Alice Heron Maxwell's dedication to the preservation of the historic Te Papa mission station, at a time when few Pakeha New Zealanders realised the value of such sites, was both far-sighted and courageous. She was born on 9 October 1860 in Kilmore, Victoria, Australia, the daughter of the Reverend Andrew Maxwell, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, and his wife, Euphemia Ballingall Johnston. After Andrew Maxwell's death in 1865 Euphemia brought her two daughters and two sons to Wellington, New Zealand, where her brother, Alexander James Johnston, was a judge of the Supreme Court.
Alice made several visits to Tauranga to stay with her mother's sister, Christina, who in 1860 had become Archdeacon A. N. Brown's second wife. During an extended stay when she was 21, Alice learned many stories from the Browns about early years at Te Papa mission station, which they had purchased by 1873 and renamed The Elms. When Christina Brown died in 1887 she left The Elms to Euphemia Maxwell, on condition that she live there, and that on her death the property pass to Alice. Although Euphemia objected to leaving Wellington, she was persuaded to move to The Elms with her two daughters, Alice and Edith.
Euphemia strongly opposed the idea of her daughters' marrying. Edith did get engaged, but her fiancé was drowned in the wreck of the Wairarapa in 1894. Alice, too, had a suitor, but despite her brother Ebenezer's support, permission to marry was refused. It was believed that the brooch she wore throughout her life had been given to her by the suitor.
Although her mother, a firm Presbyterian, preferred to ignore the Anglican origins of The Elms, preservation of the history of the mission station was always of great importance to Alice. There was little money to spare and in 1913 the difficult decision was made to sell 14½ of the 17 acres of land. The proceeds enabled Alice to carry out some repairs and minor alterations to the mission buildings. Regular fundraising events were held at The Elms: for Dr Barnardo's Homes, for patriotic causes during the First World War and later for the Tauranga Girl Guide Company, of which Alice Maxwell was first president.
Euphemia died in 1919 and The Elms passed to Alice. From this time, Alice began to make alterations to the grounds. She had always been interested in gardening, and she and her sister had sold the flowers they grew to raise money for troops during the First World War. Now she planted native tree seedlings which she had obtained from the East Coast; the introduction of native species permanently changed the character of the garden.
In the mid 1920s Alice Maxwell began a long tradition of opening the property to anyone who wished to visit, freely sharing the stories she had heard from Archdeacon Brown. She continued to make improvements to the buildings and grounds, erecting a stone cairn to mark the site of the original raupo house. The chapel bell, brought out from England for Brown, was broken when Euphemia Maxwell lent it to the local Presbyterian church. It hung useless in the belfry for 30 years, until Alice arranged for it to be recast. The bell was re-dedicated on 29 November 1929 to mark the centenary of Brown's arrival in New Zealand.
After Edith Maxwell's death in April 1930 the preservation of The Elms became even more important to Alice and kept her going even when close to death. Once, when she was critically ill with pneumonia, the doctor expected the worst and filled out her death certificate, omitting only the time of death. When he called the next morning for that final detail, he found that Alice was still alive. A series of interviews about The Elms made for the National Broadcasting Service when she was in her early 80s was published in December 1942 under the title Memories of a mission house.
Alice Maxwell was fond of children, and loved by them in return. She had a strong sense of dignity and decorum, insisting that members of the public who wished to visit The Elms should be appropriately dressed. Photographs taken in her old age show a gentle face, with fine features.
When she died on 24 July 1949 she had lived at The Elms for over 60 years. The property passed to her nephew, Duff Heron Maxwell, who set up The Elms Trust. The mission station is as much a monument to her as it is to its founder, Archdeacon A. N. Brown.