Girls' Brigade New Zealand

1928 –

Girls' Brigade New Zealand

1928 –

Theme: Religion

Known as:

  • The Girls’ Life Brigade New Zealand
    1928 – 1964
  • Girls' Brigade New Zealand
    1964 –

This essay written by Heather Taylor was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Heather Taylor in 2018.

1928 – 1993

In Dublin in 1893, Margaret Lyttle held physical drill sessions with her church girls' group, which became known as The Girls' Brigade (GB). [1] Founded on the twin pillars of bible class and physical training, its aim was 'The extension of Christ's kingdom among girls'. [2] Two similar organisations followed: The Girls' Guildry, formed in Scotland in 1900, and The Girls' Life Brigade (GLB), started in London in 1902 as a Christian temperance movement affiliated to the National Sunday School Union. In 1964 all three were to amalgamate to form The Girls' Brigade.

The beginnings of The Girls’ Brigade New Zealand (GBNZ) date back to 1928, when two Baptist missionaries, Ada and Horace Grocott, were unable to return to their chosen mission field of Bolivia. They shared the churches' concern at the drop in Sunday school attendance, and the apparent idleness of young people, but neither knew of the overseas organisations. They learnt of the GLB by chance, when Horace Grocott set up a Boys' Brigade company in Dunedin; Ada Grocott then started the first GLB company of 22 girls at Caversham Baptist Church, and on 28 October 1928 it was affiliated to GLB in England. At the end of 1929 the group was encouraged by a visit from English Quaker Jennie M. Street, a vice-president of GLB.

The GLB movement took a holistic approach, setting a balanced programme with spiritual, physical, educational and social components. Every effort was made in New Zealand to adhere to the English practice. The first captain, the Grocotts' daughter Emma (later Emma Kaye), recalls, 'Mum had been running it more like a girls' club, but she hadn't done any training with girls ... in that first year we got them uniformed and they went ahead well.' [3]

Slowly classes were established in first aid, home nursing, needlework, eurhythmics, and scripture. Satisfactory completion of projects earned the appropriate badge, woven onto cloth and worn on the uniform. Discipline, pride and a sense of belonging to a worldwide movement made the uniform a significant feature of GLB membership. Formal and somewhat militaristic, it cost approximately 17s, though efforts were made to keep it within the financial reach of all.

With the development of the first company well under way, Ada Grocott put a great deal of energy into propaganda work with the aim of extending the movement. Girls, officers and clergy spread news of it around the country; the second company began at the Presbyterian Church at Waikaka in October 1930, and others soon followed. By 1933 the first battalion outside Britain could be formed in Wellington. In 1934 the first Dominion Council was held in Wellington, and Ada Grocott was elected first Dominion president. Both the secretary, Lilian Busfield (later Jamieson), and the treasurer, her father Reverend Leonard B. Busfield, worked for the Auckland Sunday School Union, which gave strong support to GLB as a week-night activity promoting more faithful attendance at Sunday school or bible class; it donated space for storing equipment and gave Lilian Busfield time off to attend to GLB administration.

Reverend Murray Gow, first Dominion chaplain, summed up the rationale of the movement in 1934: '[O]ur girls wield the greatest weapon for good or ill among our youth. The world stands in need of a healthy minded, spiritually quickened young womanhood.' [4] By then there were 28 companies, consisting of Cadets (6–10 years), Juniors (10–14, the largest group) and Seniors (14 and over).

The Dominion leaders took great pride in the formation of a number of Māori companies, starting with The First Waikaremoana in late 1933. These companies appeared mainly as an extension of Presbyterian, Methodist and Anglican mission work among the Māori. The Right Reverend F. A. Bennett, Māori Bishop of Aotearoa, was elected Dominion chaplain in 1939, and was asked to develop suitable new badge subjects such as Māori Arts and Crafts, in consultation with Māori officers.

During World War II some officers left to take up positions in the armed forces, and companies met in the afternoons because of evening black-outs. There were problems with getting GLB supplies from England, and with clothing rations; temporary uniforms were accepted, and a local firm was found to make badges. Companies took part in community projects such as knitting garments and rolling bandages for the Red Cross. After the war, many sent 'party parcels' to GLB companies in England, full of supplies which were hard to obtain there, such as confectionery and toiletries.

By 1963 the movement had 368 companies with 17,256 girls and 1229 officers. Apart from small alterations in the uniform and programmes, little had changed since the 1920s. The 1964 amalgamation of the GLB and the GB to form The Girls' Brigade New Zealand brought not only a new name and a more feminine uniform, but a whole new concept, with changes in rank titles and structural terms, methods of earning awards, and the awards themselves.

National painting competition display

Alexander Turnbull Libary, Dominion Post Collection, PAColl-7327-1-036-2912.

Girls’ Brigade national painting competition on display in Wellington, July 1971.

By the 1990s, each company continued to be commissioned by a local church (mostly traditional Protestant), which appointed the leaders of their choice and oversaw finance and organisation. A company could be a vital factor in the church's ministry to the young. Each decided on its own programme, according to local needs, but the movement provided basic guidelines.

Although part of a world-wide organisation, GBNZ made its own decisions at a national council made up of representatives from each area, which met once a year. Between council meetings, an elected national executive administered the organisation, with a full-time executive director and field organiser based at the national office in Auckland.

Girls of all ages participated in an award scheme extending their abilities in spiritual, physical, educational and social training. Juniors (5-8), for example, learnt to swim, make things, cook, dance and care for others. Seniors (9–12) continued the pattern at a more mature level which prepared them to enter Pioneers (13–17), where the programme offered new activities such as grief management, improving self-esteem, teaching motivational gifts, interview techniques, money management and other life skills. Girls over fifteen were encouraged to develop skills appropriate for any church or community activity through a leadership development programme. Sensitivity to changing concepts of bicultural partnership saw the inclusion of subjects such as the Treaty of Waitangi.

Programmes were being continually updated in an effort to be effective and relevant in the lives of girls, but many other activities had become available. In 1992, membership was 8700. While members had always been encouraged to be involved in their communities, the Brigade profile was low. As the movement's centenary approached, it was aiming to make GB more attractive to those in the community who had no other church involvement, with a new image, uniform, logos, programmes, leadership training and structure.

Heather Taylor

1994 – 2018

As the Girls’ Brigade looked onward from 1993 to the turn of the century and beyond, the uniform continued, as did the programmes and the aim to always be effective and relevant in the lives of girls. They were re-defined in language more suitable to contemporary times, but the intent remained.

Age ranges were maintained, and as more and more youthful activities became available or popular, the movement sought to include them in an ever expanding programme. Computers, the internet and digital devices added much to the Brigade’s administration and ability to produce programmes.

Government regulations took a toll on the organisation and its activities.  Much more paper work and compliance was required for activities; health and safety for the girls in the care of the leaders were strengthened; and upskilling and training became a continual requirement for any leader. Recruiting new leaders had always been a challenge, but this grew with increasing regulation.

In 2008 it was felt that girls needed a different approach to doing Girls’ Brigade.  The Boys’ Brigade had begun a new arm of their movement called ICONZ, which gave boys a new look uniform along with a re-vamped programme and awards, focusing on what was important to kiwi kids.  Because it had been so popular and successful for the boys, they invited the Girls’ Brigade to develop a similar programme for girls. 

The first Iconz4girlz or IFG unit, with the vision of ‘Growing girls for good!’, was launched on 20 May 2009. Although under the umbrella of Girls’ Brigade, each IFG unit was wholly owned by and a mission outreach of the host church. IFG age groups were ‘Explore’ (5–7 years), ‘Adventure’ (8–10 years), ‘Challenge’ (11–13 years) and ‘Ultimate’ (14 years and over). The programmes aligned with the Duke of Edinburgh Award and Hillary Award, and also allowed for leadership training. 

In 2018 Girls’ Brigade International (GBI) was celebrating its 125th birthday, and announced that after a 15-month application process, the United Nations had accredited GBI with special consultative NGO status. This meant that GBI could advocate for and with girls on gender justice issues and gender equality.  Both were highly relevant for Girls’ Brigade New Zealanders, that year and into the future.

Heather Taylor


[1] The name paralleled that of The Boys' Brigade, founded in Glasgow in 1883, although the two organisations were always quite separate.

[2] The Girls' Brigade, Handbook for Officers, CBNZ, Auckland, 1988.

[3] Emma Kaye, personal interview, 21 May 1991.

[4] Reverend Murray A. Gow, The G.L.B. Bulletin, No. 4, 15 February 1934, p. 1.

Unpublished sources

Brunt, Christine, IFG Team Leader, personal communication

Dickens, Elizabeth, Administrative Director, GBNZ, personal communication

Taylor, Heather, The History of The Girls' Life Brigade, GBNZ, Auckland, 1993

Girls' Life Brigade New Zealand (Inc.) records, 1928–1964; Girls' Brigade New Zealand (Inc.) records, 1964–1993, ATL

Girls’ Brigade New Zealand records, 1994–2017, GBNZ, Auckland

Published sources

Howard, Margaret, Girls' Life Brigade and the Girls' Brigade in Christchurch and the Canterbury West Coast area from 1938–1996, 1998

The G.L.B. Bulletin, 1934–1964

The Girls' Brigade Bulletin, 1964–991

National News, 2000–2018

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