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Early New Zealand education at Turakina

Dorothy - 20/10/06

The Rev. John Ross, was minister in the Turakina parish 1871-1903 and founded a school with the help of his wife. This school later became the Turakina Maori Girls’ Schoolistoryhistory.

The Rev. Malcolm W. Wilson’s book, “Turakina: The Story of a Country Parish 1852-1952” was written to celebrate the anniversary of the parish and I found it gave a very interesting picture of an early rural settlement – the way of life and the development of facilities.

The Rev. John Ross was the fifth minister of the parish of Turakina. His predecessors stayed only a short time and it is in a way surprising that he stayed so long in a country parish as he was a keen scholar who maintained his intellectual interests all this life. He was an enlightened educationalist, was active in community affairs and a faithful pastor, and could no doubt have become a leader in a larger sphere like his brother William who served in the ministry in Scotland in the working class district of Cowcaddens in Glasgow and earned widespread fame for his evangelical preaching and his pastoral work.

John Ross was born at Caithness in the north of Scotland in 1829. He studied for four years at the University of Edinburgh and then for four years at New College, Edinburgh, the Theological College of the Free Church of Scotland. He was licensed as a preacher by the Presbytery of Tain, Rosshire, in 1866. In the same year he married Williamina Duff Wallace and emigrated to New Zealand sailing in the “Resolute” and arriving in Port Chalmers, the port of Dunedin. He was ordained in Masterton in the North Island and served in a huge parish in the Wairarapa before being called to Turakina in 1871. The township was then flourishing, but as the railway development favoured Marton and Wanganui as economic centres for the area the importance of Turakina declined.

In 1875 a large new two storied manse was built. It became the home for the Ross family of eleven children – eight girls and three boys, and was renowned for Mrs Ross’s gracious hospitality.

Schools in Turakina
In many places the Presbyterian Church was largely involved in the establishment of the village school. There was a primary school at Turakina, but the Presbyterian secondary school at Turakina is special in that the minister established it in the manse. This school won a well-deserved reputation for the high quality of its scholarship.

John Ross served on the Wellington Education Board and later the Wanganui Education Board and is recorded as having strongly resisted a move to cut religious teaching from public schools. In 1881 he was Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand.

The school in the manse was at first coeducational and then became a boarding school for girls only and called the “Turakina Ladies’ Classical School”. The basis was indeed classical, but the teaching methods were not old fashioned. John taught Latin through literature, and English through Shakespeare and the Bible. Mrs Ross taught needlework and other teachers taught crafts. In the 1890s the school offered courses in English, Latin, Greek, German, French, mathematics, music, drawing, singing, painting, callisthenics, and plain and fancy needlework.

Successful pupils
The success of the pupils is evidence of the quality of Mr Ross’s teaching. One of his sons gained first place in an educational competition. It was ironical that after his success he was disqualified because he was a pupil in a private school, and he did not receive the scholarship.

While the school was open to both boys and girls Murdoch Ross, Mr Ross’s oldest son, passed his Medical Preliminary examination.

In 1894 Flora Ross, the fourth daughter in the family, was placed fifth in the Junior University Scholarship list. She was the highest placed of all the North Island candidates and was first of all the entrants in Greek.

The manse was added to when Mr Ross established a boarding school.

Theological training at Turakina
For some years the manse was also the Theological College for the Presbyterian Church in the North Island as Mr Ross gave candidates for the ministry assistance with their studies before they completed their training at the theological hall in Dunedin.

Mrs Ross played an important role in the school.
Mrs Ross not only taught in the school but supervised life in the manse. One pupil in the school described life there. “We were like one large family, so lovingly were we all mothered by Mrs Ross.”

Turakina Maori Girls' School 1905
After Mr Ross’s retirement the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand bought the school in the manse and in 1905 it was opened by the Rt. Hon. R. J. Seddon as the “Turakina Maori Girls’ School.”

Move to Marton
In the early twenties new premises were needed and the school moved to a new building in Marton, now a much larger centre than Turakina. Another advantage in locating the school in Marton was that the town was on the Main Trunk railway and many of the pupils travelled to school by rail.

Turakina site for the first Health Camp
Turakina was the site of another venture destined to help New Zealand children – the first Health Camp. Dr Elizabeth Gunn was the School Medical Officer in the Wanganui Education Board’s district. She initiated the idea of a health camp which would give children who had poor health an opportunity of improvement through medical care, good food, fresh air, exercise and regular hours of sleep.

Mr B. P. Lethbridge lived at Ann Bank in the Turakina parish. He had married Catherine Duff Ross, the oldest daughter of the Rev. John Ross and they were active and generous supporters of the parish and the wider community. Dr Gunn enlisted Mr Lethbridge’s assistance with the establishment of the camp. He provided the land and paid for the building of an office, cookhouse, and bathhouse. He also supplied the camp with fuel, milk and meat. The children lived in tents on the site.

The camp at Ann Bank was so successful that others were opened around the country and they became part of the education system.

Later lives of the well educated Ross family

The eleven children in the Ross family made good use of the education they had received in the Turakina manse.
Catherine married B.P Lethbridge and supported him in his community activities.
Murdoch became a highly qualified doctor.
Mary was a governess until her marriage.
Jane was a teacher.
Flora took up her University Entrance scholarship and completed her BA before her marriage.
Charles was a farmer.
Janet studied music and gave piano recitals and continued her interest in music after she married.
Christina completed her MA and took up teaching until her marriage.
Williamina was a children’s nurse.
John completed his MA and then became a clergyman in Scotland.
Fanny completed an MA and worked as a teacher until her marriage.

The Rev. John Ross and his family contributed much to education in New Zealand from the 1870s for some sixty years.

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