Mary Etheldred Pulling was founding headmistress of the Diocesan High School for Girls in Auckland. Born at Belchamp St Paul, Essex, England, on 26 July 1871, and baptised Mary Etheldreda, she was the daughter of the Reverend James Pulling and his wife, Elizabeth Mary Hodgson. James was master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and vicar of Belchamp St Paul. Mary attended Truro Girls' High School, Cheltenham Ladies' College and the University of London. After gaining a first-class degree in English literature, Classics and mental science in 1892, she taught at Cheltenham Ladies' College and Lincoln High School for Girls, trained teachers at St Gabriel's College, Kensington, and St Mary's College, Paddington, and studied the administrative methods of leading English girls' schools. She also received training in embroidery and had a lifelong interest in design, drawing and architecture.
At the invitation of the Anglican bishop of Auckland, Moore Richard Neligan, she came to New Zealand in 1904 to establish a church school for girls. She brought with her an assistant, Beatrice Ward, and soon after their arrival in May 1904 the school was opened with 25 pupils. Mary Pulling set out to make Diocesan School equal to the best state schools, while rejecting their secular basis. The school's council, chaired by Edwin Mitchelson, envisaged an institution to be run along English lines, but as she learned more about the New Zealand Anglican inheritance Mary Pulling insisted that it was 'not to be a copy of an average English school, or an average American school, or an average Australian school, but to be the Auckland Diocesan School, embodying and passing on to the future the traditions and ideals of Auckland at its best'.
Despite a shaky financial start, Diocesan expanded during her tenure. Originally housed in two classrooms in an imposing residence on the Epsom site, the school eventually occupied a cluster of buildings. These included a hall for which, drawing on her artistic talent, she devised a detailed scheme of decoration. The St Barnabas Chapel, shifted from Bishopscourt in Parnell in 1910, was the focus of the school's religious life. Boarders were admitted from 1905 and in 1909 old girls held their first conference.
Mary Pulling's undoubted professional competence was enhanced by her personal qualities. With her neatly coiled hair, modulated voice, rejection of ostentation, gentle sense of humour and reserved manner, she provided her pupils with an example to which they might all aspire. Underpinning every facet of her life was a deep religious faith. She regarded her work in New Zealand as a missionary endeavour.
A keen student of Dante, she wrote a pageant illustrating his views on education which was performed by the pupils. She also produced a pageant based on the life and death of Bishop John Coleridge Patteson. Her literary skills were further employed in the writing of religious treatises, including a three-part work on Christian faith and sacraments, a book of Lenten meditations, a commentary on the virgin birth, and a manual for communicants.
By the time of her retirement in 1926 Mary Pulling had firmly established Diocesan High School for Girls on a firm footing with a growing roll, sound finances, and a high academic reputation. She had also played a prominent role in raising the professional standards of church schools throughout New Zealand, and had supported the foundation of an association of headmistresses of non-departmental schools.
In the following years she demonstrated the unusual depth of the religious commitment which had inspired her career. From 1930 she lived a reclusive life as Anchoress Mary Etheldred in the Waikato town of Cambridge, devoting her time to intercessional prayer and spiritual counselling for those who requested it. Towards the end of her life she suffered from cerebral arteriosclerosis, and died at Tokanui Hospital, Te Awamutu, on 24 March 1951. She never married and apparently had no close relatives in New Zealand. Her name lives on in Mary Pulling House at Diocesan School, and her spirit in a welcoming statue of Christ, dedicated to her memory, on the exterior of the east wall of the school chapel.