Story: Alabaster, Ann O’Connor

Page 1: Biography

All images & media in this story

Alabaster, Ann O’Connor

1842–1915

Teacher

This biography, written by Margaret Francis, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Ann O'Connor Warner was born on 15 February 1842 at Oxford, England, to Sarah Lyne and her husband, Robert Warner, a shoemaker. Ann became a teacher at the parish school of St Ebbe, Oxford. While there she met Charles Alabaster, who was the curate of St Ebbe and also taught at the school. They married on 29 September 1858. Ann was just 16, her husband 25 years old. Charles had been advised that a long sea voyage was his only hope of recovering from tuberculosis and so the couple decided to emigrate to New Zealand. They arrived in Lyttelton on the Strathallan in January 1859.

On arrival Charles Alabaster took up his pastoral duties and was for a time chaplain to Bishop H. J. C. Harper. However, by mid 1861 his health had deteriorated to such an extent that he was forced to retire from an active role in the ministry. An alternative source of income was needed for the Alabasters, who now had two small sons, Austin Henry, born 1860, and John Chaloner, born 1861. It was logical that the couple should open a school. Although their motives were largely economic there were other factors which influenced their decision. Ann, who was to become the breadwinner, had teaching experience. The couple were concerned for the welfare of children: they had run a school on the ship on the way out and had helped with the formation of an orphanage in Christchurch. Moreover, as a clergyman, Charles strongly believed in the denominational system of education. By establishing their school, he and his wife were supporting this principle.

At the beginning of 1862 Lincoln Cottage Preparatory School was opened. It was named after Charles Alabaster's college at Oxford University, where he had taken a degree in Classics. Situated in Cranmer Square, Christchurch, the school prepared boys aged 5 to 10 for entry to Christ's College. From the outset it was Ann Alabaster who was in charge, Charles giving assistance when his health allowed.

Initially tuition cost £2 10s. per quarter for day pupils and £40 per year for boarders, but by 1864 fees had risen to £4 for day pupils and £55 for boarders. In comparison, fees were 1s. per week at public schools. The curriculum was advanced for its time. Subjects taught included religious knowledge, reading, spelling, writing, history, geography, arithmetic, Latin, English grammar and composition, drawing and music. Later, French and drill were introduced. Examinations, conducted by the Anglican clergy, were held annually and were followed some time after by a prize giving.

School began each day at 9.30 a.m. and ended at 3.30 p.m., with a generous two hours for lunch. The school week extended from Monday to Saturday but half-day holidays were observed on Wednesdays, Saturdays and saints' days. There were four terms in the year with six weeks' holiday at Christmas, four weeks at midwinter and one week each at Easter and Michaelmas.

Lincoln Cottage soon established a sound reputation. By 1864 numbers were such that it was necessary to employ two extra assistants. Then on 18 January 1865 Charles Alabaster died. His capable widow continued to run the school very successfully. Her brother, John Warner, a lawyer, took over Charles Alabaster's role at the school until his departure for Greymouth in 1869.

Ann Alabaster purchased the school site for £150 in 1871. It had by then become the leading preparatory school of the province. Many prominent Canterbury families such as the Moorhouses, Robinsons, Rhodes, Tripps, Barkers and Haasts sent their sons there. William Pember Reeves was enrolled as a boarder in 1862 at the age of five. The school produced many excellent scholars and in 1869 was described as 'the best means of training' for entry to Christ's College, by a former headmaster of the college, Dean Henry Jacobs.

By about 1880 Ann Alabaster no longer needed to support her two sons, who were grown up. It was an appropriate time for her to retire, especially as a new grammar school was being planned to train choir boys for Christchurch Cathedral. She was offered a post at the new school but declined. Cathedral School opened in 1881; Lincoln Cottage Preparatory School closed at the end of 1882.

For a time Ann Alabaster lived on in the cottage and ran it as a boarding house for young women. She had always been a music lover and occasionally sang in concerts in Christchurch. On 25 August 1891 she married a second time. Her new husband was another Anglican clergyman, Canon Francis Knowles. She died suddenly on 25 February 1915 at Christchurch. Her obituary noted that 'Many persons now occupying leading positions in the community received the rudiments of their education at her hands', and concluded that 'the deceased lady was of a kindly and charitable disposition' and that her loss was mourned by her 'large circle of friends and acquaintances.'

How to cite this page:

Margaret Francis. 'Alabaster, Ann O’Connor', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1a5/alabaster-ann-oconnor (accessed 17 June 2019)