Leila Agnes Sophie Hurle was born in New Plymouth on 5 June 1901, the second of five children of Isabella Harvey and her husband, John Hurle, a sign-writer. Her education began at West End School, which she began frequenting at the age of four when she accompanied her older sister there and then waited hopefully outside. The infant mistress eventually received her into the class and greatly encouraged the bright little girl.
In 1914 Leila’s long association with New Plymouth Girls’ High School began. She entered the school on a Junior National Scholarship, was head prefect in 1917, 1918 and 1919 and dux of the school in 1917 and 1918. In 1919 she became the first girl in the history of the school to win a Junior Scholarship, and she also won a Taranaki Scholarship. Tall and strong, she was active in sports, especially life-saving, tennis and hockey.
Leila Hurle then attended the University of Otago, where she won the James Clark Prize in Latin in 1922 and graduated BA in 1923 and MA with first-class honours in Latin and French in 1924. In 1923 she was women’s vice president of the Otago University Students’ Association.
After graduating she returned as a teacher in 1924 to New Plymouth Girls’ High School. She was joint secretary of the New Plymouth Girls’ High School Old Girls’ Association in 1925 and 1926. She then went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, where she gained a certificate in French. From 1928 Hurle taught languages at Christchurch Girls’ High School and also coached the hockey teams. Her reputation there was that of a very capable and thorough teacher, who had good control of her class and who demanded and earned respect. In 1937 she took a year’s leave to travel in Europe.
Her next appointment was as headmistress of Timaru Girls’ High School in mid 1938. She described the first few months of taking over a well-run school as ‘almost idyllic’. Her aim, she said later, was to run a school that was a happy place for pupils and staff. The outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 gave her the added responsibility of arranging for the safety of the girls in the event of air raids and sudden evacuation. She also developed school amenities and changed the school uniform.
In February 1942 she took up an appointment to the secondary school inspectorate in Wellington, becoming only the second woman, following Jessie Hetherington, to do so. In her first years she was one of a team of inspectors who covered the whole country, explaining educational policy and curriculum changes, helping in the maintenance of high standards, and advising on teaching methods, equipment, school libraries, textbooks and staff accommodation. Her relationship with her male colleagues was excellent and the only discrimination she experienced was from two men in the Department of Education. After some years she was made a senior inspector, the first woman to attain this rank. When the inspectorate was divided into three separate and self-contained districts, Leila Hurle was in 1949 put in charge of the central district, which covered the entire North Island except for Auckland. She supervised a team of seven specialist inspectors, carrying out her responsibilities to the complete satisfaction of her colleagues and the Department of Education. In 1947 she served on the selection committee for bursaries.
As an inspector she was thorough and conscientious. When she felt a rebuke was necessary she did not pull her punches. She strongly criticised the untidy conditions in the staff room of one boys’ school, and in another the male staff were rebuked for their poor standard of dress. Hurle later said, ‘No woman had ever darkened the door of a boys’ school, when I joined the inspectorate’. Rollo Arnold, a teacher who experienced her inspections and later became a professor of education, recalled that she was ‘a real dynamo’.
After retiring from the inspectorate in February 1953 she returned to teaching at New Plymouth Girls’ High School, sometimes part time, for about 15 years. She was on the board of governors in 1956 and had a long connection with the New Plymouth Girls’ High School Old Girls’ Association.
Leila Hurle died at New Plymouth on 24 February 1989. She had never married. The Old Girls’ Association established the Leila Hurle Prize in her honour, to be given to a sixth former who excelled in a language and had made a significant contribution to the school. Leila Hurle was remembered for excellence in whatever she attempted, and for her kindness and generosity.