Isabel Fraser

isabel-lgHand carried the first kiwifruit seeds from China

Mary Isabel Fraser was born in 1863. She was the oldest of three daughters born to Mary Graham and Hugh Fraser of Dunedin. Her younger sisters were Margaret Helen (Nellie) and Katie. Their mother, Mary Austen Graham, was London born. Their father, Hugh Fraser, was born at McLellan Mountain, near New Glasgow in Nova Scotia. Hugh was a saddler and harness maker. The three girls were born during the heady days of the Otago gold rush.

In 1880 when Isabel was 17, she was appointed to the Model Country School of Seacliff where she completed her training as a teacher. In 1888, Isabel undertook a BA at Otago and graduated MA with Honors one year later.

In 1890, she became the English Mistress at the Otago Girls High School. Three years later, she was appointed Lady Principal of Wanganui Girls’ College.

Isabel, dark haired, blue eyed and fair skinned, was a champion for girls’ education, preparing them to run a household. New classes in cooking, first aid and dressmaking were introduced. Physical education was offered, and every girl was taught to swim.

In 1899, with sticks loaned by the Collegiate School, hockey was first played – the girls dressed in boater hats, dresses with ankle-length skirts, pleated bodices with white collars, ties and leg-o’-mutton sleeves. The new game of basketball had been introduced the year before.

With Isabel’s guidance, the Wanganui Girls’ College gained a reputation as a fine establishment for young ladies. By 1898, it was New Zealand’s largest boarding school for girls. Isabel, however, often had a hard battle on her hands with an all-male Board of Governors. She received an annual salary of three hundred pounds for which she was required to administer the boarding establishment, employ the Matron and domestic staff and defray any domestic costs. The Board allowed forty pounds per year for each boarder, and the Lady Principal was to bear any loss or take any profit. Not only was she in charge of the school and its day-to-day running, she was also expected to carry her own share of teaching responsibilities.

In 1903, Isabel, exhausted from long hours and a short-staffed school, was granted leave of absence for rest and recreation. She sailed for Japan on June 11 that year.

In Japan, Isabel met her sister Katie, and the pair left for the mission in Yichang, China a month later. (Ichang or Yichang as it is now known, lies on the northern bank of the Yangtze River about 995 miles upstream from Shanghai.)

Isabel returned to New Zealand in January 1904, bringing with her the seeds of the Ichang gooseberry.

Isabel returned to the Wanganui Girls’ College in 1904, resigning six years later, to work without salary and establish Iona College in Hawke’s Bay in 1910.

Isabel Fraser was indeed a remarkable woman who began her career back when education for women was a new and alarming prospect. The kiwifruit seeds she carried back with her from her trip to China were likely a curiosity. Little could she have known what those seeds would sow. Until recently, all commercial kiwifruit cultivars selected over the years in New Zealand could be traced back to those original seeds.

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