One day in 1891, Miss Mary Taylor decided to open a girls’ school in her home.
The setting was beautiful: a rambling country house with extensive grounds, surrounded by tall tawa trees, a few miles north of Shannon at the foothills of the Tararua Range.
Mary was well-educated, and a music teacher. She and her brother Waring Taylor, both originally from Yorkshire, lived together in his farm homestead.
Mary was known as May, to distinguish her from her aunt Mary Taylor (close friend of Charlotte Bronte) who had sailed to New Zealand to join her own brother, William Waring Taylor, but later returned to England.
May named her school “Nga Tawa”, after the trees on the farm property.
At first there were just a few pupils: daughters of relatives, friends and clergymen.
Ruth Jocelyn Fish, author of a 1958 history of the school’s first 25 years, wrote that: “as was to be expected in a New Zealand country home of this period, sanitation and bathing arrangements were primitive, but cleanliness was strictly observed.”
May Taylor’s assistant teachers were her sister Nellie and her niece Fanny Dalrymple.
Jessie McEwen, nee McKenzie, told Jocelyn Fish that each girl was allowed to take a pony to school, and recalled: “the old Nga Tawa…in my memory, is dominated by the vivid personality of Miss Taylor and her brother, known to us as Mr Waring, who ran the farm and kept an avuncular eye on us at meal times.
“We all liked Mr Waring, but we thought he was frightfully old. He married later and had daughters of his own.”
Jessie remembered one night when the girls were dancing in the big hall.
“There was a knock at the door. In came Mr Waring in smart London clothes: frock coat, white waistcoat, top hat, white gloves, malacca cane… He danced with all of us.”
There was no telephone at the Shannon house, so May Taylor and the nearest neighbour had a communication system of mirror flashes on bright days.
When Waring Taylor got married in 1906, the school moved out to a leased house in Crofton Rd, Marton, and then to a new, extended school building on 20 acres that Miss Taylor had bought in Marton’s Calico Line.
She also hired six new teachers.
The girls wore uniforms – navy serge dresses with black woollen stockings and black shoes during weekdays, navy coats and skirts on Sundays, and black velvet dresses for evening.
In 1910, May Taylor decided to retire and sell the school, and began negotiations with a well-regarded Christchurch teacher, Molly Barker.
During this process she was approached by the Right Rev. Thomas Henry Sprott, Bishop of Wellington, who was keen to buy the school on behalf of the Wellington Anglican diocese.
After a financial arrangement with Miss Taylor and Miss Barker, the school was acquired for the diocese, with Miss Barker as headmistress.
May Taylor stayed on for a term to smooth the changeover, but later returned to England.
Nga Tawa quickly expanded.
Major renovations were made to the building, and the roll grew to 50 pupils.
The school was permitted to adopt the coat of arms of the Wellington diocese, with the words “Christos et Ecclesiae.”
The new headmistress, who brought her mother and two sisters Viola and Leila with her, was a resounding success in her new role.
Former pupil Dorothea Joblin told Jocelyn Fish that: “although among the girls all mistresses were given nicknames (mostly preceded by ‘old’), I never heard Miss Barker referred to in any way other than Miss Barker. I never heard her raise her voice in anger. A summons to her study was always a sympathetic discussion of one’s difficulties; a gentle reproof was something that nearly broke one’s heart.”
Joblin recalled the wedding of Leila Barker.
“Dressed in white with black bows on our tied-back hair, we were allowed to lean over the long balcony of the new wing to gaze enraptured at the bridal group arriving and posing for photographs – especially the incredibly handsome young men in morning clothes and toppers.”
Members of the school’s Old Girls’ Association, formed in 1915, shared memories galore with Jocelyn Fish.
Stories such as the 1915 “battle of the corset”, when confining corsets and suspenders became impossible to wear during gym classes.
Miss Viola saved the day by introducing light, newly invented liberty bodices.
There were midnight feasts, tennis and riding sports; April Fool jokes and swims.
Alison Taverner, nee Kebbell, a new girl who loved horses, had gone with the school to a picnic, girls riding ahead as usual, and others, including Alison, following in horse-drawn brakes.
“When the coachman wanted to light his pipe, Alison squeezed into the box-seat beside him, automatically grasped the reins to drive the six big horses as he did so. The German mistress, Miss Stulpnagel, saw what happened and was most shocked, reporting the incident to Miss Barker, whose sense of humour was equal to the situation.”
When World War I broke out, the girls knitted socks, gloves and balaclavas for their male relatives at the front.
The year 1916 ended the school’s first quarter-century.
Nga Tawa, founded in the 19th century, thrives in the 21st – still in Marton, still with its original ideals and traditions, creating new memories for a modern generation of young women.