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Fraser, Mary Isabel


School principal, educationalist

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

Mary Isabel Fraser was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 20 March 1863. She was the daughter of Mary Austin Graham and her husband, Hugh Fraser, a saddler. Isabel, as she was known, was the eldest of three sisters: Margaret Helen (Nellie) was born in 1865, and Catherine Graham (Katie) in 1867. All three achieved academic success. Isabel undertook teacher training and completed a BA at the University of Otago in 1887. She graduated MA with honours in physics in 1889, the same year that Nellie graduated with top honours from the first intake of trainee nurses to Dunedin Hospital. Katie attended Otago university for one year, and in 1896 was appointed one of the first permanent teachers to the Church of Scotland's mission in Ichang, China.

Isabel Fraser taught at Seacliff School and George Street School, and in 1890 was appointed English mistress to Otago Girls' High School. In 1894 she succeeded Clementine Harrison as lady principal of Whanganui Girls' College. Under Isabel Fraser it became the largest girls' boarding school in New Zealand and pupils came from as far afield as Auckland and Dunedin. She was to be principal there for 17 years.

The school achieved academic excellence, but also promoted other activities which Isabel Fraser saw as an important part of girls' education. She encouraged her staff to teach by means of 'conversation classes': cramming was abhorrent to her and she deplored the pressure on girls who were sitting as many as seven outside examinations in the third term. Examinations, she considered, were for those who intended to enter the then restricted avenues of employment open to women. She believed in the importance of a good all-round education that would adequately equip those destined for a life of child-rearing and housekeeping. To this end she introduced cookery, first aid and dressmaking classes.

An advocate of the benefits of physical exercise, Isabel Fraser added basketball, tennis, hockey, cricket and gymnastics to the curriculum and appointed a sports mistress. By 1905 the school had its own large pool and every girl was taught swimming, life-saving and resuscitation. The arts were not neglected. Music was taught to an advanced level and both David Blair and David Edward Hutton gave drawing lessons at the school.

Whanganui Girls' College was seen as progressive, and an English educationalist, Miss Whitelaw, chose the school as the subject for a study; her observations were published in several journals. From the outset, however, both buildings and grounds were inadequate and Isabel Fraser spent much of her time, in addition to her teaching and administrative commitments, organising building projects and struggling to lease more land. In 1901, as a consequence of this strain, she tendered her resignation. It was refused and she was offered more staff, but the new teacher succumbed to tuberculosis. Finally, in 1903, she was granted leave of absence.

She travelled via Australia to Japan, where she met her sister, Katie Fraser. Together they visited mission schools and then went on to Ichang, in China. While there Isabel obtained seeds of Actinidia deliciosa. Back in Whanganui nurseryman Alexander Allison grew plants from these seeds, and from this experiment the worldwide kiwifruit industry developed.

Isabel Fraser returned to Whanganui in 1904, but from this time found it harder to maintain her own feminine views and methods in the face of opposition from the male-dominated Department of Education. She and her friend Walter Empson, head of Whanganui Collegiate School, agreed that education should be practical as well as academic, but this concept was not approved of in some quarters.

In February 1901 a conference of Presbyterian ministers had been held in Whanganui. Forty ministers inspected Whanganui Girls' College and met Isabel Fraser, among them Dr Alexander Whyte of Havelock North. Whyte's overriding concern was that Presbyterian girls from remote areas had to board at either Anglican or Catholic schools. His meeting with Isabel Fraser was decisive. He saw her as the ideal principal for a Presbyterian boarding school for girls, while she perceived an opportunity to implement her theories without interference. By 1910 the concept of the new school was an open secret: Isabel Fraser outlined prerequisites for location in a letter to the Reverend Andrew Cameron, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, and to Professor William Hewitson, head of Knox College, and offered her services as principal of the new school for five years without payment. She resigned as principal of Whanganui Girls' College at the end of 1910.

The new school, Iona College, was established at Havelock North; it was funded by subscriptions. The design of the school building was entrusted to the architectural firm of Rush and James, but Isabel Fraser's views were paramount: 'capable of easy extension.…Comely and comfortable but not extravagant would describe my ideal'. With its elegant fan-shaped building, Iona College was one of the most beautiful and practical schools of the period.

In 1912 and 1913 Isabel Fraser visited girls' schools in Britain to study their methods and facilities, and she began to recruit staff. The college opened in 1914, but was not registered with the Department of Education until 1916. During her first years as principal, Isabel Fraser was therefore free to implement her own curriculum and methods. She was helped by her sisters: Nellie Fraser, who in 1901 had married a widower, Archibald Fraser, became matron; and Katie Fraser returned from China and joined the teaching staff.

Isabel Fraser retired in 1921. Thereafter she and her sisters spent much time travelling in Europe before returning to settle in Dunedin. She never married. Isabel was described as dark-haired and blue-eyed, with delicate fair skin. Possessed of a fine intelligence, she had an absolute commitment to women's education and a genuine compassion for the girls in her care. Although she was very generous in large matters, she could be petty about small things, and within the family was something of a martinet. With her there were no half measures, and while she was not always liked she invariably commanded respect. Isabel Fraser died at Dunedin on 18 April 1942.

How to cite this page:

Judith Payne. 'Fraser, Mary Isabel', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2f23/fraser-mary-isabel (accessed 29 May 2024)