Kate Edger


After pressure from local women and governors, Nelson College for Girls opened its gates on Friday, February 2, 1883. At the time there were only two other state funded secondary schools for girls in New Zealand; Otago Girls High School and Christchurch Girls High School.  With the opening came great anticipation around the town, in particular from sceptical governors at the Boys' College who believed the girls' school would become a drain on their college funds and resources.  However, the appointment of Miss Kate Edger as Lady Principal was to prove them wrong. Edger's sheer determination and commitment to ensuring the College was a success meant that by midyear, attendance had risen to 118 girls, 16 more than the Boys College1 which began to see this experiment as a source of profit.  Girls came from all over the country for the opportunity to be educated by Kate Edger - the pioneer of women's education in New Zealand.

Kate EdgerKate Edger at Nelson College for Girls 1889, The Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio Collection, part 179045/Click image to enlarge
Educated with the Boys

Kate Edger was born on the 6th January 1857 to an educated and musical family who valued the importance of education. When Kate migrated to New Zealand in 1862, the lack of education for girls meant Kate and her sisters spent their early education being home-schooled by their father, Samuel, a Baptist minister and graduate of the University of London. From early on Samuel ingrained a strong work ethic in his children and his utmost support for Kate's academic pursuits proved of assistance when she was advised by Farquhar Macre (the headmaster of Auckland College and Grammar School) to study in the top class of boys. When Auckland College and Grammar School was affiliated to The University of New Zealand it gave Kate the perfect opportunity to study towards a degree. 

Her determination and hard work were rewarded on the 11th July 1877 when she obtained the degree of Bachelor of Arts, specialising in Latin and Mathematics and making her the first woman in the British empire to gain this degree and second to be university educated (a Canadian woman had graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree two years earlier).  This achievement was fundamental for New Zealand women in a time when they were deemed lacking "the physical or mental stamina to undertake intensive study."2 The historic ceremony attracted a thousand people, with Edger being presented a white camellia by the Bishop of Auckland, W.G. Cowie representing "unpretending excellence."3 The New Zealand Herald that day noted "Let us hear no more of the intellectual inferiority of women"4 and she was sent a letter of congratulation from Queen Victoria.

A few months later Kate Edger took up the position of first assistant at Christchurch Girls High School. Her stamina and strength of character was tested further when while teaching, she decided to pursue her studies to achieve a Master of Arts at Canterbury College in 1882. At her time of appointment Christchurch Girls High School was a relatively new institution and the obstacles associated with this, Kate has stated, gave her vital experience for establishing Nelson College for Girls on a sound footing.

Her time at the College
Girls College NelsonGirls College Nelson, Girls performing a line drill in front of the College
Click image to enlarge

Described by her Nelson colleagues as a gifted teacher who commanded the respect of her pupils, Kate's dedication was clear from the very beginning and surpassed the role required. When the Council of Governors could not provide equipment for the school, Kate paid for it herself and she also funded an extra scholarship for a senior student, allowing her to stay longer at school.

Kate had a full teaching schedule due to a lack of experienced staff and spent her spare time preparing girls for university scholarships. This was on top of carrying out the administrative work as Principal. Throughout her seven years at the school Miss Edger introduced and supported sport and physical training. Edger believed that Nelson College for Girls must not be behind other Colleges and would assemble girls outside on the gravel in front of the main building to practice swinging clubs and practicing drills under her direction.5 Another influence Edger had on the college was a system of certificates to praise girls for their devotion to study throughout the year. Both Kate and her sister Lilian, who was acting as assistant Principal, were opposed to prizes as they believed that they appealed to "the lower and selfish side of human nature"6 The rewarding of girls for their conscientious effort towards their schoolwork continues at Nelson College for Girls today as merit certificates are handed out to worthy recipients for excellent work ethic and overall behaviour in class.

Her legacy continues
Kate EdgerKate Edger, an inspiration for women. Nelson College for Girls archives
Click image to enlarge

Kate Edger remained heavily involved in raising awareness of the importance of education for women throughout her lifetime and this has continued into the future.  With the same goal, of promoting and assisting women in education to aspire to be future leaders, organisations such as The Kate Edger Educational Charitable Trust and Women in Leadership are providing financial assistance in scholarships to women in the tertiary sector.

Kate Edger's achievement of being the first woman in the British Empire to gain a BA has also been honoured and recognised at the University of Auckland. An architectural-award winning Information Commons building bears her name and was opened in 2004. The University also holds and displays her degree testamur in their Library.

Kate Edger will always remain an inspirational leader for women and will be remembered for her tenacity and sheer determination now and into the future.

Kate Atkins, Nelson College for Girls, 2009 

Updated: April 2020

Sources used in this story

  1. Voller, Lois (1982). Sentinel at the Gates: Nelson College for Girls 1883-1983. Nelson, NZ:  Nelson College for Girls Old Girls Association, pp. 14-16, 20-33
  2. Voller, (1982), p.16-17
  3. Hughes, Beryl (2007, June 22) Edger, Kate Milligan 1857 - 1935. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography . Retrieved June 2, 2009 from:
  4. MacDonald, C., Penfold, M. & Williams, B. (eds). (1996) Book of New Zealand Women: Ko Kui Ma Te Kaupapa. Wellington, NZ: Bridget Williams Books.
  5. Mills, C.B. (1933). Nelson College for Girls, Fifty years 1883-1933. Nelson, NZ: A.G. Betts and Son Printers.
  6. Mills, p. 20-22


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  • my mother Jessie Mabel Davis Windleburn went to Nelson Girls College, way back, and then as a Granville.
    She also attended Havelock school with Sir Ernest Rutherford.
    she is still alive at 103yrs and living in Blenheim.

    Posted by Bruce Windleburn, 10/11/2014 5:18pm (10 years ago)

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Further sources - Kate Edger





  • Fletcher, Malanie. Student Service Representative, The University of Auckland. Email. Tuesday 9th June, 2008


  • Pearson, Bronwyn (1946).  Miss Kate Edger.  Isel House Archives.p:1-14


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