Mary Ellen Bews achieved renown for her role as co-founder and principal of Mount Eden College, a private secondary school for girls which flourished in Auckland at the beginning of the twentieth century. She was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on 20 August 1856, the daughter of Ann Anderson and her husband, David Bews. Hers was a comfortable, middle-class upbringing. David Bews, a shipowner, could afford to send his daughter to Europe to complete her education, and during years of study in France and Germany May (as she was known) became a proficient linguist. In 1885 the Bews family left Scotland for New Zealand aboard the Aroha, and settled in Dunedin.
Most of May Bews's working life was spent in Auckland. She was on the teaching staff of a small private school in Wynyard Street in 1895 when she and her sister Kate, who was employed privately in Auckland as a governess, were approached to found a school of their own. This was an era in which the initiative for the provision of post-primary education in New Zealand was often taken by private individuals. Together with a third sister, Alice, from Dunedin, the women began their enterprise with the purchase of a small building in Owens Road, Epsom.
Mayfield opened in 1895 with just six pupils, but numbers increased rapidly, necessitating a move to larger premises in Stokes Road, Mount Eden, the following year, when the school was renamed Mount Eden College. By 1912, with 210 pupils, it had become the largest private school for girls in New Zealand, and was regarded as a model of its kind. It was commonly known as Miss Bews' or Bews' College, in testimony to May and her sister Alice who remained on the teaching staff. Both sisters are credited with creating the character of the school.
As principal of the college, May Bews promoted a form of education for girls which was regarded by contemporaries as far-sighted and innovative. A conventional range of academic and cultural subjects was taught, and Bews's initiative lay in her strict criteria for employing staff, her insistence on small classes, and her promotion of examinations. However, it was her advocacy of sport which was most warmly remembered by those who attended her school. Believing that involvement in physical culture would inculcate health, dexterity and a sense of social responsibility, she encouraged pupils to participate in a wide variety of sports: athletics, hockey, tennis, cricket, golf and swimming. The school was the first girls' college in Auckland to hold an annual sports day. This activity fostered a spirit of fun which earned Bews her pupils' affection.
The school was sold in 1914, becoming St Cuthbert's College. May Bews retired to Huapai, where she and her sisters, Kate and Alice, bred Jersey cattle, winning many prizes in district agricultural shows. They were also active in the Anglican church. May never married. She lived at Huapai until about two years before her death at Auckland on 29 March 1945.