Otago Girls’ High School was opened on 6 February 1871. It was the first public girls’ high school in the Southern Hemisphere. It offered girls in Otago a formal education to prepare them for tertiary education. It had taken Miss Learmonth Whyte Dalrymple six years of petitions, letter-writing and constant pressure on the Provincial Council to persuade it to establish a public high school for girls. Miss Dalrymple was determined to establish an education system for girls that offered the same opportunities as boys had. She was convinced that girls deserved more than embroidery lessons and singing tuition designed to help them attract suitors. She had commented that “intellect is of no sex”.
The original two-room school was part of the block built for Otago Boys’ High School and a tall fence was constructed to keep the girls and boys hidden from each other. Margaret Burn, the first Principal, did some of the teaching while the masters from the boys’ school taught other subjects, under the watchful eyes of ‘lady governess’ chaperones. The School was able to expand when the new school was built for the boys further up the hill in Arthur Street in 1885.
In 1907 the Otago Daily Times declared that the girls’ school was a “shabby ruin” and “a disgrace to Dunedin”. Finance for a new building was raised and in 1910 a new block, still standing today as the Dalrymple Block, was opened.
Many pupils educated at the School have gained ‘celebrity status’. Emily Siedeberg and Margaret Cruickshank became New Zealand’s first female medical graduates. Ethel Benjamin was the first New Zealand woman to get a law degree, and Dame Silvia Cartwright (nee Poulter) became New Zealand’s first woman High Court judge and was New Zealand’s Governor General from 2001 to 2006. Other well-known names include Mai Chen (high profile lawyer), Otago University ex-Chancellor Judith Medlicott, opera singer Patricia Payne and her sister food specialist Alison Holst (nee Payne), and artists Shona McFarlane and Nancy Tichborne. Yvette Williams, New Zealand’s first woman Olympic gold medallist was also a pupil of Otago Girls’ High School and a further 10 ex-pupils have also represented New Zealand at the Olympics.
In the early 1990s the original school buildings underwent a multi-million dollar redevelopment and today it is one of the most superbly appointed schools in the country. Over the years the curriculum has undergone constant revision. Girls now study the core subjects along with others such Spanish, Robotics, Outdoor Education and Digital Technology. Endless opportunities abound in sporting and cultural activities. Although the long traditions of madrigal choirs and Shakespearian productions are maintained, the girls can also take part in Stage Challenge, rock bands, modern musicals etc.