Nelson College for Girls


Secondary education for Nelson’s girls took a while

While Nelson’s pioneering fathers (and no doubt mothers) supported the idea of college education for girls, it was to be 27 years after Nelson College was opened in 1856, that the district's girls got their own college.

NCG Nelson College for Girls

View of the Nelson College for Girls building. Ernest Wilson. Nelson Provincial Museum 178320

In the early 1870s, the women of the Richmond Atkinson extended family felt strongly about higher education for girls and pressured Nelson College’s governors, who said they had ‘long and ardently entertained a wish…to erect a high school for girls in the province’, but in the end they found the project was ’neither prudent nor legal’.1

For many years, Nelson College’s Board of Governors maintained there wasn’t enough money to set up a girls’ college without endangering the welfare of the Boys’ College.  Parents of girls in the province made private arrangements or sent their daughters to St Mary’s High School, started by Father Garin, or the privately run Rosebank boarding school.2

NCG St Marys

St Marys - Select Girls school. View of a large group of girls outside a  two storey building, thought to be St Mary's Orphanage in Manuka Street. 178768. Nelson Provincial Museum

Under her pen name, Femmina, Mary Ann Muller wrote to the Nelson Examiner in May 1871 of her hopes that one day Nelson would ‘enjoy the state of society in which woman’s ‘proper sphere’ shall be simply the very highest that her intellect and energy can attain…..Liberty of choice in the plan of her life will be conceded to her, and Nelson men will be among the first to abandon a ‘protective duty’.   It was to be another 12 years before Mrs Muller’s dream began to become a reality.3


Mary Ann Muller and her grandson, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Print Collection, 299160

In January 1872, The Colonist wrote that the Trust Fund of Nelson province was supposed to promote education for the whole community ‘without distinction of class or sex’. The Colonist proposed that the sum of £3000 should be used to establish a girls college.4

In February of the next year, the Nelson Examiner and NZ Chronicle said: “ We venture to hope, that while the College Governors shrink from the entire risk of launching the proposed school, they may well consent to render it some help if undertaken by others. By so doing they will indirectly subserve the interests of the present College; for   unless female education be adequately provided  for here, it is not to be expected that families not absolutely bound to Nelson, and of which there are daughters, will send their boys to our College when they find a superior education provided  for both sexes in adjacent provinces.5

A search of Papers Past shows that while there was some debate in local newspapers throughout 1871 until early 1872, discussion on the issue of higher education for girls seems to have completely died out through the rest of the decade and into the ‘80s.

In September 1882, work began on a wooden building to house about 150 girls and 40-50 boarders and staff , with the school unfinished by the time it opened in January 1883.6 In an era when English universities were reluctant to take women students, Nelson was very fortunate to gain Kate Edger as the college’s first principal. She was the second woman in the British Empire to gain a Masters degree. Kate and her sister Lillian had been teaching at Christchurch Girls High School before coming to Nelson.7


Kate Edger at Nelson College for Girls 1889, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection, part 179045/3

On 4 February 1883, two days after the school opened, Lillian, who was the second mistress at the new college, wrote to another sister:

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 were out of, so the furniture had to be put anywhere. There were 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….

NCG Tennis at the Ladies College now Nelson College for Girls in 1889

Nelson College for Girls 1889. Original photo is from the Tyree Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, 181886/3.

There was no formal opening and when the first contingent of girls arrived they found a large unfinished building surrounded by piles of timber and bricks set in a rough paddock. However 68 girls enrolled on the first day and by December the College had a roll of 118 pupils - compared to 102 at the boys’ college.9

The college aimed to provide a broadly based education for girls at a time when education for women was controversial.10 An early alumni was Constance Barnicoat, daughter of early settler John Barnicoat. Constance attended the college in 1888 and 188911 and went on to become a foreign correspondent during World War 1, an interpreter, mountaineer and traveller.

The 1880s and early 1890s were a time of economic depression in New Zealand  and were a difficult time to establish a new school which was dependent on fees. By the end of 1888, the school only had 67 pupils.  This saw staff salary cuts and a reduction in staff numbers, however by the end of the century the roll had risen again to 90 pupils.12

Things were looking brighter for Nelson College for Girls, but it was still a product of its time. Miss Beatrice Gibson, principal from 1890-1900 wrote: In 1889 “the time had come when educationalists realised that it was not enough to give girls an education quite identical to that given to boys.  It was the life of the woman for which it must prepare; and this was just the stage in the College history when we were trying to bring this ideal into effect; mindful that all sides, the physical, the mental, the spiritual, and all womanly qualities needed guiding.”13


Sources used in this story

  1. Voller, L. C. (1982). Sentinel at the gates, Nelson College for Girls 1883-1983 Nelson N.Z.: Nelson College for Girls Old Girls Association, p 10.
  2. Voller, p 7-8
  3. Correspondence: Female Education (1871, May 20) Nelson Examiner & New Zealand Chronicle, p 6.
  4. Higher education in girl. The means to attain it (editorial) (1872, January 26) The Colonist, p.3
  5. Female education (1872, February 2) The Colonist.
  6. Voller, p13
  7. Voller, p15
  8. Voller, L.C. . (1968, November) Nelson College for Girls - the first seven years. Nelson Historical Society Journal, 2(3), p.16
  9. Voller, p 20- 22
  10. Price, K. (2008). The School on the Hill: Nelson College for Girls 1883-2007. Nelson, N.Z. Nelson College for Girls, p 5.
  11. Price, p 15
  12. Voller, p 45
  13. Price, p 13

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