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Ashton-Warner, Sylvia Constance


Educationalist, teacher, writer

This biography, written by Sue Middleton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.

Early life and marriage

Sylvia Constance Ashton Warner (whose pen-name was Sylvia Ashton-Warner) was born in Stratford, Taranaki, on 17 December 1908. Her father, Francis Ashton Warner, had arrived in New Zealand at the age of 16 in 1877. Although his family were poor, Francis thought of himself as a gentleman. For work, he tried various manual and clerical occupations. Sylvia’s mother, Margaret Maxwell, was the daughter of a blacksmith. Born in Mercer, near Auckland, in 1876, she began teaching at the age of 15. Margaret and Francis married in 1898. Shortly after, Francis fell ill with a painful arthritic condition and was never able to work again.

Sylvia was the sixth of 10 children born to the couple. The fifth child, also named Sylvia, survived only four days. The second Sylvia described herself as named after a ghost. Margaret supported the family by teaching in small, often sole-charge, rural schools. Her methods were rigid and punitive. She was often in conflict with inspectors of education and the family moved frequently.

Sylvia attended 10 primary schools and was often taught by her mother. After a term when she boarded with her oldest sister while attending Wellington Girls’ College, Sylvia completed her schooling at Masterton District High School.

Sylvia was a pupil teacher at Wellington South School (1926) and Wadestown School (1927). In 1928–29, she attended Auckland Teachers’ Training College, where she met her future husband, fellow student Keith Dawson Henderson. They married in Wellington on 23 August 1932. In the couple’s first years of marriage, Keith taught sole-charge schools in Taranaki and Sylvia gave birth to three children: Jasmine in 1935, Elliot in 1937 and Ashton in 1938.

At Sylvia’s suggestion, she and Keith applied to teach in the native school system, which taught Māori pupils. The couple took up their first position in 1938 at Horoera Native School, on the remote East Cape, 13 kilometres from Te Araroa. The isolation contributed to Sylvia suffering what was referred to at the time as a nervous breakdown. She was treated in Wellington by a neurologist, Donald Allen, who introduced her to psychoanalytic theory and encouraged her to write.

Teaching theory

In 1941 the family moved to Pipiriki in the Whanganui River valley, where Sylvia and Keith taught at the local native school. Here Sylvia practised the disciplined life of a writer. The diary she kept there would, two decades later, be published under the title Myself. It explored the competing rhythms of teaching, motherhood, married life, emotions and artistic creativity – painting, piano-playing and writing. Psychoanalytic influences on her teaching method were already evident in this diary.

In Pipiriki Sylvia began to develop the teaching theory for which she became known during and after the Second World War. At the heart of the scheme was the idea that literacy was best achieved when children expressed their experiences of fear and sex, the two great Freudian drives. In her infant room, these erupted to the surface by means of what she called captions (a child’s ‘key vocabulary’). The most powerful ‘key words’ were ‘ghost’ and ‘kiss’. According to her, ‘Any child, brown or white, on the first day, remembers these two words from One-Look.’ 1

Sylvia believed that venting fear and the destructive drive through the key vocabulary and other expressive arts could prevent violence and war. She explained: ‘I see the mind of a five-year old as a volcano with two vents; destructiveness and creativeness. And I see that to the extent that we widen the creative channel we atrophy the destructive one.’ 2

Although there is a common perception that her approach was met with hostility by authorities, it was in many ways consistent with the policies, if not the universal practices, in infant rooms. In the mid-1930s to 1940s, the New Zealand Department of Education, under the directorship of Clarence Beeby, promoted progressive or new education, an international movement informed by new social theories. It drew on psychoanalytic and psychological theories of individual child development, conceptualising schooling as socially transformative through the promotion of democratic and peaceful values. Douglas Ball, senior inspector of native schools, encouraged new education in native schools and advocated making the curriculum more relevant to life in Māori communities.


From 1945 to 1948 the Hendersons taught at Waiōmatatini Native School on the East Coast. Sylvia published short pieces in the periodicals Here and Now and the New Zealand Listener. The Here and Now article was the first on her teaching method. From 1949 to 1957 the couple taught at Fernhill School, Ōmāhu, near Hastings. Between December 1955 and October 1956, the first systematic account of Sylvia's teaching scheme appeared in eight parts in National Education, the magazine of the New Zealand Educational Institute. Inspectors and teachers’ college lecturers sympathetic to new education theories recommended these articles to students and practising teachers.

Sylvia published her articles using just her first name, but adopted 'Sylvia Ashton-Warner’ as a pen name when she began to write fiction. Her first novel, Spinster, a fictional account of a teacher developing her teaching scheme, was published in 1958. New York publisher Robert Gottlieb produced and championed Spinster’s American edition, which reached the New York Times best-seller list. The novel was chosen by Time magazine as one of the year’s best books and in 1961 was adapted into the feature film Two loves, starring Shirley MacLaine. The story of a passionate and artistic teacher of Māori children in a remote rural school, Spinster was translated into many languages.

When Keith Henderson was appointed headmaster of Bethlehem Māori School, near Tauranga, in 1957, Sylvia resigned from teaching to write full-time. Over the next 10 years she published five books: three novels (Incense to idols in 1960, Bell call in 1964 and Greenstone in 1966), the Pipiriki diary Myself (1967), and the influential Teacher (1963).

The first part of Teacher consisted of an edited version of the teaching scheme first published in National Education, and the second part took the form of a diary of classroom life. Renowned British art critic, poet and educationalist Sir Herbert Read wrote the foreword. Blurring genres between fiction and autobiography, Spinster and Teacher (and, later, the 1985 feature film Sylvia) centred on the creative teaching scheme Ashton-Warner developed in Māori schools in the 1940s and early 1950s.

In total Ashton-Warner published five novels, two books of short stories, two autobiographies and two non-fictional accounts of her educational theory.

Later years

Keith Henderson died in January 1969. That year, Ashton-Warner embarked on her first overseas travel. A period in London with her son Elliot and his wife Jacquemine inspired Ashton-Warner’s final novel, Three, in 1970. In late 1970 she took up an invitation to establish a community school in Aspen, Colorado, where she spent a year. Her final book about education, Spearpoint: ‘teacher’ in America, published in 1972, was her account of this experience. During 1972 and 1973 Ashton-Warner was employed at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, where she ran courses on her teaching methods. She wrote a book of short stories, O children of the world (1974) and started her autobiography, I passed this way (1979).

Sylvia Ashton-Warner returned to her Tauranga home, Whenua, in 1973. She led a secluded life and her health deteriorated. In 1978 educationist Jack Shallcrass interviewed her for a television documentary about her life and work. I passed this way won the New Zealand Book Award in 1980, and in 1982 Ashton-Warner received an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday honours list. Towards the end of her life she assisted with the screenplay for Sylvia, a feature film based on her autobiographical writing, released in 1985 shortly after her death. Ashton-Warner was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 1981 and died at home on 28 April 1984. In 1989 Lynley Hood’s biography, Sylvia!, which traces Ashton-Warner’s life and work, won first prize at the Goodman Fielder Wattie Book Awards.

Because of disciplinary boundaries, commentators on Ashton-Warner’s writing have studied it as either educational or literary, but not as both. Yet her work overflowed the boundaries of genre: her fiction was autobiographical and her autobiographies often fictional. Her educational theory was expressed in the form of novels (SpinsterBell call) or as autobiography (TeacherSpearpoint: 'teacher' in America). Her other novels, such as Greenstone, Incense to idols and Three, remain largely unknown to an educationalist audience.

Ashton-Warner often claimed to have been rejected and even persecuted by New Zealand’s educational and literary establishments. In an important essay on Ashton-Warner’s literary contribution, written in 1981, C. K. Stead compared her favourably with Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame and puzzled over her lack of visibility in the contemporary literary canon. In 2009 Emily Dobson published a reassessment of the New Zealand literary world’s responses to Ashton-Warner’s novels.

The impression that Ashton-Warner’s teaching method was met with hostility was supported in the films Two loves and Sylvia, and in writings by international educationalists. Challenging this, recent scholarship in education has highlighted the largely sympathetic professional context in which she formulated her educational ideas.

In 2008 a conference was held in the faculty of education at Auckland University to mark the centennial of Ashton-Warner’s birth, resulting in a collection of essays about her by literary experts, educationalists, former colleagues, publishers and family. This collection reprinted the National Education version of her teaching scheme. Apart from this, all her books remain out of print. Yet Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s teaching method continues to influence practitioners in schools around the world. Her legacy in literature is less certain.

  1. Sylvia Ashton-Warner, ‘Creative teaching scheme.’ In The kiss and the ghost: Sylvia Ashton-Warner and New Zealand, edited by Alison Jones and Sue Middleton. Wellington: NZCER Press, 2009, p. 29. Back
  2. The kiss and the ghost: Sylvia Ashton-Warner and New Zealand, p. 21. Back
How to cite this page:

Sue Middleton. 'Ashton-Warner, Sylvia Constance - Biography', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2010. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6a1/ashton-warner-sylvia-constance (accessed 22 June 2024)