125th anniversary of Suffrage in New Zealand

First public girls' secondary school

6 February 1871

A gymnastics class at Otago Girls’ High School in 1905.
A gymnastics class at Otago Girls’ High School in 1905. (Hocken Library: S10-266a)

Otago Girls’ High School opened on 6 February 1871. The first public girls’ secondary school in the southern hemisphere, it was the outcome of seven years of campaigning.

After the local public boys’ high school opened in 1863, an editorial in the Otago Daily Times (ODT) called for a ‘companion institute’ for girls. Learmonth White Dalrymple from Kaihiku, South Otago took up the call and led a campaign to establish a girls’ high school. Over the next seven years, she lobbied politicians, organised a petition, and wrote hundreds of letters to British educationalists.

There was plenty of support for the girls’ high school (although some thought that educating women was a waste of public money). In 1869, an ODT editorial described the lack of education for ‘grown-up girls’ as no ‘imaginary wrong’, but a ‘social evil’. It continued, ‘It is not of the interest of the State, any more than it is to the interest of the individuals concerned, that the young women of the province should be mentally starved’. [1] 

In 1870, the perseverance of Dalrymple and her fellow campaigners paid off. The Provincial Council appointed a ‘lady principal’ (Margaret Gordon Burn) and started constructing facilities. The girls’ high school was built adjacent to the boys’ high school. Originally a 5 ft (1.5m) fence divided the two, but the ODT observed that this could be ‘jumped over by an active urchin’. [2] The height of the fence was increased to 7 ft (2.1m). [3]

On 6 February 1871, Otago Girls’ High School opened with 78 pupils. By the end of the year, the number had increased by two-thirds to 130.

[1] Editorial, Otago Daily Times, 28 January 1869, p. 4.

[2] Editorial, Otago Daily Times, 10 October 1870, p. 2.

[3] Letters to the Editor, Otago Daily Times, 11 October 1870, p. 3; ‘The High School’, Otago Daily Times, 31 October 1870, p. 4.

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