Gwendolen Lucy Alley was born in Springfield, North Canterbury, on 16 November 1894, one of seven children of Frederick James Alley and his English-born wife, Clara Maria Buckingham. Frederick Alley was a primary school teacher but also owned a small farm at Castlerock in Southland. When Gwen was three the family moved to Amberley. She grew up in an atmosphere of intellectual and literary interests. Several of her siblings achieved distinction: Rewi became noted for his educational work in China, and Geoffrey ended a distinguished career as the country’s first national librarian.
Gwen Alley understood her father’s strongly held moral views and aspirations for his children but thought that he was somewhat harsh, especially to the boys. Her mother protected the children from his more unreasonable demands. The family was not wealthy, the farm tending to drain rather than augment their income, but Clara Alley maintained the taste and style she had brought with her from England. Gwen was always very small, with fair hair and bright blue eyes. She was also clever, imaginative, daring and independent.
When Gwen was 12 the family moved to Riccarton, Christchurch. She had attended the local school in Amberley, but now her father kept her at home to help her pregnant mother; he taught her himself until, at 14, she entered Christchurch Girls’ High School. After high school she became a pupil-teacher. In 1915 she entered Christchurch Training College and studied part time at Canterbury College, but did not complete a degree. She was greatly influenced by the ideas of progressive educators and believed that schooling should be child-centred. At East Christchurch School in 1917 she included art, drama, singing and movement in her teaching. She also contributed to a series of arithmetic books compiled by the headmaster, Hugh Wake.
In 1920–21 she attended a WEA summer school at Oxford in Canterbury. There Gwen Alley was inspired by James Shelley, professor of education at Canterbury College, who had a special interest in adult education. In 1921 she went to teach at Oxford East District High School. As infant mistress she put into practice her ideas about free expression and the psychological value of play. She wrote reading booklets, a reading guide for teachers, and several history books for young children.
When a vacancy requiring the ability to teach adult classes occurred in the school’s secondary department, Alley suggested Hugh Crawford Dixon Somerset, a fellow training college student. He had been crippled by osteoarthritis and could not obtain a teacher’s certificate. His appointment as a relieving teacher began a remarkable partnership in which Gwen and Crawford pioneered community education in New Zealand. At Shelley’s suggestion they made a sociological study of Oxford, although when it was published as Littledene (1938) her contribution was not acknowledged.
Gwen and Crawford were married at Riccarton on 15 January 1930; they had two sons, Anthony and David. In 1935 the Somersets were awarded a joint Carnegie fellowship which allowed them to spend 1936–37 in Europe, Britain and the United States. They studied adult education, including rural high schools, and Gwen made a special study of nursery schools. She also collected specifications for educational play materials which later became incorporated in New Zealand preschools.
In 1938 the Somersets were invited by L. J. Wild, principal of Feilding Agricultural High School, to establish an adult education and community centre to be attached to the school. Gwen led adult groups in a range of subjects and produced plays. She established a nursery school run on free-play principles and introduced mothers and high school girls to child study.
In 1948 Crawford Somerset took up a position in the Department of Education at Victoria University College. Gwen now found herself without a professional position. She was appointed a member of the university’s Regional Council of Adult Education and the Education Committee and Advisory Education Committee of the Wellington Free Kindergarten Association. At the suggestion of Beatrice Beeby, one of the founders of the playcentre movement, she became president of the New Zealand Federation of Nursery Play Centres’ Associations (1948–52) and was then dominion adviser.
As director of training for the Wellington playcentres, Gwen Somerset established a demonstration centre. She started a newsletter which became the federation’s journal and which she edited until 1969. Some modest pamphlets she had written to train supervisors and parent helpers developed into texts which, revised and expanded many times, became used throughout the playcentre movement. She wrote material about play, child development and families, as well as poems on these themes. In the early 1950s Gwen Somerset was one of the prime movers in the foundation of an Association for the Study of Early Childhood. She was a founding member of the Family Life Education Council, and was active in the National Council of Women of New Zealand, YWCA and CORSO.
Crawford Somerset died in May 1968. In 1970 Gwen went to Nairobi where her daughter-in-law Betty (Anthony’s wife) was gravely ill. When she died, Gwen stayed to help care for her three young grandchildren. She returned to Wellington in 1972. There she revised her playcentre books and offered remedial reading to pupils attending the alternative school run by her other daughter-in-law, Andriani (David’s wife). She also directed the children in a dramatic production. Her book Vital play in early childhood was published in 1976.
Gwen Somerset was appointed an MBE in 1965 and was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws by Victoria University of Wellington in 1975; she was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from the university. Her autobiography was published in 1988. She intended to write more but died in Wellington on 31 October 1988, survived by her two sons.
Gwen Somerset had a distinguished career as a progressive teacher of young children in primary school, as an adult educator, and as a pioneer of free play in preschool education. Her lectures and her writing inspired generations of playcentre members and shaped their beliefs and practices.