Me, the Tree, and Helen

I have been to many places in recent months, engaging with a  number of our city’s beautiful  trees, all the while forgetting, until today, that there is a tree in Christchurch with which  I am closely connected. The tree is a Liriodendron tulipifera and it was planted by myself and a friend on 22 October 2000, in the grounds of the Cathedral Grammar School, on Chester Street West.

The Tulip Tree is now 12 years taller;

Tulip Tree The tree was planted to commemorate the site of Helen Connon Hall.Commemorative Plaque It was the first and, so far, only time I have planted a commemorative tree, and it was a special occasion in my life. For a moment, I felt almost royal.

The tree planting idea came from  a wonderful group of women who organised a  successful reunion of “old students” of Helen Connon Hall; the university hall of residence once occupied the ground on which these school playing grounds now stand. And the games go on My friend and I lived at Helen Connon for one academic year, 1974, and that was its final year as a hall of residence, and its only year as a men’s and women’s residence. So, we represented the youngest and the last of the Hall’s occupants. (Not often that I get to be the youngest at an event!) It was the final year, not because we trashed it, although the shenanigans created by the excitement of a mixed residence were plenty, but because the university had completed its move from the central city to its new site at Ilam. The town facilities were no longer required.

Helen Connon Hall was the first residential hall at Canterbury College (later to become the University of Canterbury). It was opened in 1918 and was for female students only, except for that one last year of its life as a residence.

So that is me and the tree. What about Helen?

Typically for me and, no doubt, most of the populace, I had no idea, when I lived in the hall named after her, who Helen Connon was. In fact, I still didn’t know much about her when I helped to plant the tree. It was only after the publication, in 2004, of Margaret Lovell-Smith’s excellent  book, “Easily the Best, the Life of Helen Connon  1857 -1903”, that I began to appreciate her magnificence, and her influence on women’s education. She was a carpenter’s daughter who became, in 1880, the second woman arts graduate in the British Empire.  In1881, she became the first woman in the British Empire to earn a degree with honours; MA with first-class honours in English and Latin. And she did that right here, in Christchurch, New Zealand. As well as being a fine academic, she was a leading figure in education, as a teacher and  Lady Principal of Christchurch Girls High School. For more information, link to

 Helen Connon Helen ConnonI don’t know what Helen Connon would have made of me  and my ignorance of her but I think she would have been pleased that I was the first woman in my family to earn a degree. Nothing fancy, but I did it. And my daughter was the first person in our family to obtain an honours degree in Classics. So, we are slowly catching up with Helen Connon, the trail blazer, without whom my education, my mother’s and my daughter’s would most likely never have happened.

As for the tree; I think she would be happy with our choice. It was chosen for its longevity and its shade qualities and suitablility for its school playground home. Helen Connon believed that mental and physical education went hand in hand. Additionally, photos of her own garden show that she spent much of her life surrounded by beautiful trees.


Physical Education

and contemplate.Contemplate

© silkannthreades

10 thoughts on “Me, the Tree, and Helen

  1. Steve Schwartzman

    In reading your linked article about Helen Connon, I found it interesting that she made her eventual husband wait seven years. I think that would be unlikely nowadays, don’t you?

    The names of two places jumped out at me, places I would probably never have heard of but for last year’s adventure: Hokitika

    and Rotorua

    1. Gallivanta Post author

      That’s very interesting. Would she have been at the reunion in 2000? The so called new building of the hall that I was in was very ugly but I loved the proximity to the University in town. And I loved the old University. I was so sad when we had to move out to Ilam.

  2. kurtnemes

    Thanks for the lovely memoir and educating me about Helen. The tulip tree is the state tree of Indiana, where I’m from. How did they end up in NZ? Wonderful about you being the first in the family to get a degree and now your daughter has followed in your footsteps. Education is contagious and blessings on you for creating an environment where it has taken hold, like your tree.

    1. Gallivanta Post author

      Thank you for your lovely comment. I like your expression “taken hold, like your tree.” And I, too, wondered how the tulip tree came to New Zealand. Some more investigation needed there.


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