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Story: Heap, Sarah

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Heap, Sarah


Physical education teacher

This biography, written by Margaret Hammer, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Sarah Miller was born in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, England, on 27 November 1870, the daughter of Elizabeth Ann Dixon and her husband, Henry Miller, a cheese factor. Nothing is known of Sarah's early life, but she was a schoolteacher when she married Henry Heap, a master saddler, on 30 March 1893 at Stalybridge, Lancashire. There do not seem to have been any children of the marriage. In 1904 or 1905 Sarah and Henry Heap emigrated to New Zealand. They settled in Auckland where Henry became an orchardist.

In New Zealand Sarah Heap soon developed a reputation as an expert drill mistress. Around 1907 she attempted to establish a physical training college for women in Auckland, but the scheme came to nothing and Heap pursued her own career as a teacher. By 1908 she was in charge of physical training at the Diocesan High School for Girls, Auckland, and in 1909 she was appointed visiting drill mistress at the Auckland Girls' Grammar School. At this stage she also taught part time at a number of other secondary schools including Mount Eden Collegiate. In 1910 she gave classes for girls at the YWCA and the following year began working as a part-time instructor in physical culture and swimming to women students at the Auckland Training College.

By 1912 Sarah Heap was regarded as the country's leading authority on the physical training of girls. In September that year she was appointed to a special committee set up to advise the minister of education on physical training in primary schools. Heap was the only female teacher on the committee and her expert advice helped shape the new scheme of physical education and compulsory medical inspection which was introduced into primary schools under the education acts of 1912 and 1914.

Sarah Heap ended her association with the Auckland Training College at the end of 1915 when her position at the Auckland Girls' Grammar School became full time. There she developed the most comprehensive system of physical training for secondary school girls in New Zealand. In addition to lessons in drill, where girls swung dumb-bells, marched and performed exercises to her piano accompaniment, she organised school games, took dancing classes and gave instruction in first aid and home nursing. From 1914 she introduced Saturday morning dance classes which included waltzing, jazz and the tango. These classes led to Friday night dancing lessons with senior pupils from Mount Albert Grammar School, supervised by a master and Sarah Heap.

In common with her counterparts in English girls' schools, Heap kept a close watch on the health of her pupils, conducting annual physical examinations and administering special courses in remedial exercises whenever necessary. During the First World War she was responsible for training the grammar school squad of the Women's National Reserve of New Zealand. She also began a unique experiment in teacher training, which involved a number of the school's former pupils returning to train as assistants in physical culture and games. The scheme never received official support from the Department of Education but was the only form of training in physical education available to women in New Zealand for many years.

Sarah Heap retired in 1931. She was an independent-minded woman with a robust figure and a zest for life, affectionately known as Sallie by pupils and colleagues alike. She enjoyed good health for most of her later years and retained a close attachment to the school where, as the 'indefatigable drill mistress', she had exercised formidable authority for almost a quarter of a century. She died at Auckland on 14 July 1960. Her husband had died in 1940.

How to cite this page:

Margaret Hammer. 'Heap, Sarah', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3h12/heap-sarah (accessed 13 July 2024)