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Story: King, Mary Harriet McGowan

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King, Mary Harriet McGowan


Teacher, principal, businesswoman, political activist

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

Mary Harriet McGowan King was born at Oamaru, North Otago, on 11 February 1884, the daughter of Mary McGowan and her husband, Thomas King, a storeman. She was outstanding at school. In 1896 she was dux of Oamaru North School and only two years later, senior dux at Waitaki Girls' High School. She also topped the Junior Scholarship list before enrolling as a student at the University of Otago. There she gained two senior scholarships and in 1906 took the MA degree with first-class honours in English and French. One of her professors claimed she was 'the ablest and most accomplished lady student that has ever attended Otago University'.

In 1907 King joined the staff at Southland Girls' High School, Invercargill. Her academic brilliance and lively enthusiasm soon marked her out for promotion. In 1909 she was appointed first assistant at the school and 10 years later its principal. The girls revered her. 'To study botany with Miss King was to learn to love nature'. Her English classes were 'magical', especially when she read, in her well-modulated voice, extracts from English literature.

In 1922 King began a record 23 years as principal of Otago Girls' High School, Dunedin. At first, orthodox parents and some senior staff members did not approve of the new principal's bobbed hair and fashionable light-coloured stockings, or her 'unladylike' behaviour, but soon her vitality flowed over into every aspect of school life. Although she was determined to maintain the school's high standard of scholarship, she also introduced courses better suited to girls with a practical bent.

The most memorable events during her principalship were the school entertainments. These reflected her love for drama, dancing and music. The most ambitious, 'The ballad of light and beauty', was written by King herself. These productions – along with school dances, musical evenings and parties – brightened the girls' lives during the rather grim interwar years.

King retired from teaching in January 1945. In their tribute, the Otago Boys' and Girls' High Schools Board said, 'Miss King has left the impress of her gifts on all the girls who have passed through her hands and on all who have been closely associated with her.' As well as teaching, she had lectured on literature for the WEA.

King had also pursued business and political interests, which she continued after her retirement. In 1930 she and her sister, Helen King, owned shares in Red Band Taxis, Dunedin. By 1946 the taxi operation had ceased and the company, renamed Redband Rental Cars, hired out cars instead. The sisters were the major shareholders. From 1963 Mary King controlled the company's affairs.

During the 1920s King had become interested in Major C. H. Douglas's social credit concepts. She was a theosophist and found in social credit, support for some of her beliefs, especially that of individual freedom. On 8 December 1931, under the auspices of the Douglas Credit Association, she lectured on the 'Just Price'. This drew a furious response from her school's board of governors, who accused her of a 'flagrant breach of trust'. Afterwards she was more circumspect about her political activities, although she figured prominently at the social credit camp at Ashhurst during Douglas's visit to New Zealand in 1934. After her retirement there was no need for reticence and her involvement increased.

King was a foundation member of the New Zealand Social Credit Political League when it was formed in 1953 as the political wing of the New Zealand Social Credit Association. She stood unsuccessfully as a league candidate in the Dunedin Central electorate in 1954 and 1957. With F. C. Jordan she prepared a submission for the 1955 Royal Commission on Monetary, Banking, and Credit Systems and presented this herself on behalf of the association. After his cross-examination, the chairman, Arthur Tyndall, commented on her 'almost Churchillian command of the English language'. She became national vice president, then president of the league, and in 1962 the position of president emeritus was especially created for her. She wrote a number of booklets explaining social credit's concepts and spoke throughout New Zealand and in Australia. She was on league business when she died in Te Kuiti on 27 June 1967. She had never married.

How to cite this page:

Leah Taylor. 'King, Mary Harriet McGowan', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4k14/king-mary-harriet-mcgowan (accessed 19 May 2022)