In Defense of the Christchurch Girl

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Miss Rachel Ross
Miss Rachel Ross of Riccarton, studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In 1890 she obtained her teaching certificate, with special marks for her knowledge of harmony and courterpoint. She returned to New Zealand in 1893 and became a teacher of piano, organ and harmony, and sub-organist at the Cathedral. Image: The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Canterbury Provincial District
The Christchurch Girl

According to the Press, feeble out of doors, useless in domestic duties, the Christchurch girl’s most deplorable feature is her absolute lack of brains and mental culture. She is not only weak, clumsy and ill-dressed, but absolutely ignorant and stupid. Poor girl! There are not half a dozen young women in the town (we read) who know that Lord Salisbury is Premier of England, or Mr Ballance of New Zealand.

The Christchurch maiden never reads a newspaper, English or Colonial. No, she reads nothing except novels bound in yellow (cheap trashy novels). “If we were to ask such a girl,” says our critic, “with admirable gravity, if Shakespeare had any new plays recently, she would take the question quite seriously, and answer that she was not quite sure. Why this painful mediocrity?”

Helen Connon
The Lady Principal of Christchurch Girls’ High School, Helen Macmillan Brown, nee Connon, may well have taken exception at the Press’ portrayal of Christchurch girls, many of whom were under her tutelage. She had been Canterbury College’s first female student, and became the first woman in the British Empire to win a degree with honours. In 1890, two of her students were awarded NZ University Junior Scholarships. The same year, four women graduated with an M.A. from Canterbury College. Image: Cantebury Museum.

The Press’ article has excited a good deal of controversy –  just what the writer wanted perhaps. The correspondence columns of the paper are now well supplied with letters of absorbing, if temporary, interest, and a sensation has been created in perhaps a few circles – for it must be remembered that the Press circulates most freely amongst people of means and position.

The (Lyttelton) Times, the organ of the working man, essays to defend the Christchurch maidens of degree. The average Christchurch lady, says the Times,

“has her faults, but they are curiously unlike those attributed to her. So far from being feeble physically, her riding, walking, rowing, tennis-playing, and dancing are distinctly above the average attained to by the English girls in towns of the size of Christchurch.

Putting relative excellence on one side, they are positively good. Our Christchurch girls are not, indeed, as stylishly dressed as though they had passed through the hands of the best London and Paris dress-makers. But they are too poor to import dresses from Worth’s (English born Parisian designer during the late 1880s), and no sensible person, would sneer at them on that account.

They are not all as clever as Miss Fawcett (Philippa Fawcett, the first woman to obtain the top score in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams), perhaps, or as learned as Miss Ramsay (Agnata Frances Ramsay who in 1887 attained the highest marks in the Classical Tripos at Cambridge), but those ladies are solitary stars even in the great firmament of English intellect. Many of our Christchurch girls show a bright intelligence, which often puts their male friends, to shame. They read fairly widely, and are really anxious to be decently well informed on the topics of the hour. If their education is not always first-rate that is rather the fault or misfortune of their parents. We have the pleasure of knowing many of them who are as good as they are agreeable, and who are as patient and helpful at home as they are lively and charming abroad.”

“As for the dancing, we can only suggest that our critic should find – if he can – some Christchurch maiden willing to be his partner in a running polka. Let him thereafter mop his perspiring brow and ask himself what he meant by talking about the mildness of her dancing’s excellence. Then he might venture to talk to her about something a little above ‘small gossip and mild slander.’ We venture to say that if he managed to talk intelligently he would find that he had a sensible and agreeable companion.” [endnote Poverty Bay Herald, Volume XVIII, Issue 6063, 9 May 1891, Page 3]

The Press Friday April 24, 1891
Members of the Atalanta Cycle Club 1892
Members of a Christchurch ladies cycle group, the Atalanta Club, circa 1890, include pictured here, Miss Blanche Lough, Captain (standing centre); Mrs Alice Meredith Burn (Hon. Secretary), pictured on the right; Miss Bertha Lough, pictured seated in the centre. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference CCL PhotoCD 5, IMG0054

Why is it that young ladies who move in what they are pleased to call society in Christchurch do nothing well.

We venture to say that hardly any of them really excel at anything. They dance, they row, they play tennis, they walk, they read, they write (some of the rather imperfectly though showing some originality in the matter of spelling), but they never attain to anything but the mildest degree of excellence in any such or the like pursuits.

The average English girl would put the best of ours to shame.

In Christchurch if a man cannot talk small gossip and mild slander he is at a loss what to say when in conversation with young ladies. They never read the newspapers, wither English or colonial.

Even in matters of dress…, the Christchurch girl is behind the age. She is truth to tell, often a sad dowdy.

We think this mediocrity of which we complain is to be attributed to a lack of ambition, which is, perhaps, brought about by our distance from the great world of Europe…

We are afraid we will incur a good deal of odium for the hard things we have said of Christchurch society, but if our young ladies do not look to it, they will find themselves beaten in the race for life by their sisters of a lower social stratum, who are making good use of the educational advantages which are open to all in this colony, and are thereby acquiring knowledge and refinement which those of better birth but with emptier heads sadly lack.

Rosetta Rhodes
Rosetta Rhodes, niece of William Sefton Moorhouse, pictured here in 1901, married Arthur Edgar Gravenor Rhodes at a “very fashionably attended wedding” celebrated in Waimate on 10 February, 1892. Source: The Weekly Press, 8 May 1901. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, PhotoCD 5, IMG0073.
Extracted Letters to the Editor at the Press:

“When in England a short time since, after an absence of many years, I was much struck with the difference in style, dress, an intelligence of the ladies met with in an English drawing-room and the same class in New Zealand generally. It is indeed very hard to find among the young ladies here one who has any sense at all, the whole of their thoughts seem bent on frivolity generally. ”

“Since reading your leader of Friday last I have come to the conclusion… that when you wrote your article on the Christchurch society girl you were suffering from one of two things, viz, a disappointment in love, or a bad attack of indigestion.”

“…roughly speaking, twenty years ago the average English girl was as empty headed, uneducated, and incomplete as you tax our girls with being.” May I ask, Mr Editor, what you are doing to make our girls more noble, you who have so much in your power! Do you claim that there is anything elevating in the reading which is devoted to “The Ladies” in your weekly issue?”

“The mental horizon of the average Christchurch girl does not extend beyond a radius of fifty or a hundred miles from her own immediate surroundings. Of all that goes on outside that little circle in the great worlds of art, politics, and literature, she remains for the most part in blissful ignorance; her mind, such as it is, being sufficiently exercised by the schemes and scandals of her own little social whirl. “

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