Mere Haana Hall was born at Tauranga, probably in 1880 or 1881, the eldest of 11 children of Rangimakehu Ainsley and John James Henry Hall, clerk of the Resident Magistrate’s Court at Ōhinemutu. Mere’s father, who was English, had arrived in New Zealand in 1867 and joined the Armed Constabulary. Her mother was a daughter of Edward Ainsley and his wife Haana Ngaki Te Kāpaiwaho, and a grandchild of Te Kāpaiwaho, a chief of Ngāti Rangiwewehi. Mere also had connections with Ngāti Whakaue.
The Hall family, like many others in the area, chose to educate their children by placing them out at various boarding schools. In 1893 Mere was sent to Hukarere Native Girls’ School, Napier, which was then run by Anna Maria Williams and her sisters Lydia and Marianne. There she flourished, excelling academically. She was to be associated with the school for over 50 years; first as a pupil, then as a pupil-teacher and finally as principal.
After her final year of study, during which she was head prefect, Mere was made a pupil-teacher. She then attended Auckland Training College and became a qualified teacher in 1912. She rejoined the staff of Hukarere and in 1927 was appointed principal, succeeding her own teachers and mentors, Jane and Emily Bulstrode, who had been in charge of the school since 1900. She was the first and only pupil of Hukarere to become principal of the school, and the first Māori woman principal of a major secondary girls’ school in New Zealand. During her time at Hukarere she maintained close communication with her family, and was instrumental in many of her relations and others of Te Arawa deciding to attend the school. Mere’s family took great pride in her talent and her achievements.
As principal of Hukarere, Mere Hall upheld the school’s traditions and values, especially its connection with the Anglican church. Attendance at the nearby Ormond chapel was a central part of school routine, and emphasis was placed on discipline and domestic chores. There were, however, changes during the 1930s, notably a broadening of the curriculum and a greater acceptance of the worth of Māori culture. Some of these innovations resulted from changes to government policy, but Mere Hall was directly responsible for others. At that time the government attitude was that a knowledge of Māori language was unnecessary. Mere Hall rejected this, and she herself taught students Māori at an introductory level.
Mere Hall's vision of the role of Māori women in society challenged the status quo, and her writing indicates that she wanted her pupils to be more than just domestic workers or good homemakers. Earlier principals of Hukarere had urged Māori girls to train as nurses and teachers, but these attempts had largely failed because of a lack of official support. Mere Hall took up this cause again, encouraging her pupils to stay at school and prepare for entrance to training courses. As parents often could not afford to keep their daughters at secondary school for long, the award by the Department of Education of continuation scholarships for further secondary study assisted in making this vision a reality. Mere Hall also approached the Hukarere Old Girls’ Association and other sympathetic groups to fund private scholarships. In her final annual report she wrote with evident satisfaction: ‘In 1939 our first girls entered the Training College; and up to the present we have had twenty there…Many girls have taken up nursing in different hospitals…I am glad to say there are several waiting to begin training’.
During the 1930s and 1940s Mere Hall had to deal with some major setbacks in the administration of the school. The most dramatic was the Hawke’s Bay earthquake of 3 February 1931. The school buildings were extensively damaged but because there were no classes that day no-one was injured. However, the need for repairs, and concern about a possible recurrence, made it necessary to relocate the school to Ponsonby, Auckland, until the beginning of the 1932 academic year. The outbreak of the Second World War resulted in disruption to the education of some pupils who were tempted to leave school and take up war work. A few of those who had qualified for training as nurses were ‘manpowered’ into other jobs. These obstacles proved only temporary, however, and at the time of its diamond jubilee in August 1940 the school was able to celebrate its achievements at a reunion gathering. By then over 1,500 girls had been educated at Hukarere.
Mere Hall was admired and loved by her pupils, who remembered her as strict but very fair and warm-hearted. As teacher and principal she took a motherly interest in the girls and followed their careers after they had left school. From her own experience she understood the homesickness suffered by new girls and made special allowances for them. She fostered a family atmosphere and older girls were given the responsibility of looking after the younger ones until they settled in.
After her retirement at the end of 1944 Mere Hall lived in Rotorua in the house of former Hukarere principals Jane and Emily Bulstrode. She taught Māori at Rotorua High School, played the organ for church services at the Whakarewarewa mission and superintended the Sunday school there. Her contribution to the welfare of her people and to the community in general was recognised in 1952 when she was appointed an MBE.
Around 1958, Mere Hall’s health began to deteriorate and she returned to Napier. On 23 August 1966 she died; her tangihanga was held at Tarimano marae, Awahou. She was buried in the adjoining family urupa (cemetery), known as Puhirua.
Mere Haana Hall is notable not only for her achievements but also for the example she set. She established a proud tradition of scholarship and leadership which has since been followed by other outstanding Ngāti Rangiwewehi women.