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«Stuart Middleton General Manager Academic Services On a Tuesday afternoon in May 1986, I walked out of the Civic Theatre into a sunny Queen St and ...»

ACE Papers Special Edition Middleton 32


What’s in a Name? –

The Naming of the Sylvia Ashton-Warner Library at the

Auckland College of Education

Stuart Middleton

General Manager Academic Services

On a Tuesday afternoon in May 1986, I walked out of the Civic Theatre into a sunny

Queen St and thought ‘It isn’t right, something ought to be done.’ That night I wrote a brief proposal to the Management Team at the Auckland College of Education urging that the college library be named the Sylvia Ashton-Warner Library.

The film I had just seen was Sylvia, a Michael Firth film starring Eleanor David, Tom Wilkinson, Nigel Terry and Mary Regan based on the writings of Sylvia Ashton-Warner.

The fact that this important figure was invisible at the Auckland College of Education where she had trained as a teacher in 1928 to 1929 (when it was the Auckland Teachers Training College) just didn’t seem right.

My interest in Ashton-Warner was sparked in the late seventies by the urgings of a colleague Ian Mitchell with whom I had worked in various ways. He had written a piece about her in the professional journal Education [Mitchell, 1980 #11] and passionately believed that her thinking was central to our understanding of teaching in diverse settings.

The result of several summer’s reading was a paper, Releasing the Native Imagery, (Middleton, 1982) which I completed for the 1982 Conference of the New Zealand Association for the Teaching of English in Christchurch. This survey of her thinking and writing was written to serve as an easy introduction to her work. It was received well at the conference and I subsequently received a letter from Sylvia Ashton-Warner herself in which she described the summary of her work as ‘the most comprehensive and detailed I’ve seen…..Yours is the only summary I would call complete’ (Ashton-Warner, 1982).

33 Middleton Special Edition ACE Papers ______________________________________________________________________________________

A year spent in England shortly after that saw little further progress in my interest but on my return to the college in late 1983 I subsequently taught an Education Option course in the secondary Diploma of Teaching programme on The Educational Philosophy of Sylvia Ashton-Warner. The course was repeated in 1984 and the outline reveals that it drew heavily on her writing and in particular on Teacher (Ashton-Warner, 1980) and Spearpoint (Ashton-Warner, 1972) (which was subsequently published in a British edition as Teacher in America).

The film brought it all back. I was determined that something be done.

My memo to the Auckland College of Education Management Team shows in hindsightthe degree to which I expected others to simply respond positively to what I thought was a ‘good idea’. It turned out not to be so easy.

The memo follows:

–  –  –

The idea received a positive initial response from the Management Team, due in large part to the support for the idea from Peter Smith (Principal : Co-ordination) and Dennis McGrath (Principal : Secondary) who referred it to the Campus Library Committee chaired by Rae Munro (Dean of Secondary Teacher Education) who was also a positive sponsor of the proposal.

At that point a number of issues were raised and the reaction from the Library Committee seemed to weigh heavily against the proposal. Key objections revolved around the workload and expense of such a name change, the confusion that might be caused, the appropriateness of choosing Sylvia Ashton-Warner when others might be more deserving of such an honour, and so on.

This last issue was one that was to re-appear at pretty well every discussion in these early stages. I recall attending one meeting at which someone present made an impassioned speech proposing someone else for the honour. The response given by Peter Smith, who was chairing that particular meeting, was that the proposal was to name the library specifically after Sylvia Ashton-Warner not to open up a general investigation of suitable ACE Papers Special Edition Middleton 36 ______________________________________________________________________________________

names for it. My notes from that meeting indicate some frustration that I was feeling at the difficulties that seemed to me to be exaggerated in order to defeat the proposal.

Other issues seemed to me to easily resolved and I responded to the Management Team

with a further memo in July, making some additional points:

–  –  –

Good ideas have a power and with the key support from senior staff they won the day.

Rae Munro, Chair of the Library Committee subsequently advised the Auckland College of Education Council in November 1986 that the Management Team had resolved that the college library shall be named the ‘Sylvia Ashton-Warner Library’.

The memo noted that:

–  –  –

The council was advised that the family had donated to the library the books which were in the study of Sylvia Ashton-Warner at the time of her death and that they would form part of the way in which the library could honour her work through a special collection.

The council was further advised that a suitable occasion would be held to mark the naming and that this was likely to be in August 1987 as this would suit the family.

Between that time and August 1987 the family put into the safe-keeping of the college a collection of illustrations completed by Sylvia Ashton-Warner and donated a portrait of their mother.

The occasion turned into a four day event culminating in the ceremony of renaming the library conducted by the Governor General Sir Paul Reeves in the presence of members of the Sylvia Ashton-Warner family. The film Sylvia was screened each day and the library had prepared a display appropriate to the occasion. The tempo of the celebrations built up on the Thursday with a programme called Who was Sylvia Ashton-Warner? The Expressive Arts group, under the leadership of Sally Markham, had developed a presentation based on the paper Releasing the Native Imagery (Middleton, 1982). This was followed by a talk from Lynley Hood who was at that time writing a biography of Sylvia Ashton-Warner.

ACE Papers Special Edition Middleton 40 ______________________________________________________________________________________

Hood remembers the day.

–  –  –

In the evening a special meeting of the Auckland Reading association was held at the college where again Lynley Hood was the guest speaker. This evening was notable not only for the excellent and well-received speech but also for the presence of the person on whom the father in Bell Call (Ashton-Warner, 1971) was based. He spoke at length with me about how moved he had been and how he agreed with the analysis that Hood had put on events and actions in Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s life.

Hood also writes about the reaction of the family to the naming of the library.

–  –  –

The actual naming ceremony was one characterised by a sense of healing as different parts of the whanau gathered together as a result of the rather serendipitous fact that a current student at the college was in fact a member of the Maori side of Sylvia AshtonWarner’s family. There were other good things too such as the chance for family members to meet once again with the Opel of the books – a shadowy figure in the novels but less so in their lives.

41 Middleton Special Edition ACE Papers ______________________________________________________________________________________

Most importantly though was the sense of relief from the family that finally someone else was going to share the task of respecting the memory and keeping interest alive. At the ceremony Elliot Henderson spoke of the feeling they had that they were 'handing over the torch’.

Certainly the Auckland College of Education, in renaming its library the Sylvia AshtonWarner Library has established for all time a tangible and appropriate reminder that Sylvia Ashton-Warner had once started her life’s work at this college.

In the course of the 2000 academic year the Sylvia Ashton-Warner library was refurbished and its size more than doubled. A new wing was added and named the Dennis McGrath Wing after the former Principal: Secondary who had earlier so strongly supported the original proposal to name the library and who had gone on to be a distinguished Principal of the Auckland College of Education.

A highlight of the official opening of this ‘new’ library by the Prime Minister in 2001 was the opening of a permanent and professional exhibition on Sylvia Ashton-Warner in the library. Present on that occasion was a complete collection of the children, grandchildren and great-grand-children of Sylvia Ashton Warner.

As family gathered and members of the wider college community mingled the large pictures of Sylvia Ashton-Warner looked over the gathering and there was a sense that indeed she had passed this way.


Ashton-Warner, S. (1980). Teacher. London: Virago.

Ashton-Warner, S. (1982). Personal letter to Stuart Middleton, Auckland Ashton-Warner, S. (1971). Bell Call. London: Hale.

Ashton-Warner, S. (1972). Spearpoint. New York: Knopf.

Henderson. (1986). Personal letter to Rae Munro, Auckland.

Hood, L. (1990). Who is Sylvia? the Diary of a Biography. Dunedin: John McIndoe Ltd.

Middleton, S. (1982). Releasing the Native Imagery. English in Aotearoa(3).

Middleton, S. (1986a). Memo to Management Team of the Auckland College of Education, Auckland.

ACE Papers Special Edition Middleton 42 ______________________________________________________________________________________

Middleton, S. (1986b). Response to Management Team of the Auckland College of Education, Auckland.

Munro, R. (1986). Report to Council : Library Re-Naming. Auckland College of Education.

43 Middleton Special Edition ACE Papers ______________________________________________________________________________________

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