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;
The tree was planted to commemorate the site of Helen Connon Hall. 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. 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 http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2c28/1
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.