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Story: Hewett, Mary Elizabeth Grenside

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Hewett, Mary Elizabeth Grenside


School principal

This biography, written by Denis G. Revell, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Mary Elizabeth Grenside Hewett, the first principal of Napier Girls' High School, was born on 24 May 1857 at the parsonage, Thringstone, Leicestershire, England. She was the daughter of John William Hewett, an Anglican clergyman, and his wife, Elizabeth Grenside. She had a profoundly religious and scholarly upbringing. From 1874 to 1876 she attended Queen's College, Harley Street, London. In 1875 she was awarded the Twining Scholarship and in 1876 gained an associateship by examination. Although no university degrees were available to women at that time, it is likely that Mary attended lectures at the University of Oxford.

Mary Hewett emigrated to New Zealand, possibly because of ill health, and was employed briefly in 1883 at Otago Girls' High School as 'a substitute for the lady principal'. Early in 1883 the board of governors of Napier High School for boys, chaired by J. D. Ormond, a prominent Hawke's Bay politician and landowner, had expressed support for the establishment of a sister school. In May 1883 plans for the new school, to cost £2,000, were approved by the board; in August the position of principal was advertised at £300 per annum, including dwelling and boarding fees. Mary Hewett applied and was appointed on 1 December. Aged only 26, she opened the new Napier Girls' High School on 29 January 1884 with two staff and 39 pupils.

From the beginning, conducting the school was difficult. The board regarded the girls' school as subordinate to the boys', there was difficulty in getting funds to complete the buildings, and the belief persisted that high schools for girls were experimental. With dignity and determination, and strengthened by her religious faith, Hewett persevered. She soon earned the esteem, confidence and affection of staff, pupils, the board and the Napier community.

Mary Hewett held advanced theories on education for women at a time when they were educated primarily to become enlightened homemakers. At first the school curriculum consisted of subjects considered appropriate for young women – languages, drawing, singing and callisthenics. When Hewett introduced experimental science it was regarded as a radical innovation for a New Zealand girls' school, but other schools soon followed.

Mary Hewett was an attractive woman. She was dark, slender and always immaculately dressed. However, for many years she had suffered from a cardiac condition, and in July 1885 she was granted two months' sick leave on the advice of two doctors. Later, further sick leave was necessary. After eight years at the high school she resigned. Mary Hewett died of heart disease and tuberculosis at the age of 34 on 8 April 1892 at Napier, and was buried at sea off Napier the following day. She had not married. Her name is perpetuated in the school's boarding establishment, Hewett House. At Napier Girls' High School she had established a tradition of sound liberal scholarship and conduct based on Christian principles.

How to cite this page:

Denis G. Revell. 'Hewett, Mary Elizabeth Grenside', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2h32/hewett-mary-elizabeth-grenside (accessed 13 July 2024)