Page 1: Biography
Law, Alice Easton
Teachers of the blind
Law, Mary Blythe
Teacher of the blind
This biography, written by Ken Catran, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Alice Easton Law and Mary Blythe Law were born in Burntisland, Fife, Scotland, on 23 October 1870 and 13 August 1873 respectively, the daughters of Catharine Morton and her husband, William Law, a commercial traveller. The sisters came to New Zealand in the early 1880s and lived in Auckland. For a while their mother ran a ladies’ seminary in Remuera and Alice assisted her. In 1894–95 Mary was an assistant teacher at the Jubilee Institute for the Blind. She then trained as a teacher in London, returning to the institute in 1899. She was joined in 1902 by Alice, who took up a position as part-time music teacher. Alice had studied the violin and piano in Auckland and later in England, becoming a licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music. She also taught in a studio in central Auckland.
Mary Law’s influence on teaching the blind was immense. When she began working at the institute, education for the blind in New Zealand and elsewhere was limited to imparting basic knowledge and survival skills. Early New Zealand teachers such as Jane Collier had gone resolutely against this trend, introducing innovative teaching methods: these were picked up and extended by Mary Law.
A natural and dedicated teacher, Law believed that all the senses needed to be involved in the learning process and that impairment in one area need not prohibit learning. ‘You’re just like any other children, except you haven’t got your sight,’ she would tell her pupils. She showed them how to feel with their hands and gain a sense of the way something was. Furthering this with new educational aids, she arranged for raised contour maps to be imported from Germany. She kept abreast of new methods to help her pupils through a constant correspondence with educators of the blind throughout the world.
Mary Law believed that educational skills needed to interact with social skills. As an expert in Braille, she knew that it was more than a simple educational tool; it gave the blind a vital sense of communication on political or social issues. From 1905 she helped supervise and extend the growth of a Braille library at the institute. Law also spent long hours outside of school time assisting backward students and those who displayed special talents. She was warm-hearted, firm and a good communicator. She was also strict: on one occasion her chair collapsed in the classroom and the pupils who laughed got the strap.
In 1923 Mary Law became the head teacher at the institute school and held the position until her retirement in 1939. Her work was very poorly paid: in a letter in 1937 to the minister of education, Peter Fraser, she asked about being included in the teachers’ superannuation scheme as she found it impossible to save from her salary. To support her request, she pointed out that she had trained at least a dozen teachers in the special work and methods used in educating blind children and that she had always received excellent reports from inspectors. It is not known how Fraser responded.
Mary Law never married. Her long service to the institute was recognised in 1939 when she was made an MBE. She maintained an interest in the institute after her retirement, and gave voluntary service until her death in Auckland on 26 December 1955.
Alice Law’s teaching methods were also very practical. She taught the piano and encouraged her students to believe that visual impairment was no impediment to music. Using Braille, she guided them through their examinations and produced several high-quality musicians. Music played an important part in fund-raising for the blind, particularly during the depression. The director between 1923 and 1938, Clutha Mackenzie, saw an institute band as an important means of fund-raising, but it was an all-male band. Alice Law considered that women should be represented too and was involved in forming a girls’ orchestra, which performed frequently between 1929 and 1939.
Like Mary, Alice was strict, but fair, and she spent long hours with individual students who showed promise. She also intervened, with Mary, a number of times to challenge Mackenzie’s autocratic rulings and to ensure that the female students received a proper share of the available resources. Alice Law was an early member of the Auckland Society of Musicians. She never married, and was still at work in the institute when she died in Auckland on 28 August 1942.