Born in Hawera, South Taranaki, in 1925, Frances Porter was educated at the local high school and at Victoria University College. She credits two remarkable teachers in Victoria’s history department – Fred Wood and John Beaglehole – as being the formative influences in her later career as a historian. After graduating with an honours degree in history she joined the Historical Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs and married George Porter, architect and town planner. She continues to live in Wellington.
Frances began writing in her forties with the Turanga Journals. It was a fortunate commission: ‘My only riding instruction from the William Williams’ side of that extensive family was to make the book fatter than the recent biography of Henry Williams. So I indulged in footnotes and used other contemporary material to bring the present-day reader into the busy, gossipy, complicated Māori-missionary-government-settler scene of the whole colony.’ Whatever the subject, social context has remained the pivot of her later publications on aspects of New Zealand’s history.
In 1990, her biography of Jane Maria Atkinson, Born to New Zealand, won the NZ Book Award for Non-Fiction. Later she co-edited (with Charlotte Macdonald) a collection of women's letters and diaries, My Hand Will Write What My Heart Dictates. In 1993, Frances Porter received an honorary doctorate from Victoria University of Wellington.
Away from Home: The Story of Victoria House (Bridget Williams Books, 2002)
My Hand Will Write What My Heart Dictates, co-edited with Charlotte Macdonald (Auckland University Press/Bridget Williams Books, 1996)
Born to New Zealand: A Biography of Jane Maria Atkinson (Allen & Unwin, 1989)
Historic Buildings of New Zealand: South Island, editor (Methuen, 1983)
Historic Buildings of New Zealand: North Island, editor (Cassell, 1979)
A Sense of History: James Cook’s Landing Sites in New Zealand (Government Printer, 1978)
The Turanga Journals 1840–1850: Letters and Journals of William and Jane Williams (Price Milburn for Victoria University Press, 1974)