Two sisters and a legacy. Waldorf education in New Zealand

By Nana Göbel, May 2020

Anthroposophy came to New Zealand as early as the second decade of the twentieth century through Emma Richmond. Her daughter, the teacher Rachel Crompton-Smith, together with her husband Bernard Crompton-Smith opened the small St George School in Havelock North in 1917 at which girls and boys were taught together, something extraordinary at that time. This impulse was taken up by Ethel Edwina Burbury and Ruth Nelson who founded the anthroposophical Taruna centre and a short time later the first Waldorf school in Hastings.

In 1928, the entrepreneur’s son and botanist Alfred Meebold (1863-1952), who had grown up in Heidenheim an der Brenz in southern Germany, visited New Zealand for the first time, staying with Rachel and Bernard Crompton-Smith in Havelock North. In 1938, Meebold left Europe with the intention of settling permanently in New Zealand. On the way there, however, the outbreak of the Second World War caught up with him and he found himself in an internet camp on Hawaii. He was held there and was not allowed to leave Honolulu until 1945. He left for New Zealand and from 1946 until his death in 1952 stayed with Ruth Nelson (1894-1977) and Ethel Edwina Burbury (1890-1978) in Taruna House in Havelock North. He used this time both for his own studies as well as for thorough anthroposophical study courses of which Brian Butler (died 2015), who subsequently became the general secretary of the Anthroposophical Society in New Zealand, was also a participant.

Ruth Nelson spent her school years at Woodford School, a school founded by Annie Mabel Hodge (1862-1938) with innovative educational ideas. The latter was also familiar with anthroposophy and during a trip to Europe with Rachel and Bernard Crompton-Smith as well as Mary Bauchop visited the Stuttgart Waldorf school in 1926. This visit probably confirmed her in her endeavours to offer artistic and craft subjects alongside the classic school subjects. It may be assumed that Ruth Nelson was made aware of Rudolf Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom through her. In any event, during an art study trip which Ruth Nelson took to Italy in 1922, she decided to include a detour to Dornach to hear Rudolf Steiner speak and meet him, something she also succeeded in doing. In 1935, during a second visit to Dornach together with her friend Edna Burbury, she heard again about the Stuttgart Waldorf school through Hermann von Baravalle. As a result, the two friends went to Stuttgart where they were allowed to sit in on lessons.

They were clearly so impressed by what they experienced there that they resolved to found a Waldorf school in New Zealand. Ethel Edwina (Edna) Burbury and Ruth Nelson not only possessed the strength of will but also sufficient means through a large legacy to develop an anthroposophical centre in New Zealand, something they succeeded in doing with Taruna House in Havelock North. Unfortunately the house was destroyed, shortly after it was completed, by an earthquake in 1931. The two ladies survived because one of them happened to be working in the garden at the time and the other had run out of the house to call her to the telephone. They saw their house collapse but rebuilt it quite quickly.

When they learnt in 1949 that Queenswood School in Hastings was for sale, they set up a foundation together with Ruth MacPherson, bought it and converted and renovated it. They asked Jean Stuart-Menteath (1898-1983), a teacher at the St George school in Havelock North from 1917 presumably until its closure who had trained at the Stuttgart Waldorf school, to join them as the principal of Queenswood School and to support the pupils who had been taught there for years. Over time they converted the existing school into a Waldorf school. At the time, that was the only realistic option because a new school with a different educational programme would not have received approval. In 1951, Kathleen Weston arrived with a training at Michael Hall School in England in her backpack and took on the kindergarten.

The two founders financed not just the purchase and conversion of the school but also the trips of European mentors such as John Benians and Roy Wilkinson. In 1962, Karl Ege, who began as a teacher at the Waldorf school in Stuttgart before moving to New York, took a trip to New Zealand to advise the school. This visit was of great importance for the six teachers and the eurythmist (Yves Muller, Stan Barnett, Janet Hodder, Helena Plumbe, Brian Butler, Erica Burris, Barbara Jackson, Linus McGregor McDonald). Because with one exception none of them had yet experienced a Waldorf teacher and were not at all certain that their ideas of a Waldorf school were accurate. Karl Ege was able to dispel their doubts, something that represented an important affirmation for the teachers. From then on they called the school Queenswood Steiner School and Karl Ege held a two-month deepening course for his colleagues.

Until the mid-1970s, the Waldorf school in Hastings had two kindergarten groups and seven classes. The catchment area of the school extended to all towns on this east-coast plain, that is from Napier through Hastings and Hawkes Bay to Havelock North. It was not until the mid-1970s that the development of an upper school began. Edwin Ayre (1912-1984) initiated the upper school in 1973/74. He was a highly gifted Waldorf teacher, came to Australia with many years of experience at the Waldorf schools in Edinburgh and Kings Langley, and loved the art of education in all its facets. He was invited to New Zealand as  mentor of the Hastings Steiner School, wove the various elements together and found the right teachers.

Edwin Ayre also founded the first Waldorf teacher training course in New Zealand, the Rudolf Steiner Educational Institute in Hastings. Carl Hoffmann extended the Institute to become Taruna College in Havelock North. New Zealand was thus able to offer its own Waldorf teacher training in the old residence of Ruth Nelson and Edna Burbury until into the 2010s.

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