Onehunga Ladies' Benevolent Society

1863 – 2017

Onehunga Ladies' Benevolent Society

1863 – 2017

Theme: Welfare

This essay written by Margaret Tennant was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Margaret Tennant and Anne Else in 2018.

1863 – 1993

Although not the first women's organisation in New Zealand, the Onehunga Ladies' Benevolent Society (OLBS) was thought to be the oldest surviving in 1993, its uninterrupted existence dating back to 1863.

The society had its origins in New Zealand's internal conflicts of the time. In the winter of 1863, a group of Pākehā women and children from the upper reaches of the Manukau Harbour were hurriedly evacuated to the village of Onehunga to escape a perceived Māori threat. Separated from all their possessions and housed in a large, bare shed by the beach, the refugees were cold, hungry and miserable. Among the society's records is a letter from one of the evacuees, a crown pensioner's wife named 'Martha Emma'. Written to Martha's mother in England, the letter was apparently not despatched. A rare example of a sufferer's view of nineteenth century destitution, it ended with the poignant appeal, 'Dear, Dear, Dear, Mother, how I wish I was a child again and safe home in your arms'. [1]

The letter also charted in appreciative terms the very practical assistance being given in the form of soup and shelter by Elizabeth George, proprietor of the nearby Royal Hotel. It was she who took the first steps toward a more collective response to the refugees' needs by advocating the formation of a welfare society in the village. In keeping with the proprieties of the day, she called upon a local minister to convene the necessary public meeting, and in August 1863 the Onehunga Ladies' Benevolent Society was formed. Following a pattern common to nineteenth century 'benevolence', its committee consisted of women of the village and ministers of religion.

Elizabeth George

Mrs Elizabeth George, founder of the Onehunga Ladies’ Benevolent Society.

Although the Manukau evacuees later returned to their homes, the society continued in existence, meeting first in an old school hall and later in church premises. The committee focused its attention particularly (but not exclusively) on the needs of distressed women and children. Funds were raised through concerts, soirées and public appeals, with occasional bequests providing a much needed boost to finances.

The forms of help given by the society in the nineteenth century were typical of charities of the time. Assistance in kind was much more common than monetary aid. The society gave out blankets, spectacles, boots and food, paid rents and fares for travel, lent money for funerals and bought black dresses for widows. Red flannel petticoats (a panacea for all ills) were distributed to the sick and insufficiently clad. Those in need of institutional care were assisted into the public hospital or one of Auckland's women's homes. The ladies of the society did not allow their beneficence to be squandered on luxuries: one elderly man, reported to have been seen smoking a pipe, was firmly told that 'if he did not desist from this filthy habit his weekly allowance of 1/6 would be cut off'. [2]

In the twentieth century the society continued to focus on the distribution of fuel, milk, groceries and women's and children's clothing. There was a continuity of personnel as well as effort, with one report noting how it had been a fashion for daughters to follow mothers onto the committee.

Demand for the society's services fluctuated according to the economic climate and alternative sources of welfare. The Depression of the 1930s was described as 'a most trying time', since the society was 'never designed to cope with such abnormal conditions'. [3] Despite the formation of the more widely based Onehunga Relief Committee in 1933, the society remained under enormous stress until the introduction of social security in 1938.

As the welfare state expanded over subsequent decades, the activities of the society contracted. Its main role was to meet emergency needs and supply a few additional comforts for those under the care of other agencies. Then, in the 1980s, 'benevolence' again came into its own. The society's 1992 report noted that calls for food had steadily increased, as had cases needing help for a longer term. Most of the society's 68 'clients' were referred by other agencies, including, significantly, the Department of Social Welfare.

Margaret Tennant

1994 – 2017

Despite their modest 1990s upsurge in activity, the Onehunga Ladies Benevolent Society (OLBS), like many other small organisations, became increasingly dependent upon the energies of a single person, supported by a small group of ageing members, to sustain its existence. In this case it was Hazel Askew; by the time she received a QSM in 2015, she was 91 and had been working for the Society for 40 years. [4]

The OLBS was registered with the Charities Commission in 2007, its charitable purpose the supply of emergency food parcels. The group would find out who was in need from the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and Lifeline, and deliver food parcels to them anonymously, sometimes also supplying household items, for example to recently released prisoners. The society’s last return in 2014 claimed ten volunteers working a total of 20 hours per week, but only $76 was recorded as spent that year, because most food was donated, including by members. [5] Hazel Askew also kept food supplies in her home in case she heard of anyone who needed help.

In 2017 the society was deregistered for failing to file returns. The linkage of ‘ladies’ and ‘benevolence’ had little purchase in the twenty-first century, and this especially venerable body had largely faded. Yet the small remaining group of former members were still collecting food donated by community group and church members, and taking it to the Mangere foodbank. ‘Just before Christmas is a time when we try to do this, as after Christmas is when people seem to be in need the most.’ They were also doing morning teas twice a year for the clients of Sheltered Workshops, and giving a small gift to each at the November morning tea. ‘We all agree that this little effort on our part shows these young ones that their community is proud of the work they do. Each time we visit we see the joy on their faces… This is one reason we shall try to keep doing this for as long as we can.’ [6]

Margaret Tennant and Anne Else

Notes

[1] Undated letter, OLBS papers.

[2] Onehunga News, 15 May 1963.

[3] Annual Report, 1933.

[4] Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, ‘New Year Honours 2015 – Citations for The Queen's Service Medal: ASKEW, Mrs Hazel’, 2015. Retrieved 14 October 2018 from: https://dpmc.govt.nz/new-year-honours-2015-citations-queens-service-medal

[5] Charities Register, no. CC21851, www.register.govt.nz

[6] Hazel Askew, Irene Fredrickson and Marlene Mathews, personal communications, November 2018

Unpublished sources

Onehunga Ladies' Benevolent Society, pamphlet, compiled by Mrs Wyn A. Rowe, ca. 1976, Auckland War Memorial Museum Library, MS–969

Onehunga Ladies’ Benevolent Society records, 1873–2004, Auckland Central City Library, NZMS 1465

Published sources

Papers Past, Auckland, 1863–1950, various items referring to the Onehunga Ladies’ Benevolent Society

Community contributions

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