The way we were

Biographies of the Society’s earliest members

Henry and Alice Wilding - Founders of the Society

In 1878, aged 34 and 30 respectively Henry and Alice Wilding set sail from London, England to start a life in New Zealand together. Henry left behind a prosperous career as a banker and they brought with them four children. Sadly however, their infant son, Ernest did not survive the voyage. Maybe this tragedy, coupled with the earlier loss of Henry’s first wife Kate and infant son to her, deepened the family’s feelings of compassion and motivated the future direction of Henry and Alice’s lives. Alice was the sister of Henry’s deceased wife Kate, meaning that their marriage had not been legally recognised in England, and their first two children viewed as illegitimate in the eyes of British society.

Initially, Henry worked for the Bank of New Zealand and the family lived in Napier. He soon resigned from the bank and bought a saw-milling company. When the business closed in 1885 the family moved to Auckland. It was their time here that led 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. While Henry himself was a Christian man, from day one, the society was secular. 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.

From the Society’s earliest formation, Alice took a stream of motherless girls, friendless women and their children into their home, where she supported them to care for their children and advocated for them to keep their children in their care.

She also chaired a Ladies’ Committee, who organised concerts, plays, street collections and raffles to raise funds for the society. Their fundraising efforts accounted for the chief income of the society and the Ladies’ Committee lived for 60 years.

Henry and Alice remained part of the society, with Henry chairing until his death in 1916, meaning that he did not see the legal reform he had agitated for come to fruition; it was not until 1934 that the age of consent was finally raised.

(Photo: Kim Georgine & Chris Lewis play Henry & Alice at the opening ceremony for Our House)

Elizabeth McCombs (Nee Henderson) - Christchurch pioneer of the Society

Elizabeth (or Bessie) was born in Kaiapoi. She was one of the nine children of Alice and Daniel Henderson. The family spent some years living in Ashburton, but in 1882 the family moved to Christchurch. In 1886, her alcoholic father died, leaving her family in financial difficulty for a time.

The Wellington and Christchurch incarnations of the Society were more radical and feminist in their origins than either Auckland or Dunedin. The young Elizabeth Henderson played a crucial role as a pioneer for the society.

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 had a similar focus to Auckland’s Society for the Protection of Women & Children, except its sole focus was on children.

Elizabeth’s family used to say of her ‘Bessie’s beauty will provide for her.’ However, her sister Christina was active in women’s politics and she started to bring her sisters Stella and Elizabeth with her to meetings. Christina was involved in the Progressive Liberal Association. One of the Association’s goals was to increase the political rights of women. The three sisters were contemporaries of, and worked alongside, prominent suffragette Kate Sheppard.

In 1903, Elizabeth married James McCombs. They were to have two children, and adopt two more. James McCombs was active in left-wing political circles, and when the Labour Party was founded in 1916, he became its first president. Elizabeth was elected to the party’s executive, alongside another woman, Sarah Snow.

In 1921, Elizabeth gained election to the Christchurch City Council, being the second woman to do so. She remained a member of the council until 1935. During this time, she was active in a large number of other organisations, including hospital boards and charities. Her work was recognised in 1926, when she was made a Justice of the Peace. In 1926 article in The Press, Elizabeth was described as being “impatient with working people, tending to represent their best interests and not necessarily their opinions.”

On the death in August 1933 of her husband James, who had held his parliamentary seat of Lyttelton since 1913, it was suggested that Elizabeth McCombs herself should be the Labour Party’s new candidate for the Lyttelton seat. Some members of the party were initially hesitant, but she was eventually selected as the Labour candidate. When the 1933 by-election was held, McCombs won resoundingly: James had been returned by only 32 votes in the 1931 elections, but Elizabeth received a majority of 2600 votes, electing her the first female Member of Parliament in New Zealand.

In parliament, she spoke out on a number of issues, many of which involved women’s rights and welfare. Among the causes she promoted were:
– equal pay for women.
– changes to unemployment policy, which was more generous towards unemployed men than unemployed women
– recruitment of women into the police force.

Sadly, Elizabeth died at the age of 61, less than two years after entering Parliament. Some years after her death, her sister Christina wrote of her, “as a young girl, she showed no ambition for a public career… but in her early twenties she had an opportunity for showing her aptitude for public service.”

Flora Standstein, President of the Society, 1911 – 1913

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.

In 1911, Flora Standstein became the first female president of the society. From then on, she and the rest of the committee advocated for each family referred to them. While not providing all services themselves, they worked with convalescent homes for young girls, district nurses, the local Deaconesses and St. Saviour’s orphanage, to secure safe homes for women and children.

In her 1911 address, Mrs. Standstein thanked the Society’s secretary, Mrs. Lissaman for being ‘unsparing in zeal and most tactful in dealing with cases, most of which were of a most unpleasant and difficult nature.’

During this period, so many cases were brought before the committee indicative of the injustices under which women and children laboured, that many suggestions for legislative reform in different directions were placed before the government as a matter of urgency.

“The cases of ill-used wives are often sickening in detail and loudly call for an amendment of our marriage laws. The fact that a drunken husband should be able to use the vilest epithets to his wife and reign blows upon her person, and treat her in other ways not fit to mention, without her having any legal remedy for want of witnesses loudly calls for redress.” – extract from President’s address by Flora at 1912 AGM

(Photo: Ruth Agnew plays Flora at the opening ceremony for Our House)

Miss Cardale - Secretary, Social Worker, President

Having been the Society’s Secretary for three years, in 1920 Miss Cardale was appointed Matron of the Children’s Receiving Home (run by the Society). The home provided both temporary and long-term accommodation for children unable to live with their parents, or who had been removed from their care.

The Society’s great concern throughout the 1920’s was the living conditions of children in Christchurch. Miss Cardale, who visited hundreds of homes in a given year, was vocal in agitating the Press to call for social reform. In 1922, pressed by Miss Cardale, the Lyttleton Times ran a column “Filth and Squalor. Slum conditions in Christchurch. Drastic action urged.” By the end of the 1920’s she was working with between 500 and 600 families a year.

Throughout World War Two, when many people opened their homes to British children, Miss Cardale visited and inspected the homes to ensure the young people’s care and wellbeing.

Miss Cardale had a long career with the society, becoming in the late 1920’s its social worker and inspector, and often resuming the role as acting Secretary. She became president of the society from 1947 – 1954 and remained on the committee until her death.

(Photo: Tessa Dawes plays Miss. Cardale at the opening ceremony for Our House)

The Reverend Lawry - President of the Society 1920 – 1928

The early 1920’s saw the Society continuing its efforts to protect and make safe women and children. In 1921, the Society raised its voice in protest against the changes to the marriage act, which allowed a man to divorce his wife, but placed no responsibility upon him to continue to support his children. Although, according to Rev. Lawry, their concerns fell upon deaf ears and as a result of the higher numbers of men deserting their wives and children, the Society’s workload continued to increase throughout the 1920’s.

During this time, a young mother came to the society. She was dying of tuberculosis and extremely worried about her two children being left under the guardianship of their alcoholic father. A married mother had no rights over her children, these being vested entirely in the father. Both the Reverend Lawry and the Society’s Lawyer became invested in the case and it was through their efforts that the Society was responsible for the Government’s “Guardianship of Infants Act” which gave mothers and fathers equal say in the guardianship of their children, and should dispute arise, a Magistrate be appointed to decide.

“That there have been 3,299 callers at the office, 2819 visits paid and 1,711 miscellaneous cases dealt with, demonstrates the readiness with which the provision for counsel and advice made by the Society, is taken advantage of.” – extract from President’s address by Rev. Lawry at 1925 AGM

(Photo: Sebastian Boyle plays the Reverend at the opening ceremony for Our House)