Story: Foster, Thomas Scholfield

Page 1 - Biography

Foster, Thomas Scholfield

1853–1918

School principal and inspector, university lecturer

This biography was written by Colin McGeorge and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Thomas Scholfield Foster was born in London, England, on 13 September 1853, the son of Thomas Wilberfoss Foster, a silk mercer, and his wife, Marian Wilkinson. The Fosters emigrated to Canterbury, New Zealand, in 1856 and settled in Rangiora where Thomas senior ran a hotel until his death in 1862. Thomas junior attended the Rangiora Church of England School. In 1866, having won a Junior Somes Scholarship, he entered Christ's College, which he attended until 1871.

Shortly after leaving school Foster was appointed master of an Anglican boys' school in Addington. When the West Christchurch Educational District was proclaimed in 1873, Foster's school, along with others, was taken over by the new committee and he became an assistant master at the main school.

Foster attended Canterbury Collegiate Union classes and was one of the first students of Canterbury College. Attending lectures part time, he gained a BA in 1881 and an MA with first-class honours in Latin and Greek in 1882. He was appointed an assistant master at Christchurch Boys' High School in 1881 and principal of Christchurch West School in 1882. Christchurch West flourished under Foster, providing an excellent primary education. The school developed standard seven classes which offered secondary subjects such as Latin, algebra and bookkeeping and attracted pupils from rural areas and other parts of the city.

On 29 August 1882 at Christchurch Foster married Emily Sophia Brittan, the senior woman teacher at Christchurch West and a former classmate at Canterbury College. Most women teachers resigned when they married, but Emily taught at Christchurch West until 1894 when she was appointed headmistress of Christchurch Girls' High School. She died on 30 December 1897.

In 1898 Joseph Grossmann, a friend and fellow teacher, mishandled share certificates Foster had entrusted to him and forged Foster's signature to a promissory note. After a series of court cases Grossmann went to prison and Foster, secure but shaken, recovered his property.

After 30 years at Christchurch West Foster became an inspector of schools for the North Canterbury Education Board in 1904. In 1912 he was appointed principal of the Christchurch Training College and lecturer in education at Canterbury College.

Foster served a wide variety of educational and community institutions and organisations. A lifelong association with Canterbury College saw him become a member of the board of governors (1893–94 and 1899–1912), president of the graduates' association (1894–1918), and chairman of the Court of Convocation of the University of New Zealand (1884–87). He was a foundation member of the New Zealand Educational Institute and its national treasurer (1894–96) and president (1898–99), and was active in other educational organisations. Involvement with the boy scout movement and the Christchurch Free Kindergarten Association was fitted alongside being president and patron of the Albion Rugby Football Club for 30 years. He held high office in Canterbury Freemasonry, and was a vestryman at the Church of St Michael and All Angels for many years.

Foster suffered a stroke in 1917 and after a lengthy leave of absence resigned his position as principal just before his death at Christchurch on 8 September 1918. He was survived by two daughters and a son. Foster's former pupils remembered him as a firm, thorough teacher rather than an inspiring one. He was a busy and highly competent principal and administrator. His rapid rise to become head of the colony's largest primary school, and the school's subsequent high reputation, depended on his hard-won academic qualifications and his industry and organising ability. He ran the training college with similar care and industry while lobbying for new premises he did not live to see.

A genial, stocky, active man of medium height, 'Tony' Foster made and kept many friends, was held in high regard by his fellow teachers and amply repaid the North Canterbury Education Board's early confidence in him.