Page 1: Early life and marriage
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.
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.