Two other schools opened in 1845 at Stoke and Waimea West did not become day schools till much later.

In early 1848, with characteristic resourcefulness, the Society took over (he structure that had been used by the New Zealand Company as its immigration barracks at Nelson and transported it to Waimea East where one part of the structure was re-erected in Richmond township and another at Appleby where it provided accommodation for a Sunday School. At Richmond the re-erected building was shared between a day school and the Richmond Mechanics' Institute. The Richmond day school opened with an enrolment of 35 day scholars and with James P. Horn, a carpenter, as school master under the general superintendence of a local sub-committee of the Society.

By April 1850 day schools had been added to the Sunday schools at Riwaka, Appleby and Spring Grove. The attendance at the Society's various schools in 1850 was recorded as follows:

Place Sunday Scholars Day Scholars
Nelson (including infant school) 120 87
Wakapuaka 25
Stoke 22
Richmond 50 40
Appleby 35 20
Waimea West 35
Spring Grove 40 30
Wakefield 20
Riwaka 32 32
379 209

In 1850 the European population of the province was just over 4,000.

page 19

Development up to 1856

The slow progress achieved by 1850 was not evenly maintained. The day schools at Richmond, Riwaka and Appleby soon reverted to Sunday school status, but when after 1851 the province became more prosperous as the result of the high demand for its produce in the Australian goldfields, the Society found it possible by 1854 to open at Stoke, Waimea West and Hope in Waimea East.

In November 1853 a provincial government was established in the Nelson Province. The elected Provincial Council appointed a commission to enquire into the state of education in the province. The commission reported in September 1855 and the Provincial Council decided to set up a Central Board of Education which would take over the schools run by the N.S.S. with effect from 1 July 1856. In ihe meantime, in response to a petition from the Society, the Provincial Council made grants of £180 in 1854 and £400 in 1855 to the Society in order to assist to maintain and develop its school system. These grants helped the Society to consolidate the position of its day schools and to open or re-open three more. In mid-1856 when the Society was about to hand over its day schools to the Central Board of Education it was in control of a brave little system of elementary schools with attendances as follows:

Locality Day Evening Sunday
Nelson 81 29 95
Stoke 25 9 25
Appleby 30 40
Hope 22 10 38
River Terrace (Waimea South) 30 30
Wakefield 22 15 22
Waimea West 17 7 25
Motupipi 17
316 94 325

The Central Board of Education's inspector reported at the end of 1856 that he had taken over 13 day schools when he assumed his duties. Only the eight day schools listed above, however, were shown as being controlled by the Nelson School Society in its twelfth report rendered in April 1856.

Masters (or in the case of Appleby and River Terrace, mistresses) had been appointed to all eight day schools. Although evening classes had been tried earlier in the Society's history it was in 1852 that the Society set out consistently to develop evening classes in order to cater for children whose parents required them to work during the day.

After June 1856 the Nelson School Society confined its activities to the promotion and management of Sunday schools until its affairs were finally wound up in 1897.

Church Schools and Private Schools

The Bishop's School at Nelson closed down in 1855, but at Motueka where there was no N.S.S. school the Anglican day school which had both Maori and Pakeha pupils carried on until the Central Board of Education took over. The Wesleyan day school in Nelson which was attended as 50 scholars in 1854 closed down when it was clear that the Provincial Council would take responsibility for education.

page 20

In 1856 the two Roman Catholic St Mary's Schools in Nelson were attended by as many as 166 children of whom more than half were non-Catholics. A small Catholic school had been started in 1858 by a Miss O'Dowd, and after the advent of Father Antoine Garin in 1850 the number of children attending the Catholic schools had steadily increased, although there were then only some 230 Catholics in the local population. Father Garin was a competent teacher himself and had engaged another efficient teacher in the person of C. A. Richards. Father Garin was moreover a zealous promoter of education. Such a remarkable growth in the attendance of non-Catholics at the St. Mary's schools is a reflection upon the quality of the education offered in the Nelson School Society's schools in Nelson. In 1853 a Quaker traveller remarked on the superior standard of elementary education provided by Catholic schools both in Wellington and Nelson. Father Garin was scholarly and well trained in the arts of instruction and must have made a good impression on parents in comparison with the succession of teachers of limited educational attainments employed in Nelson by the School Society, e.g. Jabez Parker the former baker.

One feature of early educational development was the failure of private venture elementary schools such as those that appeared in contemporary Wellington and Auckland. No equivalent of Old Mother Buxton's school in Wellington or Mr Gorrie's Academy in Auckland survived. A Miss Hilton, a governess, conducted a small school for girls and small boys for a short period in 1844–5. A surveyor, Alexander Ogg, a man with progressive ideas about education and industrial training, opened a private school at Hope in 1852, but by 1853 he had abandoned the project and the school was taken over by the Nelson School Society. A Mr Hawke was running his Woodland House Academy in Nelson from 1853 to 1855 but by the middle of that year he gave up and took a position in the Society's Nelson school. It seems that in the economic climate of the Nelson province elementary schools could survive only with community or church support.

The State of Elementary Education in 1856

When in 1855 the Commission on Education appointed by the Provincial Council came to examine the state of education in the province, it found that only 600 children out of a population of 6,000 were attending day schools and that even where the Nelson School Society had established schools, little more than half of the children attended them. The Commission was dismayed by the evidence of "educational destitution even more than had been anticipated". The figures quoted indicated that 10 per cent of the population was attending school. In his report on the educational derived from the 1851 census of England and Wales, Horace Mann had estimated that only 12 per cent of the population was at school, whereas he considered that 16.8 per cent was a reasonable proportion of the population to be at school. Perhaps the Nelson Commissioners expected too much of their frontier society with its limited resources and early tribulations. Mindful of the suspicious initial achievement recorded in late 1843, they were disappointed with the limited progress made since then.

In spite of the praise and encouragement lavished upon the Nelson School Society by local leaders such as Domett. Dillon Fox and others and the favourable comment in the local newspaper, managers of the Society had page 21failed to fulfil their ambitions which was "to extend their usefulness until every child in the settlement of Nelson may be provided with an education under the open and liberal system which they have established". A major failure of the Society had been its inability to keep open the day schools which it founded in the rural areas, although it must be conceded that the closing down of some of these schools was due to the decline of population in the areas which they served and not to any fault of the Society. Only the Nelson school did not have to close down for a period. Even that school was in a very precarious position at times. Saxton in his diary records that in 1849 he attended a meeting at "Campbell's school" where it was disclosed that only 23 boys and 20 girls were attending. Competition from the Anglican and Wesleyan schools may have been the cause of this decline. The intermittent closing down of country schools must have had a deleterious effect on the children's education and a demoralising effect on the teachers. The Nelson Examiner in 1856 noted that within a few years seven teachers had endeavoured to make a living at the Stoke school, but had been "starved out there, the weekly pittances in some instances being what is now paid to a labourer for a day's wages". It should not, however, be forgotten that the Society's policy of maintaining Sunday Schools in all centres in which it operated ensured that at least some instruction was offered to local children when the day school was closed.

Community Relations of the Nelson School Society

A distinctive feature of the Society was its catholicity in that it interested itself in the elementary education of all members of the community. Under the inspiration of Campbell it sought to break down barriers. Although at first it directed its efforts primarily towards the children of the working class, by 1848 it showed that it was thinking in terms of the education of all children in the community. Even when some denominations insisted on setting up their own schools, the Society sought to associate these schools with its activities. Thus the Society in 1848 invited the Anglican schools to join in the general assembly and examination that it organised at the end of the year. By 1850 this annual assembly had become a festive public occasion in which children and parents of almost all denominations participated. By 1851 the Rev. H. F. Butt (Anglican), the Rev. S. Ironside (Wesleyan), the Rev. T. D. Nicholson (Presbyterian) and the pastor from the German settlement of Ranzau near Moutere had been elected to the committee of the Society. Only the Catholics and the Seventh Day Adventists remained apart. In 1852 the Committee turned down Father Garin's application to use the Society's Sunday School premises at Richmond for reading prayers and a similar request by the Seventh Day Adventists was declined in 1854. Later these resolutions were rescinded.

Apart from its interest in providing libraries that could be used by adults as well as by school children (e.g. at Hope) the Society displayed its community-orientated tendencies by sponsoring occasional series of public lectures.

A feature of the Society's work from the very beginning was its involvement of people of all classes in its work. From the early days of the United Christians supporters of the Society co-operated in the teaching at Sunday Schools. At first well-known lay persons such as Mr Songer, a former page 22servant, at Stoke, were appointed as superintendents of local schools. Later, lay committees were appointed for the management of each school. The task of visiting the Nelson school and the branch schools in the countryside was carried out by small delegations of members of the Society's central committee. The examinations of pupils held at the annual assemblies from 1846 onwards were conducted by some of the better educated members of the community such as professional men or clergymen. Parents were encouraged to take part in the activities of the Society. Fathers of children who had attended school for twelve months were deemed members of the Society payment of the annual subscription of 10 shillings.

Although the financial support and general co-operation of middle-class landowners and professional men who were prominent in its central committee were important to the Society, it retained its early connection with the working class throughout the period 1844–56. McArtney, the tinsmith, was 3 diligent committee member throughout; Wm. Gardner, the rope-maker and he were still on the committee in 1856. Samuel Kealley, the baker, left Nelson for Adelaide where he prospered and sent generous donations to the Society from that city. J. P. Robinson returned to the committee in the early fifties. Almost ail the teachers, moreover, came from the working class. The Society could in fact fairly claim to have remained broadly representative of the whole Nelson community.

The Teachers

The high degree of involvement of members of the community in the running of the schools must have posed problems for the teachers who were, with very few exceptions, untrained for their work. They came from diverse walks of life, had no common background and could have no intimate understanding of such professional standards as had been evolved at this stage of the development of the teaching profession. They would have found it difficult to withstand pressure from their local committees. The first inspector of schools under the Central Board of Education, writing in December 1856. pointed out the weaknesses of the Society's system that lay behind the indifferent performance of its schools – "a rate of payment (for teachers) below the common rate of labourers' wages, imperfect and insufficient school accommodation and almost total want of books and educational apparatus." Such were the conditions under which the Society's teachers laboured. The most able of the teachers moved out into other occupations. Robinson, the first headmaster of the Society's Bridge Street School, resigned after only a very few years and in 1848 declined a salary of 52 pounds per annum which the Society offered in order to induce him to return to the headmastership. This was the highest salary offered by the Society. In that year Constantine Dillon was offering field labourers three shillings and sixpence a day.

The Society did encourage teachers to hold meetings to discuss their problems such as the irregular attendance of pupils. An effort was made to establish a teachers' provident fund and at one stage some young persons were recruited as pupil teachers. On at least two occasions the Society approached the British and Foreign School Society in England through Sir George Grey or Wm. Fox with a view to engaging one of its trained teachers, but without success. The Society failed to retain the services of local teachers page 23with possibly two exceptions. Jabez. Packer started teaching in the Bridge Street School in 1847 and was still teaching at Hope in 1856. Wm. Moote, the first schoolmaster, after teaching in the Wesleyan school, became the Society's teacher at Waimea West and was still there in 1856. Moore was the only teacher that is known to have had a background of previous teaching experience and even he is known to have had serious problems of discipline in Waimea West.


Campbell himself had no illusions as to the cause of the Society's staffing difficulties. In conversation with a Quaker visitor in 1853 he admitted that in Nelson as in England "there is much difficulty in procuring the requisite funds and the character of the instruction is of a lower grade than he desires from his inability to pay the master such a salary as would invite a competent man to undertake it".

The major source of the Society's funds were the subscriptions and donations of better off citizens and the fees paid by the parents of pupils. As many of the purchasers of land had not come out from Britain to the settlement, the number of settlers of substance was not as great as the New Zealand Company had anticipated and not all of those that did come felt that it behoved them to contribute to school funds. Saxton relates that he declined to subscribe to horse racing on the request of George Duppa because the latter (who was on his way to making a fortune in New Zealand) refused to subscribe to Campbell's schools. Nevertheless the Society received a few windfalls such as the assignment to it of the revenue from the properties of Frederick Tuckett and the presentation of a flock of goats by Wm. Fox.

The fees paid by the parents of the pupils were very low indeed. In 1847 a mere 2 pence a week per child was paid when only reading and writing were taught and 3 pence when instruction in arithmetic was given as well. Not more than 6 pence a week was paid by any one family and a member of the Committee of the Society might issue a ticket for the admission without charge of any child in cases of family distress, subject to the review of any such concession by the Committee. These were very generous provisions. When the Mechanics' Institute in Wellington opened its school for children in 1842 the weekly charge was 6 pence a child for tuition in the three R's.

Having exhausted the springs of local benevolence and collected as much as it deemed reasonable from parents, the Society naturally looked to the colonial government for aid. There its hopes were at first frustrated. The Education Ordinance of 1847 made provision for grants of public monies to be made only to the three main churches. Under the terms of this Ordinance the Governor made grants to the Bishop's school and the Wesleyan school but not to the schools of the Nelson School Society which as a lay body was disqualified. In 1849 Sir George Grey after a visit to Nelson did arrange for a small annual grant of 35 pounds to be made to the Society out of funds put at his disposal by the British Parliament not from funds appropriated under the Education Ordinance. It was only after the establishment of the Nelson Provincial Council in 1853 that the Society began to receive more generous grants from public funds – 180 pounds in 1854 and 400 pounds in 1855. The Provincial Council from its inception showed itself to be a firm supporter of the Society.

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In default of adequate public grants over the decade 1843–53 the Society was only kept solvent by the generosity of its treasurer and superintendent Matthew Campbell. Campbell's assiduity and benevolence were a by-word in Nelson. He was the driving force and benefactor of the School Society. It was not for nothing that the Society's schools were universally referred to as "Campbell's Schools". Some of the schools were built on land that he personally acquired and made available. He willingly made good the Society's deficits from his own personal resources. In 1848 the Society acknowledged a debt of 150 pounds 18 shillings and 4 pence to Campbell on account of the erection of several schools Moreover this amount did not include "a considerable sum due to him also on account of current expenses". Indeed it seems very doubtful if anything like the Nelson School Society would have arisen from the initiative of the United Christians and carried on to build up a system of schools had there not been a benefactor and a leader of the calibre of Matthew Campbell.


The importance of the work of the Nelson School Society is not in its limited success in inducing parents to send their children to school nor in the quality of the education it provided, but rather in the way it demonstrated the practicability of establishing a rudimentary school system by dint of concerted local effort and by the use of local resources. It showed that at least the main Protestant denominations could be persuaded to sink their sectarian differences in order to ensure the provision of elementary education for all children. It showed that this interdenominational approach could help overcome the difficult problem of providing schools for outlying communities in a scattered colonial settlement. It demonstrated that within a local community, including its rank and file, there was sufficient acceptance of the need for education for the task of establishing and maintaining schools to be entrusted to local committees, if their activities were supported and co-ordinated by a central organisation. In a negative sense, too. the limitations of the Society's achievement proved that a stable system of efficient public schools catering for all children could not be maintained without substantial public funding.

The rise of the Nelson School Society constitutes a remarkable example of what is now called community development. The activities of the Society were nothing less than a spontaneous, concerted effort by a body of people broadly representative of the whole Nelson community to provide elementary schooling for all its children by self-help methods. It may be objected that in the Society's operations so much of the creative energy and the financial support was supplied by Matthew Campbell, that the Society's achievement was an example of the force of personal leadership rather than of the virtues of community development. I would argue, however, that it is possible to overestimate Campbell's undoubtedly valuable contribution. One must take into account the sterling work of Wm. Stanton, the secretary over the period 1844–56, of A. G. Jenkins, of J. P. Robinson as well as of the faithful committee members McArtney and Gardner and the membership of a whole network of local committees. The Society's work may be fairly deemed an example of genuine community development. As for the role of such well educated local leaders as Fox. Domett and Dillon, these gentlemen, by taking part in the Society's proceedings and by commending its work in speeches page 25and in the press, encouraged the working members of the Society and enhanced its public image, but they did not provide the initiative and drive that launched the Society and kept it going. This was provided by Campbell and his coadjutors.

It is significant that in 1849 when the Education Committee of the Legislative Council of New Munster reported to the Council in favour of a public school system administered by local committees and supported by public funds three of the five members of that committee were persons who knew the Nelson School Society's work well. The Nelson example was beginning to exert its influence When the Nelson Provincial Council took over the Nelson School Society's schools in 1856 it built its school system upon the basis of the Society's achievement and the relative success of the Nelson provincial education system in due course had a further influence upon those who promoted the Education Act in 1877. When it came to deciding what were suitable components of a general school system for New Zealand, there is little doubt that the significant and unique experience of a local community such as Nelson in striving to solve its educational problems would have counted for more than imported doctrines and examples of school systems in England. Massachusetts or anywhere overseas.