Scenes from Sheila's early story


A  childhood on Stewart Island


Sheila grew up on Stewart Island in the 1930s. Money was scarce, and wild food (mostly fish and venison) often appeared on the family table.

Sheila's extensive knowledge of wild food (both animal and vegetable) made her the ideal person to write and illustrate New Zealand's first book on foraging.

Sheila's paternal great-grandparents Eliza and Johann Wohlers and her grandparents Gretchen and Arthur Traill are buried on Ringaringa Point. Two of the Wohlers' great-great-great grandchildren, Nick Macdonald (far right) and Juliette MacIver, visited the graves with their father Hugh Macdonald (a great-great grandson) in February 2015. (Hugh is pointing out something to cameraman Dave McCarlie, on the left.)

On her father's side of her family Sheila is descended from the German missionary Johann Wohlers, who came to the Maori settlement on Ruapuke Island in 1840; and from a distinguished family of amateur naturalists from Scotland, the Traills.


On her mother's side Sheila comes from a family of talented artists and musicians.

“I don't ever remember not knowing that yellow and blue make green, red and yellow orange, and red and blue purple, or that a light wash of yellow ochre must be allowed to dry on the watercolour block before you begin laying on washes of colour. Such knowledge might have come from my Granny Moffett, or from my mother.” wrote Sheila, who began to draw and paint from nature as soon as she could hold a brush.

Sheila's career as a writer and illustrator has combined the talents and interests she received from both sides of her family.

Sheila's first impression of the Director

Passing through Invercargill in early 1944, on her way back from Stewart Island to Training College, Sheila wrote to her mother that she had “...snatched a few seconds to see Nance and Rex [Macdonald] and young Hugh – a very presentable specimen of babyhood. I fell in love with him at first sight, although he's so small and pink.”

Sheila graduated in 1949 and moved to Wellington  to work firstly at the Dominion Museum, then at the National Library and finally at the Correspondence School, where her writing and drawing ability and her scientific knowledge enabled her to create new teaching materials.

All the food in Sheila's childhood home was cooked on this coal range. It was her job to gather rara (sticks for kindling) and put fresh clay on the hearth.

Sheila and her schoolmates from Leask's Bay would sometimes strengthen themselves on the two kilometre walk home from Half Moon Bay school with a cook-up of limpets and other shellfish on the beach, where they also played football and cricket with balls made from bull kelp, and used gumnuts as ammunition in their 'wars'.

The collection of local seaweeds Sheila pressed and identified when she was 18 years old is now held in the Rakiura Museum.

A student and a teacher


Sheila was a star pupil at Half Moon Bay School, and finished her primary schooling a year early. She enrolled at Southland Girls High School in 1938, just before she turned 12.

Today's Southland Girls High girls pass the display of photographs and information about notable old girls, including Sheila. One of the school's houses, Traill House, is named after her.

Sheila's third form essay book (left) is preserved in the SGHS archive. It includes this essay on happiness in which the child is clearly shown to be mother to the woman, because nothing makes her happier than being in nature – sketching, swimming, sailing, camping or climbing hills.

Sheila moved to Dunedin to study at the teachers' Training College in 1943. There she met and became lifelong friends with Janet Frame.

After Janet Frame's death in 2004, Sheila published a short memoir of their friendship, which includes a selection of the letters she received from Janet from 1947 onwards. The books starts: “There was no need for letters to begin with; we were after all on speaking terms, even speaking the same language – the nervous Stewart Islander and the near-to-vanishing Oamaruvian; avid for learning, but destined for teaching.”

Sheila's studies at Otago University included both sciences (papers in Botany, Geology and Zoology) and arts (she majored in French and English, and did an Honours degree in English).

Sheila and friend in their graduation gowns and mortarboards.

Sheila's first published work (1956) grew out of a booklet on native plants she wrote and illustrated for the Correspondence School, which until then had no teaching materials on New Zealand plants for its biology students.