Feisty Glenorchy Women and the Suffragettes

September 19 marks the 125th anniversary of Lord Glasgow signing into law that all women who were “British Subjects” aged 21 and over, including Maori (but not everyone, as Chinese women were not included) were now eligible to vote. New Zealand became the first country in the world to legalise voting for women.

The issue of women’s suffrage, championed by Kate Sheppard, grew in momentum in the early half of the 1890s. Tied in part to the temperance movement, this may have been why such a significant number of the Glenorchy women who signed on didn’t own pubs, hotels or guest houses. Interestingly, no women from Glenorchy appear on the 1892 petition which had 20,000 signatures, but a year later, they were a part of the over 7,000 women in Otago who signed the 1893 petition.

The women who signed were Agnes Balneaves, whose family were managing Mt. Earnslaw Station; Isabel Birley and Constance Davidson, sisters and daughters of Mt Earnslaw Hotel’s J.K. and Sarah Birley; Penelope Valpy, her daughter Evelyn Oakden, and daughter-in-law Louisa Valpy; and Francis McConachy whose family owned the store at Precipice Creek (and was mother of the famous Clark McConachy); Elizabeth Elliot, whose family may have been farming at the Greenstone (there are two Elliot families in the district at this time and it’s not clear to which family she belonged); and Mercy Harris, who had famously found the gold nugget in her Christmas duck a few years before and had worked for a time for the Mason’s at Paradise. We know less of Eliza Bennett (perhaps escaped from the pages of Pride and Prejudice or maybe relates to Bennett’s Bluff), Ellen Penny and a Miss Fannie Peach who also signed.

The women’s petition garnered almost 32,000 signatures nationwide, nearly a quarter of the adult European women’s population in New Zealand at the time. It was submitted to Parliament on the 28 July 1893 in a single 270 metre long roll with each local petition glued on to the next. The bill was narrowly voted in on 8 September 1893 and became law 11 days later, making New Zealand the first country where women had won the right to vote. Though there is no description of the first election in which women from the Head of the Lake participated, giving women the vote, it might have been to the chagrin of Glenorchy’s Lake Wakatip Mail correspondent at the time who had complained not long before of the new split skirt riding habits of women tourist, hoping that “the natives (of Glenorchy) will not adopt this style, as it is very unpleasing.” One can only imagine what he might have thought of the vote except that it received no comment or press in Our Correspondent’s reports on life at the Head of the Lake in 1893 or ever after.

Glenorchy had a history of independent women. Widowed Sarah Hartley in 1864 opened one of the first hotels in the Bucklerburn before she married J.K.Birley and ran the Mt Earnslaw Hotel with him until her death in 1905. Kitty Greig, on the other side of the lake at Kinloch, was one of the first guides. Described by a visitor in 1887 as:

“She is renowned through all the lake country as a daring and accomplished horsewoman. Can handle an oar like a Beach, and an axe in a style that would make Gladstone envious. Bred and reared amid these rocky pastures and wild solitudes, she knows every foot of the country, and is as free, fearless, and independent as the winds that whistle round Mount Earnslaw.”

If she had wanted the company of a strong woman, she needed only look to her neighbor Maryanne Bryant who had come out from Ireland as Maryanne Lyon and married Richard Cogar Bryant and built and ran Kinloch together. Around the corner, Eliza Haines was the first woman landowner in the district in 1879 and she farmed a section near Camp Hill that today is part of Mt. Earnslaw Station. And these are just a few of Glenorchy’s strong women. To live at the Head of the Lake was never easy, but no doubt always interesting and this month we celebrate the women of Glenorchy, past, present, and future.

Our pictures this month include:

Petition signer Constance Davidson; Eliza Haines on Jack; Sarah Birley; Josie Bryant and Mary Anne Bryant; Ellen Grant; and some of last century’s fine women Kate Scott; Reta Thomson; Betty Watson; Mary Aitken with her brother Reg and Jennie Aitken; Marjorie Gollop; Rosie Grant in 1952; Nancy Watherston; Dorothy “Dimps” Groves with Huntly; Rosie Grant, Jean Thompson and Agnes Forbes 1970s.