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Freeman, Caroline


Teacher, school principal

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

Caroline Freeman was born in Yorkshire, England, probably about 1855 or 1856, the daughter of William Freeman, a farmer, and his second wife, Ann Holden. Her family came to New Zealand on the Nourmabal in 1858 and settled on a farm near Dunedin. Caroline was fortunate to receive her schooling at the single-room Green Island School under A. G. Allan. She was dux of the school in 1866 and its first pupil-teacher from 1868 to 1872. Early on she showed her ability as a teacher: the inspection report of 1869 commended the 'clever manner in which she handled the classes under her charge' as 'doing equal honour to herself and her teacher.' When she left, grateful parents presented her with a handsome desk and a brooch.

Between 1873 and 1877 Caroline Freeman taught at Caversham School in Dunedin, while also pursuing her studies towards matriculation. The move from pupil-teacher at a small rural school to infant mistress at a large and expanding urban one was a major career step – to the top position open to women in the primary service. Caversham School boasted an excellent academic record and an outstanding head, the genial William Milne, who strongly believed that higher education made better teachers, and encouraged his staff to undertake university study.

In 1878 Caroline Freeman became the first matriculated woman to enrol at the University of Otago. She continued to live at Green Island, walking the seven miles home after lectures: a gruelling schedule when the university session consisted of two 13-week terms with only a short break between. At length, failing health forced her to take rooms in Dunedin. The academic environment was also hostile. The professor of Classics, G. S. Sale, was known as a 'veritable ogre' to female students. One member of the staff commented publicly that had Caroline Freeman been a fighting man instead of a studious woman, she would have merited decoration for her 'pluck and perseverance'.

Caroline Freeman passed the first section of her BA (then examined in two parts) in 1881. She taught at Otago Girls' High School in this period, in 1882 as first assistant. In 1884 she commenced private 'classes for ladies', at which special attention was given to university and teachers' examinations, and took the final part of her degree. In 1885 she expanded her private classes to cover not only English literature (always her favourite) but Latin and mathematics as well.

The capping of Otago university's first woman graduate, on 27 August 1885, was a celebration of women's new educational opportunities. With 11 more women at various levels of their degree course, it was evident that Caroline Freeman's achievement would not long be unique. What was unique was that she had gained her degree without the support of a structured secondary education. As she accepted her diploma, and the Bowen essay prize which was open to all New Zealand undergraduates, fellow students clapped, cheered, threw bouquets on to the stage and burst into song. Dr William Brown of the Medical School then delivered a fine speech on higher education for women.

Caroline Freeman was already well known and respected in educational circles. She held the highest teaching certificate open to a BA, and the year after her graduation she opened her own school in Dunedin. Beginning modestly with four pupils in a disused hall, Girton College would achieve better premises, a roll of 60 and an associated boarding establishment. It was popular as a finishing school and gained a high reputation for scholarship. In 1897 a second Girton College was opened in Christchurch. This was a day school which soon rivalled the Dunedin college in size and outstripped it in elegance. It featured an imposing hall, a richly furnished library containing 2,000 volumes, and casts imported from London for the art class.

The aim of the two Girton Colleges was 'to teach girls to possess themselves and fit themselves for the battle of life', and to 'train teachers for the secondary schools.' This twin emphasis on moral guidance and academic achievement was clearly demonstrated at the schools' end-of-year ceremonies. In 1898, for example, parents were regaled with readings from Shakespeare, French conversation, an arithmetic lesson and readings from the psalms; prizes were awarded for a wide range of subjects. The tone of the principal's address on these occasions was always elevated. In 1894 she deplored the 'love of pleasure springing up among young people now-a-days', which had 'interfered with the work of the school.' She regularly impressed on her pupils the need for self-control and the claims of duty. 'The chief thing in teaching children', she maintained, 'was the influence of character on character.' She also liked to be fully in charge. Advertisements for the Christchurch school noted that she herself had trained her staff, and she justified her preference for private over public schools on the grounds that she was not encumbered by 'boards of guardians and such like bodies.'

For some years Caroline Freeman ran her two schools with a co-principal, Frances Ross, a foundation pupil of Girton College, Dunedin, who had returned as first assistant in 1891. Ross later took over the Dunedin school and remained its principal until it closed in 1914. In 1911 Caroline Freeman settled in Christchurch, possibly for health reasons. Early the next year she embarked on an extended recuperative voyage to England, accompanied by Hélène Cross, a Paris-trained teacher of French who had been her close associate and loyal friend for many years. Indirect evidence points to Freeman's having some sort of breakdown at this stage. Girton College was left in the competent hands of Mabel Brown, but an attempt by Freeman to resume partial control on her return proved unworkable, and Brown left to start her own school, apparently taking many Girton pupils with her.

Caroline Freeman was cared for by Hélène Cross until her death from a heart attack at her home in Christchurch, on 16 August 1914. She had never married. Her brilliance as a teacher and gifts as a public speaker were long remembered by her pupils, who erected a tombstone to 'The beloved teacher and guide of many of New Zealand's girls'. She was a woman of both charm and determination who, having struggled for her own education, devoted her talents to providing its benefits for others of her sex.

How to cite this page:

Dorothy Page. 'Freeman, Caroline', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2f26/freeman-caroline (accessed 23 April 2024)