A pioneer in women's education in New Zealand, Sarah Sophia Stothard, known as Sophia, was born in London, England, probably in 1825 or 1826. She was the daughter of a sculptor, Thomas Stothard; her mother's name is unknown.
Unlike many women in colonial settlements who turned to teaching as a respectable expedient, without training or experience, Sophia Stothard had gained an English teacher's certificate and had several years' teaching experience before her departure for New Zealand in 1860. She had taught at the Carmarthen Girls' School in South Wales from 1850 to 1854, where she trained teachers for country schools, and for the following two years was head governess of the Christchurch Collegiate School in Brighton, Sussex, England. She organised schools for the Home and Colonial Infant School Society, which had been founded to spread the pedagogic principles of J. H. Pestalozzi, and was for two years principal of the Female Training Institution at Bandon, County Cork, Ireland.
Sophia Stothard came to New Zealand with the Church Missionary Society, arriving at Auckland on the Persia on 21 August 1860. She was posted to a mission station in Waikato, but her work there was soon disrupted by the outbreak of war in 1863. She returned to Auckland where, over the next 10 years, she devoted herself to women's education. She gave private classes for women in science, arithmetic and perspective drawing, acted as visiting governess to those who could afford her services, and delivered lectures for women on scientific subjects. For a year she was the sole teacher at Onehunga Young Ladies' School.
At the same time, along with fellow teacher Frances Shayle George and feminist Mary Colclough, Sophia Stothard campaigned publicly for the establishment of a state secondary school for girls in Auckland. Auckland Grammar School, for boys, had opened in 1869, but no provision had been made for girls' education. In June 1873 Sophia Stothard presented to the Auckland Board of Education a plan for an 'Auckland Ladies' College and Grammar School for Superior Female Education'. Her proposed course of instruction included English, arithmetic, sciences, geography and history, needlework, music, art and languages. The school would offer up to 30 scholarships, and would provide a supply of women teachers until a separate training institution was established.
The board deferred the proposal. There followed a bureaucratic wrangle over the diversion of designated grammar school funds, which, it was argued, were intended for boys. In March 1874 Frances Shayle George presented a similar plan for a girls' high school. Legal impediments to the provision of board funds were removed by an amendment to the provincial council's Education Act that year. By this time, however, Sophia Stothard had left Auckland for Christchurch, to teach at the Wesleyan School in Durham Street. Later that year she took charge of this school when it became the girls' department of the newly established West Christchurch Borough School.
When the Auckland Board of Education finally agreed, in 1876, to establish the 'Auckland Girls' Training and High School', Sophia Stothard was invited to be the first principal. She opened the Auckland Girls' High School in January 1877, in buildings leased from the Wesley College Trust Board, in Upper Queen Street. Initially there were some sixty pupils and a training class of up to five young women at the school. The influx of more pupils during the year, many with inadequate grounding, added to the existing problems of unsuitable premises, poor equipment and meagre funding. An adverse inspection report at the end of the year, which strongly criticised the training class, appears to have taken insufficient account of these difficulties. The board decided that administration would be better in the hands of a man, and in April 1878 Sophia Stothard agreed to resign.
The board's decision was out of step with the experience of teaching institutions in England and in other New Zealand towns, where women were already established as leading educationalists. Some board members had been antagonised by Sophia Stothard, who appeared to encourage social distinctions. Others opposed secondary education in general as an inappropriate luxury in a society aspiring to egalitarianism. Although the board had failed to recognise Sophia Stothard's worth, the provision of state-controlled secondary education for girls in Auckland in 1877 was attributable in part to her advocacy.
After her resignation Sophia Stothard returned to private teaching, first in Nelson and then in Napier. In 1891 she applied unsuccessfully for a teaching position with the Auckland Board of Education. She retired to Auckland, where she was an active supporter of the Anglican church and its missions until her death on 29 August 1901. She had never married, and left no children.