The Society for the Protection of Women and Children, 1893 – 1955
The early years
Home & Family started its life in Auckland in 1893. Concerned by the culture of men’s drinking and the subsequent vulnerability of their families, Henry Wilding set about to do something to protect women & children from destitution, exploitation and abuse. Through working collaboratively with other influential people in the community, and with his wife Alice pioneering alongside him, he was to start not only two enduring New Zealand charities, but a movement for social reform and a more equitable society.
New Zealand in the 1880’s and 1890’s
At the time when Henry and Alice moved to Auckland, hotels played a sinister part in the lives of the local population. It was common for patrons to hand over their pay cheques to the hotel keeper and say ‘tell me when it’s finished’. This often led to 3 days of steady drinking. To make matters worse, hotel stabling facilities gave free shelter to their drunken patrons. From here came the increase of molesting women and children in the areas surrounding the hotels.
Additionally, across New Zealand at the time, particularly in the cities, there were many cases of women and children either deserted or ill-treated by their husbands or fathers. There was no social welfare. It was not until 1898 that the Pension Act granted aid to the destitute and poverty alone was not sufficient qualification – many were turned down for ‘lack of civic virtues’.
Prostitutes were highly visible in Auckland. Data showed an increase in illegitimate live births – although this data was later found to be misleading, at the time it caused considerable social alarm. The chances of survival beyond infancy for children without fathers was low, because of the associated poverty and social exclusion.
While the Salvation Army offered shelter for unmarried pregnant women, until their babies were 6 months old, women and girls were expected to work for their keep and at the end of the 6 months, most babies had to be placed in care as their mothers had nowhere to move on to.
The formation of the Society
In 1893, Henry held a meeting with local clergymen and business owners to evaluate the social problems at hand. Over time, Henry garnered support from the leaders of all the main Christian Churches, as well as Jewish congregations and other local influencers, working together towards a set of common goals. The original committee included men and women, lawyers, doctors and clergymen.
In 1898, the Society merged with the S.P.C.A. Recognising the link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to children, a fifth object was added: To prevent cruelty to animals by enforcing existing laws, by procuring further legislation which may be expedient and by exciting and sustaining an intelligent public opinion regarding mans’ duty to animals. Youth leaders of the Society established ‘bands of mercy’ which children joined, pledging to be kind to and protect animals. The two societies were to work together for the next 28 years, before parting ways.
The young Elizabeth
Meanwhile in Christchurch, the young Elizabeth Henderson was another pioneer. Elizabeth wanted to do something to actively improve conditions for other people and at the age of 21, became the first and only secretary of the Children’s Aid Society. It did some similar work to Auckland’s SPWC, except its sole focus was on children.
The Children’s Aid Society was responsible for starting the free Kindergarten in Christchurch and as secretary Elizabeth visited the homes of all the children who belonged to it. If the police reported adversely on any homes, Elizabeth would visit them, collecting funds and clothes for families who needed them and supervising homes where children were ill-treated.
In May 1898 the Children’s Aid Society became the Christchurch branch of The SPWC. In the same year, the SPWC opened branches in Wellington and Dunedin. Elizabeth was appointed secretary of the Christchurch branch.
Elizabeth Henderson was later to become Elizabeth McCombs – New Zealand’s first female MP – and speak out in parliament about a number of issues affecting women and children. Some people credit her later political passions to her early work for the Society, as it was in this role that she first gained an intimate knowledge of the wrongs suffered by children because of poverty, illegitimacy, ill-treatment and neglect.
Agitation for legal reform
From the outset, the Society agitated to have incest included in the Crimes Act. This was not easy. One legislative councillor of the time stated that there ‘was no need whatsoever’ for this type of legislation and that the number of ‘sex bills’ around was due to ‘hysterical women, some so-called obsession with “purity” in society, or to a general softening of the brain.” Nonetheless, in the face of all opposition, the Society continued active promotion of reform, and in 1900 incest was included in the Crimes Act.
In late August 1910, the Society had a telephone installed in its offices. This was installed just in time for the Society to increase its work rapidly. Between 1910 and 1920, the cases dealt with each year more than doubled and the Society’s efforts to effect social change through legislative reform ramped up massively.
Legislative reforms sought by the Society 1911-1920
- Raising the legal age of consent for girls from 12 to 16 and for boys from 14 to 18 – this was not passed until 1934
- That female detectives be appointed to deal with crimes against women, referred by the society
- Prison reform, including female prison guards and inspectors in women’s prisons
- For husbands who refused to ‘maintain’ their wives or mothers or their children be forced to work and a portion of their wages be given directly to their wives/mothers of children
- Support from the Crown for foster parents – this was passed in 1925
- More strict supervision of tuberculosis cases to prevent the spread of the disease
- Inspection of homes which children were ‘boarded out to’, by a qualified inspector, with power to remove the child if necessary – this was finally passed in 1927
- Better working conditions, including toilets for women in factories, lunch breaks and buildings being warmed
- Compulsory, free hospital treatment and antibiotics for people suffering with contagious diseases – this was finally passed in 1917
- The early inception of what later became the Universal Family Allowance
The Society’s great concern throughout the 1920’s became the living conditions of children in Christchurch. It was throughout the 1920’s that the Society became skilled at garnering support from the media, and the 1920’s saw The Press and the Lyttleton Times running a number of pieces calling for the same legal reforms sought by the society. By the end of the 1920’s, the society’s social worker, Miss Cardale was working with between 500 and 600 families a year.
World War Two
In 1939 – 1945, the War brought new challenges which meant the Society once again adapted its work to support the community.
The War effort meant that the state housing programme was called to a halt, putting more pressure on the city’s housing stock. During this time, the Society worked with a number of elderly living in poverty, unable to get by on a state pension.
Another wartime problem was an increase in venereal disease. The Society worked for social measures to avoid this – such as earlier closing of bars and establishment of more VD clinics. One ‘creative’ solution postulated by the Society was to put on evening performances to give young people an alternative form of entertainment of an evening!
Throughout the war, the Society’s social worker and secretary visited many of the homes opened to British children to inspect them and ensure the evacuees’ wellbeing.
In the years following the war’s end, The Society found itself increasingly working within homes where fathers who had been absent had difficulty adjusting to family life. Couples came to the Society seeking help in resolving marital conflict.
With the return of soldiers also came a dramatic upturn in the birth rate, and also the rate of illegitimate births. The Society took a stand to seek equal treatment of illegitimate children and, as the rate of adoption doubled, fought to abolish the condition that help only be offered to unmarried, pregnant women if they agreed to have their child adopted.
Home & Family is born
It was in 1955 that the Society for the Protection of Women and Children, having been operating for over 60 years, changed its name to The Society for the Protection of Home & Family, or ‘Home & Family’ for short.
Today in 2018 the Christchurch and Auckland charities remain, though we are two separate legal entities, with different scopes of work.
Home & Family continues to work with families most at risk, and empower people to thrive. For 120 years, we have adapted to meet the changing needs of the community, and in doing so our work remains as relevant and essential today as always.
Mother & child on our parenting progamme in 2017.