Salisbury School


Salisbury: a Special School for nearly 100 years

Note - the language of the day has been used throughout this story, which shows the changing attitudes to difference and disability over a century.

Salisbury School. Day School entrance. Courtesy Salisbury School.
Click image to enlarge

For close to 100 years, Richmond's Salisbury School has catered to the needs of girls and young women with learning disabilities and social, emotional or behavioural problems. But, in 2012, the Government announced plans to close the only residential, single sex facility for girls with intellectual impairment in New Zealand.1

Salisbury School. Parker Cottage. Courtesy Salisbury SchoolClick image to enlarge

The school's history on the Salisbury Road site began in 1904, when a homestead belonging to the McRae family was sold to the Crown and used as a boys' home for several years.2

Miss Hurley (2nd from left) with representatives of the Public Expenditure Committee 1965: she was pushing for campus extension. [Salisbury Girls School.Nelson Provincial Museum, Geoffrey C Wood Collection: 3660_fr25]
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The 'Home for Defective Children' at Richmond was the subject of a letter to the editor of the Otago Witness.  The writer said it was a vast improvement on the former practice of placing these children in mental asylums, but: "With providing a home and food the Government seems to consider it has fulfilled its obligations; but that is surely not so.  Some of the children are cripples, some blind, some epileptic, some consumptive, and no less than 16 cannot dress or feed themselves."3

In the early 20th century, there was a lot of movement of children between industrial schools, orphanages and mental hospitals.4 In 1925 industrial schools were replaced by child welfare institutions, which aimed to be educational rather than penal.5

How to deal with 'mental defectives', or the 'feeble minded', as they were also called, was discussed in 1911, with a ‘sad case':  " the South Island three feeble-minded sisters...who...had borne between them no less than ten illegitimate children", with fathers unknown, for whose upkeep the local authority was paying £100/year.  It highlighted the need for a State Home for vulnerable females.6

A Rotary club party at Salisbury School, one of many held by Rotary and Jaycee Clubs. [Rotarians party of Salisbury School. Nelson Provincial Museum, Geoffrey C Wood Collection: L5810_fr3]
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The Richmond 'Special School for Girls of Feeble Mind' was opened in October 1916.7 The girls learnt basic English and maths, housework, laundry, sewing, knitting and gardening. Some very difficult girls, and handicapped girls were enrolled, as were girls from abusive homes.8

During the 1930s life was centred around the school, with the girls going to ‘something in Richmond' annually and summer picnics to Brightwater or Wakefield.9 It was not until the 1960s, that the school began to build relationships with the community10 and by the 1990s, Salisbury girls were involved in many activities in Nelson.11

In the 1940s, the school inspector suggested that music and nature radio broadcasts, as well as silent reading, would improve the education of the girls. In 1947, the principal, Miss Katherine McRae introduced an era of treating the girls as individuals.  By 1950, the inspector noted the improvement and the fact that ‘the importance of all round development is realised by the staff.'12

By 1951, the Richmond Special School had a roll of about 65 and a residential teaching staff of 19, only three of whom were trained teachers.  The educational focus was becoming more apparent but staff shortages were an on-going problem.13

Maria Robinson, nee Hippolite, who formed the school's cultural group in the  1960's and became Assistant Principal in 1968 and Principal in 1987. [Salisbury Girls. Nelson Provincial Museum, Nelson Mail Collection: C2710]
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Formidable principal, Miss Nora Hurley arrived at the school in 1963. By the time she left in 1979, the school had been practically rebuilt. Around this time there was also a growing awareness of the growing relationship between deprived backgrounds and learning difficulties.14

From the middle of the 20th Century, as Māori increasingly moved into cities and became alienated from traditional support bases, the chances of Māori girls becoming state wards increased substantially. In 1967, 19 out of 25 admissions to Salisbury were state wards and 14 of these girls were Māori. The school's 1965 Annual Report commented that the Māori girls ‘lack stimulation in their backgrounds' which, ‘account for their retardation in very many cases.'15

Maria Robinson (nee Hippolite) was at the school for almost four decades and principal from 1987 to 1999. Under her watch, a ‘people first' philosophy (Te Whānau o Salisbury) flourished and Kaupapa Māori became an increasing focus.16

Salisbury School had a Maori culture group as far back as 1970. [Salisbury Girl's School greets King of Tonga. Nelson Provincial Museum, Barry Simpson Nelson Photo News Collection:C65]
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The Labour Government's 1989 Education Amendment Act (Tomorrow's Schools) introduced a mainstreaming philosophy to special education and Salisbury School was threatened with closure. Lockwood Smith, then National Party education spokesman, criticised the Labour Government for its ideological stance and promised the school would stay open if National won the next general election, which it did.17

By the 2000s, girls spent a maximum of two years at the school and most returned to high schools in their regions. All of the students had learning disabilities, whether they were the result of identifiable syndromes or less specific social, emotional or behavioural problems.18

Since the early 1990s, special education units in schools and residential facilities for special needs students have been closed by successive governments. "Principals, parents and teachers were, on the whole, less favourably disposed towards mainstreaming...This opinion hardened as the savings from the closures were not seen to be redirected into special education," wrote Mary Ellen O'Connor in Salisbury School: A Lesson in Special Education.19

In 2012 the National Government proposed that several residential schools, including Salisbury, be replaced with a wrap-around model integrating students into their communities.20 Salisbury School fought the closure saying a co-educational facility put girls with intellectual disabilities at high risk of abuse.21

On 31 October 2012, Education Minister Hekia Parata announced that Salisbury School would close at the end of 2012,22 however after judicial review this decision was reversed23 and the school seemed to remain open.24  The threat of closure remained, however. until 2019, when the incoming Labour Government honoured a pre-election promise to keep the school open and announced an $8 million Government cash injection to rebuild, plus a new pathway to enrolment.  However, by 2021 the school had a current roll of just three students in 2021.25 The commitment to remain open and grow remained.

In May 2024, a new joint learning hub offering a cluster of education support services for students with behavioural issues, hearing and vision impairments opened in relocatable classrooms in the grounds of Salisbury School. 26

In June 2024, the next government announced funding for a new base for Nelson’s Maitai School, to join the other special education services on the grounds at Salisbury School, to be completed by mid 2026. Maitai School is the only day school in the region for children with complex and high needs. Included in this announcement was a recommitment to refurbishing Salisbury School. By the time of the announcement the Sailsbury School roll had grown again, and the school was almost at capacity.  27

2012 (updated 2024)

See also the story: Safe Haven - Salisbury School [PDF] by Sarah Price (2013), Nelson College for Girls

Sources used in this story

  1. Ex-pupils turn to help school (2012, June 21). Nelson Mail, p.2.
  2. Salisbury School history. Retrieved from Salisbury School, November 2023
  3. Home for Defective Children (1907, July 17). Otago Witness, p.18.  
  4. O'Connor, Mary Ellen. (2008). Salisbury school: a lesson in Special Education. Auckland, N.Z. : Te Whānau o Salisbury, p 18.
  5. Archives New Zealand [Legislative and organisational background to Industrial and Special Schools]
  6. Defectives (1911, June 30) Auckland Star, p.8. 
  7. Feeble-minded children. The special school at Richmond. (1916, October 18) Colonist, p.9.
  8. O'Connor, p.22-25
  9. O'Connor, p.29
  10. O'Connor, p.41
  11. O'Connor, p.116
  12. O'Connor, p.36
  13. O'Connor, p.39
  14. O'Connor, p.52
  15. O'Connor, p.54-58
  16.  O'Connor, p.115-116
  17. O'Connor, p.107
  18. O'Connor, p.121-125
  19. O'Connor, p.110
  20. Roberts, A. (2012, June 18). $4m Kura highlights Salisbury plight. Nelson Mail, p.1.
  21. Roberts, A. (2012, August 29). Closure plan ‘puts children at risk'. Nelson Mail. p.3.
  22. Roberts, A. (2012, October 31). Parata confirms closure of Salisbury School. Nelson Mail.
  23. Dickison, M. (2012, December 12) Parata's closure unlawful. Dominion Post, A3.
  24. Roberts, A. (2013, May 21) Salisbury School's fight for survival ends in victory. Nelson Mail.
  25. Jones, K. (2021, August 7) Three students: why no roll growth at special school saved from closure? Nelson Mail on Stuff
  26. Gamble, W. (2024, May 7). Learning support hub to make difference for students. Nelson Mail.
  27. Jones, K. (2024, June 18). New Maitai School base gets Government green light. Nelson Mail.


Want to find out more about the Salisbury School ? View Further Sources here.

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  • i love salisbury girls school. .i went to that school in 1974. it's a very good. school to be at. you get a lot of activities to do. maybe one day i will visit .the only staff i remember is Mrs maria robbinson and Mr and Mrs simson,

    Posted by mareta teinakore , 22/09/2019 1:04pm (5 years ago)

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Further sources - Salisbury School



  • Hancock, I. (2004, Sep/Oct) Raising Amilia.  Third age New Zealand, p.11-14
  • Hubbard, A. (1991, Jun 24). The taming of the few. Listener, 130 (2674), 20-26
  • Pluck, D. & Glynn, T.S., Dennis. (1987, Aug). Staff change : child change. Journal of The New Zealand Psychological Service Association, (8), 27-34

Newspaper articles

  • Anderson, C. (2009, March 28). Salisbury's special story.  Nelson Mail, p.13
  • Decision due on school's future. (2012, 25 August) Nelson Mail. p.3
  • Defectives (1911, June 30) Auckland Star, p. 8
  • Dunn, S. (2012, June 28) Threat of closure no barrier to Salisbury's support. Nelson Mail, p.3
  • Feeble-minded children. The special school at Richmond. (1916, October 18) Colonist, p. 9.
  • Home for defective children (1907, 17 July) Otago Witness, p.18
  • Industrial Schools Amendment. (1900, September 14) Nelson Evening Mail, (XXXIV), 217, p. 2.
  • Last days for last resort? (2012, June 2) Nelson Mail. p. 13
  • Life skills and literacy in partnership. (2010, May 24) Nelson Mail, p. 5
  • Pearson, A. (2012, Feb 23) Minister feels the love at Salisbury. Nelson Mail, p. 3
  • Pearson, A. (2012, Feb 28 ) Salisbury School takes programme on road. Nelson Mail, p. 3
  • Phillips, V. (2009, Dec 8) Students hailed as flora guardians. Nelson Mail, p. 4
  • Plea to save Nelson school. (2012, Feb 6).  Waikato Times. p. A13 
  • Roberts, A. (2012, May 12) School for girls facing closure. Nelson Mail, p.1
  • Roberts, A. (2012, June 14) Support floods in to keep Salisbury going. Nelson Mail, p. 1
  • Roberts, A. (2012, June 16) Parata's no show at Salisbury. Nelson Mail, p.1
  • Roberts, A. (2012, June 18) $4m Kura highlights Salisbury plight. Nelson Mail, p. 1
  • Roberts, A. (2012, July 14) Immersion school fills gap. Nelson Mail, p.3
  • Roberts, A. (2012, July 17) Salisbury buoyed by support it is getting. Nelson Mail, p.3
  • Roberts, A. (2012, August 29) Closure plan ‘puts children at risk'. Nelson Mail. p.3
  • Salisbury School has to fight for survival. (2012, May 26) Nelson Mail, p.3
  • Salisbury's future in doubt. (2012, June 2) Nelson Mail, p. 14
  • School ‘changed my life'. (2012, June 21) Nelson Mail, p. 2
  • Support for Salisbury. (2012, June 23). Nelson Mail, p. 19


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