Annie Lee Rees (or Lily) was one of the 20 New Zealand women selected to work as teachers for Boer children living in the concentration camps in South Africa.
Born at Beechworth in Victoria, Australia, Lily was raised in New Zealand from the age of two. The daughter of Liberal politician and lawyer William Lee Rees, Lily enjoyed a privileged upbringing which consisted of private schooling and a university education. She was also physically active, enjoying sports such as swimming, riding and tennis. Influenced by her father, Lily possessed a strong sense of morality and individuality.
In 1898 Lily became principal of Obern Lodge Private School, a secondary school for young women. She continued to study extramurally through Auckland University College, passing her law exams, before gaining a BA and MA with honours in Political Science at the University of Otago. Despite her efforts, Obern Lodge failed to attract future pupils. In March 1902 Lily responded to an advertisement in the Otago Daily Times calling for teachers to assist in South Africa. Along with 19 other women she was selected to join the ‘Learned Eleventh’, as the contingent of teachers was called.
During her time as a teacher in South Africa, Lily’s independent character often brought her into conflict with the rigid ideals of the British headmasters. She also experienced much hardship during her African service, experiencing lightning storms, floods, fires, droughts and pests.
Her opinion of the Boers was mixed. She found the children that she taught to be attentive and intelligent but strongly disliked the adults, whom she described as ‘shambling, dull, apathetic, lazy beings’. (Lyttelton Times, 11 October, 1902)
Despite this she returned after taking leave to New Zealand in October 1903. After the closure of the camps she remained in South Africa, teaching at Pietersburg High School until 1906. She then sailed to the United Kingdom for a holiday before returning to Gisborne in 1907. Choosing to continue with her university studies, she gained an LLB from the University of Otago and was admitted to the Bar in 1910. She briefly practiced law at her father’s firm before opening a school for girls, Cook County College, in 1912.
Lily Rees never married, and died on 20 August 1949, at the age 85.
By Simon Daisley