Marion Beatrice Thomson, founding principal of Solway Girls' College, was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, on 22 November 1877, the sixth of seven children of Andrew Thomson and his wife, Margaret Hamilton. Scottish by birth, the couple married in 1867 in Dunedin, where Andrew Thomson ran a successful drapery business until a near-fatal cable car accident in 1881 marked a turning point in the family's fortunes.
Marion, known affectionately as Minnie, attended Otago Girls' High School for only three years, before becoming a pupil-teacher. She took classes at the University of Otago in the evenings, supporting herself by private coaching and teaching. She qualified at Dunedin Training College in 1898, graduated MA with first-class honours in mental science in 1899 and entered the secondary teaching profession. She was one of a distinguished group of University of Otago women graduates of the 1890s, most of them former pupils of Otago Girls' High School and many with strong Presbyterian connections, who combined high academic achievement with a sense of Christian vocation. These women put their mark on girls' education in New Zealand in the new century.
Marion Thomson's teaching career took her to different parts of New Zealand. Two terms at Waitaki Girls' High School, Oamaru, were followed by six years (three as senior mistress) at Prince Albert College, Auckland, and two years as first assistant at Southland Girls' High School. In each school her principal was a University of Otago graduate.
In Dunedin on 26 January 1909 Marion Thomson married the Reverend Laurence Thompson and settled in to six busy years in the Presbyterian manse at Carterton. Two sons were born. Her teaching career appeared to be over, but when her husband became ill his brother, the Reverend A. T. Thompson, suggested she become principal of a proposed girls' boarding school in Wairarapa. At first appalled by the idea, Laurence acquiesced when a serious heart attack in 1915 made it clear he would have to give up the ministry.
Guarantors for the school found more than £2,000. They purchased Solway, a solid nine-roomed colonial homestead set in 18 acres near Masterton and surrounded by trees that suggested the school colours of silver and green. The Presbyterian church offered its moral (but not financial) support. The offer was not wholeheartedly welcomed by the Thompsons, who held that fee-charging schools were 'incompatible with the democratic principles of the Presbyterian Church'. However, it gave Marion Thompson the rare opportunity to expound her educational ideals before the General Assembly of the Church. She envisioned 'extending the borders of our home life to embrace all who should come to us in one family' and, with her husband, offering spiritual as well as academic direction to her pupils.
The three months before the school opened in February 1916 proved frustrating and laborious. Cleaning staff were unavailable, and the new headmistress, small, strong and determined, spent long hours in a sacking apron attacking with a scrubbing brush rooms that had suffered from recent use by convalescent soldiers.
The guarantors kept a tight rein. Parsimonious and patronising, they treated her as 'a penniless woman with a very sick husband and two small sons' whom they were providing with a means of livelihood. They allowed her a minimal staff for the new venture: a primary assistant, visiting music teacher, matron, cook-laundress, maid and outside handyman. Marion Thompson set up the curriculum for each subject, taught each day, hired all staff, kept the books and school records, organised the timetable and oversaw staff and students. In 1918 the school became incorporated and the guarantors were released, but their high-handed attitude, transferred to successive boards of governors, proved a challenge to Marion Thompson throughout her years at Solway College. She was astonished to learn, on her retirement, that they were nervous of her.
The school flourished. From 25 primary and secondary pupils in 1916 it grew to 61 in 1917 and 100 in 1918. It remained at about this level during Thompson's principalship, except for a decline in the depressed early 1930s. Buildings and facilities, courses and activities expanded. Hours of study, parents were assured, were strictly limited and personal fitness strongly encouraged. The students' day, which was fully timetabled from 6.15 a.m. until lights out at 9.15 p.m., included physical culture or a cold swim before breakfast.
The Thompson family helped provide the 'comfort and happiness of a refined home' promised by the 1917 prospectus. Contrary to expectation Laurence Thompson's health improved, and although he sometimes took charges elsewhere, he played an active part at Solway until his death in 1929. The Thompson children were also part of the school. A four-year-old son was tragically drowned there in 1916; a daughter was born in 1919. Marion Thompson was able to blend family and career in a unique way, but the achievement came at a heavy cost to the family life she held so dear.
In 1935 failing eyesight necessitated a major operation and in 1942 forced her retirement. Marion Thompson was blind by the time the frank and detailed memoir of her time at Solway, We built a school, was published in 1956; 'the school absorbed my life', she wrote in it, and this was the simple truth. She refused to let her blindness handicap her. When she was 80 she learned to type, and shortly before her death wrote a warm account of her own close-knit extended family. She lived with her daughter in Feilding, then Lower Hutt until her death there on 12 June 1964. She was survived by a son and a daughter.