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Hetherington, Jessie Isabel


Headmistress, lecturer, school inspector

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

Jessie Isabel Hetherington, the first woman to be an inspector of secondary schools in New Zealand, was born at Thames on 2 January 1882 to Rebecca Brown and her husband, Samuel Hetherington, both of whom had been born in northern Ireland. Samuel, a draper, was moderately prosperous and Jessie grew up in an educated family with books and music. She attended Thames High School for two years, transferring to Prince Albert College, Auckland, after her mother's death in 1896. She continued to board at this Methodist school when she attended Auckland University College. In 1902 she gained a BA and then studied law. She was active in the Korero Club, where women students practised debating.

Jessie Hetherington sailed for England in 1904 and attended Girton College, University of Cambridge, where she continued her studies in law. During her first year, as the only woman law student she had to be chaperoned at lectures and was left out of informal tutorials. Like other women at Cambridge she was not granted the degree which she had earned but received an MA from Trinity College, University of Dublin, on the strength of her work at Cambridge. In spite of this, she was grateful for the rest of her life for the experience of studying at Cambridge.

In 1906 Jessie Hetherington was appointed an assistant mistress at Blackburn High School for girls in Lancashire. During her time in Blackburn she was involved in the campaign for women's suffrage. In 1909 she was made headmistress of Burwood Ladies' College in Sydney, Australia. She found the position difficult because she had no access to the board of governors and had to contend with opposition from some older members of staff who resented the changes she made to the established system. After three years Hetherington went back to England and gained a diploma in education at St Mary's College, London. In 1913 she took up an assistant lectureship for the 1913–14 academic year at the Cambridge Secondary Training College for Women.

After returning to New Zealand in 1914, Jessie Hetherington was appointed tutor and librarian at Wellington Teachers' Training College. She began working at the college in 1915. From the beginning she was required to lecture in English, history and teaching methods, and eventually achieved a full lectureship. Between 1919 and 1923 she also lectured at Victoria University College on the history of education. She had a particular responsibility for women students at the training college, and they often resented what one called 'her terrifying rectitude'. Hetherington personally measured their skirts to ensure that they were no more than 10 inches from the ground, while her attempts to give them sex education confused and embarrassed both the students and herself.

Jessie Hetherington applied for the vice principalship of Wellington Teachers' Training College in 1923. She was very well qualified for the position and had previously spoken out for the appointment of a senior woman to the staff. However, on hearing that it had been decided that applications from women would not be considered, she resigned from the college staff. For the next 2½ years she survived on her savings, on money from insurance, and editing, but chiefly through the financial support of a sister. After historical research in libraries in New Zealand and Australia, she published in 1926 and 1927 a two-volume work, New Zealand: its political connection with Great Britain.

In 1926 Jessie Hetherington became the first woman to be appointed a full inspector of secondary schools. For about two-thirds of the school year she travelled widely, visiting every girls' school and half the co-educational schools in the country. She supported the move to relax the constraints of the university matriculation examination, and advocated the use of phonetics in the teaching of French. She also worked through the inspectorate to build links between primary and secondary schools.

Jessie Hetherington was an enthusiastic traveller who regarded travel as a means of gaining new and useful knowledge. During a trip in 1937 she visited India, Europe and Britain and reported to the Department of Education on the schools she had seen. To her great joy she had a seat in Westminster Abbey for the coronation of King George VI.

After her retirement to Auckland in 1942, Hetherington continued her strong involvement in education and in women's interests. She lectured to the Workers' Educational Association for two years and was active in the New Zealand Federation of University Women and on the National Council of Adult Education. She was also a member of the Auckland Grammar School Board from 1945 to 1953, showing a particular concern for Auckland Girls' Grammar School. This work, she said, gave her a view of schools 'from the other side of the curtain'. Hetherington's unpublished autobiography reveals a woman of determination and high moral principles who devoted her life to education. Jessie Hetherington died in Auckland on 28 February 1971 in her 90th year. She had never married.

How to cite this page:

Beryl Hughes. 'Hetherington, Jessie Isabel', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3h20/hetherington-jessie-isabel (accessed 13 July 2024)