Eleanor Roosevelt visits New Zealand

Eleanor Roosevelt visits New Zealand

Eleanor Roosevelt is welcomed to New Zealand at Whenuapai Airport by the Governor-General, Sir Cyril Newall.

Eleanor Roosevelt in Auckland Eleanor Roosevelt at Cecil Club Eleanor Roosevelt visits Silverstream hospital Eleanor Roosevelt having afternoon tea at YMCA hostel Eleanor Roosevelt visits Dominion Physical Laboratories Eleanor Roosevelt visits Rotorua Eleanor Roosevelt at Whakarewarewa Eleanor Roosevel visits farm near Rotorua

Eleanor Roosevelt visits New Zealand

On Saturday 28 August 1943, Wellingtonians were astonished to read in their morning papers that Eleanor Roosevelt, First Lady of the United States, was in town. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a much-loved figure in New Zealand. His ‘New Deal’ had brought security and jobs to Americans in much the same way as the Savage government had given a welfare state to New Zealanders, and now ‘FDR’ was leading a new battle against Axis aggression. Eleanor Roosevelt was of course the President’s wife, but she had also established a reputation as someone with a special concern for the poor and the suffering, and a commitment to the rights of women.

On a visit to the United States, Prime Minister Peter Fraser had personally invited her and the President to New Zealand; their son, James, a Marine, had stopped over in Auckland in May 1943. The First Lady’s arrival in Auckland was kept secret for security reasons. Once landed, she explained the aims of her mission in a broadcast to New Zealand. They were threefold: to visit the United States forces; to inspect the work of the American Red Cross, whose grey uniform she would wear throughout her seven-day stay; and finally, but by no means least, to study the contribution of New Zealand women to the war effort.

Wellington, 28-30 August 1943

With astonishing energy Eleanor Roosevelt accomplished her purposes to the letter. Her first full round of engagements took place in Wellington (after an overnight train journey from Auckland) between Saturday 28 August and Monday 30 August. There were the expected state and civic receptions, and press conferences in which the First Lady thanked New Zealanders for their hospitality to American soldiers. Then it was off to see her fellow countrymen. She spent one morning chatting with the wounded and sick at Silverstream hospital, and another in the camps. As she had promised, she spent time at the American Red Cross Club in the Hotel Cecil. Finally she set out to build links with New Zealand women.

On the Sunday night there was a remarkable meeting in the Majestic Theatre to which only women were invited. Eleanor Roosevelt’s arrival was announced by a waiata from the Ngāti Pōneke Young Māori Club, and she was formally welcomed by the Prime Minister's wife, Janet Fraser. By the time she stood to speak it was obvious that the packed house, and the hundreds waiting outside to catch a glimpse of her or hear a few words, had taken her to their hearts. She described the work which women were doing in the war, showed two films, and then was treated to a thunderous rendition of ‘For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow’. The next day she continued her investigations by visiting women employees in the Ford factory at Seaview and stopping at a hostel for women war workers in the Hutt Valley.

Rotorua, 31 August 1943

From Wellington Eleanor Roosevelt’s tour, which had begun to take on the dimensions of a royal progress, proceeded to Rotorua. There she visited Whakarewarewa in the company of the famous guide, Rangitīria Dennan (Guide Rangi). Geysers played; Māori boys dived for coins. She visited Sir Ernest Davis’s nearby farm to see the work of ‘land girls’, and then came a formal Māori welcome at Ōhinemutu. She discovered that ‘women do not speak there as a rule so the gods had to be invoked, but I was allowed to speak because I was a mother in a great democracy whose men were fighting with their own men’, as she wrote in her diary, which was printed daily in the New Zealand newspapers.

Auckland, 1-3 September 1943

Another overnight trip brought the First Lady back to Auckland. This time the naval hospital was visited, as were the Red Cross and Allied Services Clubs. She even had time to drop in to the Red Cross dance in the town hall, where Artie Shaw’s band was in full swing.

Eleanor Roosevelt left New Zealand on 3 September to continue her tour to Australia and the Pacific. Leaving ‘a charming country’, she regretted that she had not been able to visit the scenic beauties of the South Island and expressed her admiration for the work done by the women of New Zealand in factories and fields, in volunteering for Red Cross work, and in taking American boys into their homes. The photos of neatly hatted New Zealand women waving on street corners suggest that her feelings were more than reciprocated.

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Tony Fleming

Posted: 10 Aug 2015

My grandmother Beatrice Fleming was photographed meeting Mrs Roosevelt at the Red Cross Centre. Shes was in a group of ladies preparing packages for prisoners of war, although the caption to the picture identified her as Mrs CJ White, wife of the chairman of the centre. (copy of photo available).