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Story: Irvine-Smith, Fanny Louise

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Irvine-Smith, Fanny Louise


Teacher, lecturer, writer

This biography, written by Julie Bremner, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Fanny Louise Smith, later known as Fanny Louise Irvine-Smith, was born at Napier on 10 September 1878. Her father, Thomas Smith, a master mariner, died after falling from the topmast of the Mohaka when Fanny was six months old. His wife, Margaret Isabella Smith (née Sproule), later married Max Bollinger, a police officer. Fanny, lively and intelligent, entertained her mother's much younger second family, with whom she lived for most of her life. They remembered her as 'ambitious' and 'extremely well read and exceptionally intelligent'.

She attended Wellington Girls' High School in Thorndon from 1892, and in 1895 won C. B. Izard's New Zealand History Prize. By 1897 her teaching career had begun nearby in Fitzherbert Terrace School, which had been founded by Mary Anne Swainson (and would eventually become Samuel Marsden Collegiate School). There were memorable class trips to the new New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in Whitmore Street and an environment that encouraged Irvine-Smith's absorption with words: she described the day-school headmistress, Mrs Henry Smith (formerly Mary Galway), as an able literary scholar and critic. As Fanny Irvine-Smith never married she was free to continue her teaching career, an option seldom available to married women in the early twentieth century. Her known postings were to New Plymouth and Kaimiro in Taranaki, and Waipawa in Hawke's Bay.

Fanny Irvine-Smith had continued her education and matriculated from New Plymouth in 1898. She passed her first year at Victoria College in 1901. The enrolment of up-country schoolteachers was a common practice at that time. In 1902 Irvine-Smith was a founding editor of the university magazine Spike. She graduated BA in 1908 and returned in 1920 to take her MA in history, graduating in 1921. After teaching at Waipawa District High School, she replaced Jessie Hetherington at Teachers' Training College, Wellington, where until 1932 she lectured in two rarely taught subjects: New Zealand history and Maori culture. Her untiring energy as critic, producer and president of the college drama club became legendary; much of the student acting talent fostered by Irvine-Smith was to enliven later productions by Wellington's amateur dramatic societies. She made a major contribution to the cultural life of the city.

Fanny Irvine-Smith impressed her students. 'Her tall and sweeping presence at first awed us', remembered one; another saw her as a 'soaring Wagnerian figure'; but they discovered she was vulnerable and easily hurt. She had dark blue eyes and a coronet of brown hair, and wore 'mysterious leather boots'; the boots were thought to protect a leg weakened by a hockey injury. She was a teacher who looked 'for the gold in everyone', a lively and succinct lecturer who savoured the significance and subtlety of words, 'her delivery clear as a bell'. She had a strong influence on the teachers of the next generation.

In The streets of my city (1948), Irvine-Smith broke new ground in the presentation of history by portraying Wellington's past through a tour of its streets, a study of how they were named, and some interesting anecdotes. Her scholarly research into the historical roots of Wellington's colonists was delivered in an entertaining, descriptive narrative. Her style differed from the more ponderous approach of her local predecessor, Louis Ward, whose Early Wellington had appeared in 1929.

Fanny Irvine-Smith died in Wellington on 20 December 1948 just as The streets of my city was being launched to outstanding success. It was an immediate sell-out and engendered civic pride. A further legacy was her successful effort to found a branch library at Khandallah, for which she had tirelessly undertaken the door-to-door trudge in search of signatures. Her memorial fund and royalties from the second edition continue to provide books for the library annually. 'Guard well your heritage' wrote Fanny in her 1948 preface – succinct writer to the end.

How to cite this page:

Julie Bremner. 'Irvine-Smith, Fanny Louise', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4i1/irvine-smith-fanny-louise (accessed 10 December 2023)