“Friendship, Courage and Wisdom”
New Plymouth Girls' High School 1885 – 2007
In Christine Cole-Catley’s history of the school “Springboard for Women”, written in 1985, it is recorded the first girls to receive formal secular secondary education in New Plymouth were the twenty girls who were admitted to the New Plymouth High School in 1885, joining the boys for whom the school had opened in 1882. The school’s principal was Mr Ernest Pridham and the first lady principal from 1885 - 1887 was Miss H M Ramsay. The girls established themselves quickly, showing themselves to be keen, organised and hard-working. In 1885 the dux award went to one of the girls, May Fookes and in the next 14 of the 27 years in which the school was co-educational the girls secured the top academic award.
During the nine-year tenure of the second lady principal, Miss Mary Montgomery, one of the foundation pupils was Maud Ruby Taylor, known as Daisy, who went on from 1936 to 1963 to become a household name in New Zealand as a radio personality and dispenser of homespun wisdom under the sobriquet of “Aunt Daisy”.
Miss Catherine Grant, Miss Montgomery’s successor in 1897, was determined to establish a separate school for the girls and in 1913, before her departure to serve overseas in the war, New Plymouth Girls' High School became a separate institution. The 90-odd students were accommodated for their lessons in cramped conditions in a Devon St house and the first boarders were housed in another building, Quilliam House. Miss Hodges, who followed in 1914 endured further serious inconveniences occasioned by being obliged to shift temporarily into even less suitable accommodation. Finally however, towards the end of her two-year tenure as principal she was able to preside over the removal of students and equipment into the current premises in Mangorei Rd. Miss Rhoda Barr, who led the school from 1916 to 1920, by which time the roll had risen to 130, was able to install the boarders in new quarters, more comfortable and larger than Quilliam House, in Strandon House in Fitzroy, where they were able to enjoy more than hitherto a “home away from home”. The school, now in more spacious grounds, was able to offer a wider range of recreational pursuits and in 1917 the first sports day was held.
The four-year principalship of Miss McIntosh, from 1920-25 saw the school’s roll more than double again and soon both the school and the boarding house were bursting at the seams. The Old Girls’ Association began raising funds for what was to become the new boarding house. This became the pet project of Miss Doris Napier Allan, who became principal in 1926. “Scotlands”, the new hostel, built on land adjacent to the school and which became her pride and joy, was opened in February 1928. Miss Allan who was known to the girls as “Dinah” had an ambitious vision for the school and was both feared and respected. In her 18 years as principal, which spanned the Depression years, under her steadfast guidance the national and international academic reputation of the school became firmly entrenched.
The dux of the school and head boarder in 1932 and 1933 was Jean Sandel who became renowned as a surgeon, and is honoured and remembered on one of the carved pillars in the school’s Assembly Hall. Another eminent pupil, June Opie, who was a private boarder between 1939 and 1942 was to become a well-known author and broadcaster, familiar to contemporaries for her 1957 autobiographical work “Over My Dead Body”, which tells the story of her courageous battle with polio.
In 1943 Annie Rose Allum was appointed principal. Thirty five years old, aristocratic, confident and elegant, she dominated and shaped the lives of a whole post-war generation of students. The school continued to flourish academically and grew in stature in the fields of sport, music and the arts. The women who were successful products of what the school had to offer during that era emerged confident in their own ability, disciplined in their approach to life and well-prepared for careers in the world of higher education, the arts, the professions, business and other fields in which women had not formerly been significantly represented. Sadly, the greatest scholar of them all, Beatrice (Hill) Tinsley, only recently recognised for the scale of her achievements died in 1981 at the age of 40 at the peak of her career in astro-physics at Harvard. Her story is told in a fine biography “Bright Star”, written and published in 2006 by another distinguished former student, Christine Cole-Catley (Bull), the author of the school’s history prepared for the Centenary celebrations in 1985.
By 1968 the social upheavals of the “Sixties” had begun to impinge on the life of the school. Recognition was growing that the school need to change and to widen its focus beyond the nurturing of the academic elite. In the course of the next six years the management of this painful transition fell to Jean Wilson. Tightening of standards in a number of areas, prudent financial management and broadening of the curriculum encountered some resistance but the changes instituted by Miss Wilson in these years laid the foundations for successfully confronting the greater challenges of the last quarter of the century.
Noeline Bruning a former Art teacher, followed in 1975. Stern and forbidding in appearance, she was, like most of her predecessors surreptitiously kind, generous and humane. She kept a steady hand on the school until 1988 and prepared it for further change. Academic standards continued to be high, but by the centenary year of 1985 greater attention had begun to be paid to the special needs of the “non-academic” students not destined for or suited to higher education. Girls who gained early experiences of the performing arts in these years were Katie Wolfe and Anna Reeves, who followed their instincts, developed their talents and gained national and international distinction: Katie in theatre, film and television and Anna in film production.
Mrs Bruning’s, the High School’s Board and the PTA’s hard work in the early eighties, led to the opening of the new “Scotlands” and a brand new gymnasium (“the Stadium”) in the early years of her successor, Jain Gaudin, to whom it fell to lead the school through the major administrative changes in education arising from “Tomorrow’s Schools” instituted by the Labour Government of David Lange. The first Board of Trustees, freed from the restrictions of the old Department of Education built and opened a new technical block to house the burgeoning and hugely successful Art Department and to provide girls with the opportunity to do workshop technology and graphics. Girls had long since proven their ability to “do everything” and now were to be given much needed opportunities to achieve in these “non-traditional” fields under Mrs Gaudin. Sporting opportunities abounded and catered for every conceivable need and efforts in this direction were amply rewarded by high achievement. Moves towards a more bi-cultural approach to education were consolidated by the construction of a wharenui – Tuhonohono. Though Drama was not yet a subject, another student, Melanie Lynskey who served her acting apprenticeship at school in House Plays and Stage Challenge was “discovered” by talent scouts and was cast to feature in the film, “Heavenly Creatures”. Melanie has continued to pursue a highly successful acting career in film and television in the USA.
Despite difficult times in the 1990’s caused by the rapidity of change and the politicisation of education the school’s roll grew past 1200 and into the 1300s. The necessary expansion arising from the growing complexity of the school’s operation occasioned the construction by 2000 of the Millennium Block, a modern administration building at the centre of the existing diverse and eclectic range of buildings which mark the stages of the school’s growth. Mrs Gaudin resigned in 2002 after sixteen years as principal and was replaced by Annette Sharp who stayed for two years before moving to another principal’s position. Ms Sharp, by instituting “scholars” awards signalled a move towards returning to academic success as a high priority in what had become a very broad curriculum. Mrs Ellis has shown great energy and vision and has driven major property developments which further upgrade the school’s facilities to allow it to provide the best of opportunities. The future is bright, and ongoing significant academic successes demonstrate that the school is in good hands.
A chronicle of the school leaders and the physical expansion of the school over its history cannot begin to do justice or pay due tribute to the many fine young women who have entered its gates. Nor can it acknowledge individually their inspirational student leaders, the legions of highly professional, dedicated teachers, their guides and mentors, whose influence has lived on in their students and the support staff who have made it all possible.
The school’s motto, shared with the brother school across the Te Henui Stream, is “Et Comitate, Et Virtute, Et Sapientia”, which translates as “Friendship, Courage and Wisdom”. Friendships in a climate of healthy competition have fostered shared effort and learning among both boarders and day girls fortifying and supporting them and preparing them for life beyond school. Courage and resilience have permitted girls to back themselves and to set their sights on bringing their dreams and aspirations to reality. Wisdom has guided the leaders in the school to hold fast to ideals of serious application to learning and to the pursuit of excellence set by twenty girls back in 1885. These ideals become a tradition which inspires and sustains all who work and learn there.