Story: Burn, Margaret Gordon

Page 1 - Biography

Burn, Margaret Gordon

1825–1918

Teacher, school principal

This biography was written by Eileen Wallis and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993

Margaret Gordon Huie was born on 22 March 1825, at Edinburgh, Scotland, the eldest child of Eliza Gordon Edgar and her husband, Alexander Huie, an accountant. After private tuition Margaret attended Circus Place School senior classes and later studied languages with private tutors. She worked as a governess in Liverpool until the death of her father in 1852, whereupon Eliza Huie emigrated to Geelong, Victoria, Australia, with her eight children. Margaret opened a small private school there in that year.

On 24 December 1857, at Geelong, she married Andrew Burn, then a teacher at Scotch College, Melbourne, and later principal of the Presbyterian church school in Geelong. In 1864 he suffered severe sunstroke from which he never fully recovered, although he lived until 1892. To support herself and her three young children – Ann McLeod, Edgar Huie and David William Murray – Margaret Burn opened the very successful Geelong Ladies' College along the lines of Circus Place School. In 1870 she was chosen from 28 applicants for the position of lady principal of the Girls' Provincial School (later Otago Girls' High School) in Dunedin, New Zealand. She and her children arrived at Port Chalmers on the Gothenburg on 27 December 1870, and the school opened on 6 February 1871.

Slim, erect and of medium height, her rather prim manner covering great kindness, Margaret Burn was strict but scrupulously fair. An excellent teacher, she was clear and thorough, a good organiser, and also something of a diplomat judging by the good relations she quickly established with both the Otago Provincial Council and the citizens of Dunedin. This was in striking contrast to the rectors of the High School of Otago (later Otago Boys' High School), and achieved in the face of considerable initial prejudice. She was a staunch Presbyterian, and ensured that prayers and Bible reading formed a regular part of the school day.

The new school opened in that part of the boys' high school building in Dowling Street formerly used as their hostel; but although the buildings were impressive they were completely unsuited to the purpose. The two schools were kept strictly separate. Margaret Burn was also responsible for the boarding establishment on the same premises. By 1873 there were 19 boarders, including two from Auckland and four from Canterbury, but in 1881 boarding was discontinued in order to free dormitories for use as classrooms.

The roll grew rapidly. From 78 pupils on the first day with ages ranging from 9 to 18, by July the number had risen to 128. By 1876 the roll reached 195, its maximum for this period. The scope of the curriculum was wider than in most girls' schools; originally it included English, geography, history, arithmetic, French, and singing for all, with physics and botany for the most senior girls, and optional classes in German, needlework, knitting and music. Some subjects were taught by high school masters, although Margaret Burn took all the French. Later drill, more science, drawing, dancing, craftwork and Latin were introduced. The standard reached was remarkably high: as early as 1878 15 ex-pupils had themselves become teachers, and by 1884 five girls had won university junior scholarships.

The only major upset was in 1877. A dispute between William Norrie, rector of the High School of Otago, and the Education Board, escalated when Norrie resigned. A commission of inquiry was convened to investigate this specific grievance and also the management of both schools. In the course of the inquiry the commission heard Margaret Burn express concern about the proximity of the two schools, as she herself was no longer resident. The commission recommended the appointment of an assistant to the lady principal, the establishment of a separate high schools' board, and the removal of the boys' school to a new site on Arthur Street.

In 1884 Margaret Burn retired, but in 1887 accepted the position of lady principal of the new Waitaki Girls' High School in Oamaru. When the school opened in the Waitaki County Council Chambers she was sole teacher for nine girls aged 9 to 18 who were divided into three classes, the board considering that the numbers did not warrant assistance. She herself paid for the first part-time assistant and much of the equipment. Numbers rose at first and the curriculum was enlarged, but the roll later fluctuated and there was little demand for a boarding establishment. By the time she retired in 1892, the school, although still small, was firmly established.

Margaret Burn retired to Dunedin where she taught French and English privately. She lived mainly with members of her family and helped to raise the children of her son, Edgar, after the death of his wife in 1904. She died at Dunedin on 8 December 1918.