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Francis, Catherine Augusta


Teacher, headmistress

This biography, written by Rollo Arnold, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Catherine Augusta Jupp was born near Oxford Circus, London, England, on 16 September 1836. She was one of nine children of Catherine Healy and her husband, Edward Jupp, a tailor. On emigrating to South Australia with her parents in 1849 she became a pupil-teacher in Adelaide. State records of the early 1860s show her to have been a 'very able teacher' working in infant classes. On 28 March 1865, in Adelaide, she married George Francis, a post office clerk. When he died of alcoholism in November 1872 leaving her with two sons and two daughters, she returned to teaching.

Catherine Francis emigrated to Wellington, New Zealand, and on 25 February 1878 opened the new Mount Cook Infants' School in Tory Street. Robert Lee, the Wellington Education Board inspector, planned to have a first-rate infant school as a training centre for his district; Francis, as headmistress, did not disappoint him. Overcoming some early reservations concerning her innovative methods, she inaugurated a very successful infant school, drawing heavily on Friedrich Froebel's kindergarten philosophy. By 1879 about 500 infants attended the school. Her staff were mainly young pupil-teachers, who were usually moved on once her training had made them proficient. Older teachers from state and private schools came to observe for short periods.

There were also parliamentary and vice-regal visitors, as well as overseas visitors, including British school inspectors. Having seen many schools while visiting Britain in 1887, Lee reported that 'no where have I seen a school for young children better conducted than the Tory Street Infants' School'.

Catherine Francis's method included much singing, taught by the tonic sol-fa method, often combined with marching. She kept well abreast of new kindergarten activities and apparatus. She was a skilled user of the object lesson where every fact was 'demonstrated as far as possible by illustration.' Reading, writing and arithmetic were thoroughly taught using an astute combination of mass rote learning and individual tutoring. Special occasions included the annual Christmas party with a tree loaded with presents, many made by the staff. A former pupil remembered that Francis was 'a woman of amazing vitality, energy and enthusiasm'; at the Christmas breakup 'even the august chairman of the school committee had to play second fiddle to her'.

After training as pupil-teachers under Catherine Francis, her two daughters founded a private kindergarten in Everton Terrace in 1884. Francis retired in May 1905, continuing to live with her daughter Kate until her death in Wellington on 19 October 1916.

Catherine Francis was one of the few women to become fully independent heads of large primary schools in nineteeth century New Zealand. In her 27 years at Mount Cook Infants' School, 13,414 children were taught and 238 pupil-teachers trained under her supervision. She forwarded progressive infant methods throughout the Wellington Education Board district and beyond and took an active part in the work of the New Zealand Educational Institute, being the first woman to appear in its records, and the first to attend its annual conference. When asked at a royal commission in 1901 how she would react if she were placed under the control of a headmaster she replied, 'Thirty five years' teaching and then come to be an assistant teacher. I am afraid I should have to resign.' Francis worked to raise the status of women teachers and is remembered by her descendants as 'a woman of very strong character who had very definite views on the need for women to be able to earn their own living.'

How to cite this page:

Rollo Arnold. 'Francis, Catherine Augusta', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2f19/francis-catherine-augusta (accessed 19 July 2024)