Girls' Friendly Society

1882 –

Girls' Friendly Society

1882 –

Theme: Welfare

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

1882 – 1993

The Girls' Friendly Society (GFS) was set up by Anglican churchwomen to provide for the welfare and protection of young women and girls. By 1910 the GFS was well established in most New Zealand cities and large towns; but by the early 1990s it was operating as a welfare agency in Wellington alone. As part of Anglican Social Services, it provided support, counselling and educative programmes for women in need, and continued to supply hostel accommodation for single women.

Mary Elizabeth Townsend founded the first GFS in the diocese of Winchester, England, in 1875. Its object was 'to unite women and girls in a fellowship of prayer, service and purity of life'. [1] Through small parish-based classes, well-to-do older women offered guidance, instruction, recreation and Christian friendship to young working women. This was a philanthropic endeavour, designed to protect the moral and spiritual well-being of impressionable young females, especially those employed far from home. The society also took practical action, providing board and lodgings, help for the sick, and assistance in gaining employment.

The GFS was promoted in New Zealand by Alice J. E. Lane of Christchurch, a former 'associate' or branch leader of the GFS in England. The idea was received enthusiastically by a number of eminent Anglican women, who believed the GFS would be a 'great boon and safeguard' to 'some hundreds of girls employed in boot and cloth factories in Christchurch'. [2] An appeal was made for money and at least thirty working associates to supervise evening classes; a controversial parent-society ruling required that all associates be Anglican. GFS Christchurch was formally established in October 1882, with Mrs Harper as president.

In 1883 Lady Lucy Jervois, who had a long record of GFS work in England and Australia, established the society in the dioceses of Auckland and Wellington. The remaining dioceses of Nelson, Dunedin and Waiapu formed branches in 1902, following a tour by a GFS speaker from England. Within each diocese the GFS was formed as a charitable trust, with financial advice given by a board of male trustees. Parish branches were brought together under the leadership of an all-female diocesan council, responsible for managing GFS hostels, organising support services for immigrant women, and overseeing the work of associates in the parish branches. A Dominion GFS executive formed briefly; the first, and only, national conference was held in Auckland in 1912.

GFS membership was open to single girls and women of any denomination, aged between 13 and 30; on marriage, they could become honorary members. By 1889 GFS Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington had about 300 members each. Factory and shop workers predominated, reflecting the city-based nature of the society. Few domestic servants appear to have joined, and the scattering of country branches consisted mainly of 'daughters at home or school teachers'. [3] Although the GFS ruled that only girls of virtuous character were to be admitted, it had a long tradition of discreet support for single women who became pregnant.

GFS classes provided 'innocent amusement for girls in their leisure hours' and trained them for 'the worthier performance of the duties of life'. [4] Bible study figured strongly at weekly meetings; there might also be instruction in dressmaking, cooking, first aid, singing and crafts, depending on the particular interests or strengths of the associate. Service work involved fundraising for the parish church, local GFS hostel, foreign missions and children's homes. During World War I members knitted 'comforts' for the troops and collected clothes for Belgian refugees.

Recreational activities included impromptu speeches, competitions, games, concerts, play-readings, picnics and other outings. The annual GFS festival featured a combined Mothers' Union and GFS church service, handwork exhibitions and an evening meeting, where an address was given, the yearly report delivered, and prizes presented for scripture and needlework. In the 1920s and 1930s festival activities became more elaborate: photographic exhibitions, home science competitions, folk-dancing, recitals and drama productions began to feature.

Girls Friendly Society group photo

Hawke's Bay Knowledge Bank. Accession No. 878/1616/39557

Group photo of St Matthew's Church branch of Girls' Friendly Society, Hastings. Hilda Pope, the society's founding member, is seated on the chair in the second row behind the sign. Deaconess Mabel Holmes is on her left wearing a cross.

In response to the shortage of cheap, safe accommodation for single women, the GFS began housing initiatives on a modest scale in Christchurch (1883), Wellington (1884) and Auckland (1885). GFS Wellington initially rented a six roomed house in Tory Street; seventeen boarders moved into lodgings on Vivian Street in 1887, and in 1928, after vigorous fundraising, a 50-bed hostel was built, providing both temporary and long-term accommodation. The GFS also established hostels in Napier (1913), Wanganui (1918), New Plymouth (1930), Dunedin and Hastings. By 1935 the only hostels which remained economically viable were Auckland (till 1961), Napier (till 1968), and Wellington, which was still operating in 1993.

The welfare of single female immigrants, who were arriving in considerable numbers from the turn of the century, was of concern to the GFS. In England the society provided escorted passages for members or associates wishing to emigrate to Australasia or, more frequently, made arrangements for them to be met by GFS representatives. The local GFS helped new arrivals with employment and accommodation if necessary, and in many cases kept a record of their progress. This work continued until the outbreak of World War I, when the flow of immigrants came to an abrupt halt, and was resumed in the 1920s.

Although GFS membership fluctuated during the 1920s, its welfare work took on new dimensions during the Depression. To cope with the numerous cases of needy young women seeking employment and accommodation, the GFS worked in tandem with organisations such as the Women's Unemployment Committees. In 1936 the GFS relaxed its rules governing moral conduct in an effort to revive interest in the society's work. In Wellington at least, branch membership increased, but this expansion was cut short by the outbreak of World War II. Many associates left to join organisations working specifically toward the war effort, although GFS Wellington did help meet the accommodation needs of young women war workers.

Young women lounging about

Teachers College, kindergarten teaching and other students in the sitting room of Bishop Bennett House, one of two GFS hostels in Wellington in 1958. It housed about 23 young women, Māori and Pākehā. Christchurch Anglican Diocesan Archives.

After the war, GFS classes virtually disappeared from the parishes as mixed youth groups took their place. The advent of social security in 1938 had also relieved the GFS of many of its welfare responsibilities. During the next two decades, the GFS wound up in every diocese except Wellington, placing its assets into local trust accounts. GFS Wellington focused on developing its hostel programme, as increasing numbers of young women came to the city for tertiary training and work. From 1955 it managed two hostels; young Māori women were given first preference at Bishop Bennett House in Thorndon. In 1971 premises in Karori were purchased.

At its centenary in 1983, GFS Wellington decided to refocus on welfare work for disadvantaged women. It employed a number of committed Christian women to run life skills classes in sewing, cooking and parenting, and to provide counselling and other support services. Social adjustment groups for new settlers catered specifically for Vietnamese and Indian women, and for refugees from the Iran–Iraq war.

In 1991 GFS Wellington gave individual help to 396 women; most were referred by local women's refuges and other agencies, including the Department of Social Welfare. They were mainly young mothers in need of clothing and food; a significant proportion were Māori and Pacific women. In Hawke's Bay, GFS money previously held in trust was being used to provide welfare services for Māori women.

By 1993, GFS existed in 41 countries. Its long survival could be attributed to its having 'a ministry with the world', as part of the Anglican tradition; [5] the World Council held its triennial meeting in Wellington in 1993. Efficient management and sound investments had ensured GFS Wellington's financial security, enabling it to respond to the increased demand for its services. Members spoke of the friendly, caring and supportive nature of the GFS, of 'women helping women' on the basis of loosely structured Christian principles and individual need. [6]

Fiona McKergow

1994 – 2018

In the 25 years since 1993, GFS shifted its focus from managing hostel accommodation to funding tertiary education scholarships. The last remaining GFS hostel, Lucy Jervois House in Karori, was sold in 1995, bringing over a century’s work in providing safe housing for young women to an end.

The years of transition were challenging; some educational initiatives were successful and others were not. From 1995 to 1998, GFS House, located in the Wellington suburb of Newtown, was the focus of GFS work. A small team of staff, under the management of a social worker, ran courses there for financially and socially disadvantaged women. Group work focused on sewing, social language, self esteem, art therapy, gardening, and orientation for refugees and new migrants. In addition, home-based support was provided to clients with specific needs; annual camps for solo mothers and their children were arranged in partnership with Wellington City Mission; and a clothing bank was managed by volunteers.

By 1998 GFS House had become too costly to run. Staff were also difficult to retain and class attendance had declined. The property was therefore leased to the Multicultural Centre for Learning and Support Services for several years. Although GFS was aware that there was a ‘serious shortage of safe housing for young women who are living in dangerous situations’, [7] it was unable to locate an agency that would manage its Newtown property as a refuge. A significant turning point was reached in 2001, when GFS House was sold and the organisation became an independently funded charitable trust. New initiatives were developed to address the educational needs of under-resourced young Wellington women.

In 2002 a GFS Scholarship, which at that time covered university tuition fees up to $4000, plus a book allowance of $200, for a maximum of three years, was established in conjunction with Wellington East Girls’ College and Victoria University of Wellington. Scholarship recipients were mentored and supported at a personal level by a GFS Council member as a contemporary form of ‘friendship’. As an Information Technology student who was one of the first recipients stated: ‘In Cambodia I could only dream of going to University. I never imagined that I would be able to make it.’ [8] The scheme later expanded to include other schools in the Wellington region, and tertiary institutions throughout New Zealand. By 2018, a total of 88 young women, including other refugees, had been given the opportunity to gain tertiary education qualifications.

GFS also provided language learning support to young refugees and new migrants by funding two teacher aide positions for ESOL classes at Wellington East Girls’ College. This programme ran from 2001 to 2018, when this support was no longer warranted, due to the predominance of international fee-paying students in the classes. Another initiative was GFS’s contribution to the Mission4Families programme run by Wellington City Mission from 2000 to 2007. For many years GFS participated in a church service at Marsden Lower School, at which toys were collected for distribution as Christmas gifts to children in the care of Barnardos New Zealand. [9]

In 2018 GFS existed in 24 countries. [10] The annual World Council meeting, World Project and Day of Prayer provided an international perspective on GFS’s work towards promoting the wellbeing of young women and girls in Wellington. Unlike a number of its overseas counterparts, such as GFS Australia, it did not work directly with young men and boys, preferring instead to remain true to its original sense of purpose.


[1] Gambrill, 1983, p. 1.

[2] New Zealand Church News, April 1882, p. 66.

[3] Friendly Work, November 1889, p. 164.

[4] Friendly Work, November 1889, p. 166.

[5] Personal information from Joy Parkin, president, GFS Wellington, April 1992.

[6] GFS information pamphlet, 1992.

[7] GFS Annual Report, 2001.

[8] Anon., 'Scholarship brings dream alive', Victorious: Magazine for Friends and Alumnae of Victoria University of Wellington, Summer 2003, p. 8.

[9] GFS Annual Reports, 1996­–2018; email from Janet Waite to Fiona McKergow, 23 October 2018.

[10] GFS, ‘GFS Worldwide’. Retrieved 25 October 2018 from:

Unpublished sources

GFS Wellington, records, 1883–1971, ATL

GFS, Records, 1885–1995, ATL

GFS, Annual Reports, 1996–2018, in possession of Janet Waite, Wellington

Published sources

Gambrill, Mollie, Girls' Friendly Society in New Zealand, 1882–1983, GFS Wellington, Wellington, 1983

Heath Stubbs, Mary, Friendship's Highway: Being a History of the Girls' Friendly Society, 1875–1925, GFS Central Office, London, 1926

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Patricia Reesby

Posted: 17 Mar 2020

In 1961, when I was nineteen, I stayed at the GFS Hostel at 54 Murphy St in Thorndon, Wellington. Was this the same hostel as the Bishop Bennett hostel mentioned above? I've been thinking of it recently as I've been swimming at the Thorndon pool after many years - I'm sure I swam there when I stayed at the hostel, though I have few overall memories. Also, is the hostel building still there? I walked up Murphy St yesterday and the building which is now apparently the Chinese Embassy looked very familiar. Someone was about to walk in and looked up the number, she told me it was Number 4 but numbers would almost certainly have changed over the years, and perhaps 4 referred to the side street in any case. I still have an envelope addressed to me in 1961 so am certain the hostel was 54 Murphy St. I would love to know more about it. About all I can recall is that I shared an upstairs room with Joan Barber who I already knew from Palmerston North Teachers' College (we were on a 'third year' to Victoria University) and a young woman who worked in a bank, I think.