Ellen Sarah Greenwood was born probably on 19 February 1837 in Mitcham, Surrey, England, and baptised there on 27 April. She was the second daughter and fifth child of Sarah Field and her husband, John Danforth Greenwood, a surgeon. After a financially disastrous business venture in France the Greenwoods decided to emigrate to New Zealand, and arrived in Nelson on the Phoebe on 29 March 1843.
The Greenwood family, which eventually included 13 children, were to settle at Motueka, where the family lived under canvas while they built their house. Although money was short and circumstances often adverse, theirs was a warm and cheerful family environment. A high priority was given to daily lessons in a variety of subjects, including mathematics, languages, music and art.
About 1860 Ellen Greenwood took a position as governess to the children of Governor Thomas Gore Browne and his wife, Harriet, in Auckland, and in Tasmania from 1861 to 1868. On her return to New Zealand she joined her mother, who had opened a school, Woodlands House, in Nelson, assisted by some of her daughters. In 1868 Mary, her eldest sister, moved to Wellington and opened a school for girls in Wellington Terrace (The Terrace). Ellen joined her about 1871, and opened her own day school in Taranaki Place (now part of Dixon Street). Ellen and Mary were helped by a number of their sisters, although eventually only the three unmarried sisters, Mary, Ellen and Annie, remained teaching.
By 1883 Ellen Greenwood had closed her school and rejoined her sisters on Wellington Terrace. On their retirement in 1886 the sisters were presented with a bag of sovereigns by more than 150 pupils and ex-pupils.
However, Ellen Greenwood's greatest contribution to her community was her work for the Wellington Ladies' Christian Association (WLCA), of which she was a founder member in 1878. This group visited prisons and did other charitable work, mainly with women and children. In 1879, after being approached by a woman in urgent need of shelter and care, she helped establish what became known as the Alexandra Home for Friendless Women, which by 1881 occupied a house in Hanson Street, Newtown. Homeless, destitute, ill, and unmarried pregnant women from all over New Zealand came to stay there for several months at a time, learning domestic and parenting skills. The home helped to place many of them in domestic employment. It was extended in 1887 in response to demand.
Ellen Greenwood was also instrumental in setting up and running the Levin Memorial Home for Girls (previously the Cottage Home for Girls) which opened in 1896 in Berhampore. Its purpose was to educate and train orphaned girls and young women. Both homes operated under the auspices of the WLCA. She was secretary of the WLCA from 1879 to 1899 and president from 1899 to 1916. She was president of both the Alexandra and Levin homes for several years until shortly before her death in Wellington on 29 November 1917.
Ellen Greenwood is representative of many nineteenth century women who were brought up in New Zealand, the children of immigrant parents who placed importance on education and concern for others. She was able to live as an independent single woman, and made an important contribution to organising charitable aid in a way which delivered effective help to women often ignored or rejected by society. She was remembered for 'her merry spirit & quick humour, – a good brain & well stored mind, & self discipline animated by deeply held religious principles.'