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Ranfurly Club

1899 –

This essay written by Susan Upton was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1899 – 1993

The Ranfurly Club was founded in 1899 by a group of Wairarapa women 'to meet a want felt by a large number of ladies, of a place where they can lunch, have afternoon tea, etc., meet their friends or interview servants, and to afford those who require it the advantage of a permanent address in Masterton'. [1] It was for some years a residential club used mainly by country women; but from 1923, when the advent of the motor car had removed the need to stay the night in town, it became 'a Social Club for the amusement and convenience of members'. [2]

The club founders were well educated and well travelled. Their leaders were Helen Garden Moore (who later founded the Lady Jellicoe Club in Whanganui), Hannah Vallance, her sister Alice Hosking, and Marion Rollason Beard. Hosking and Beard had both been in London in the 1890s when many ladies' clubs were being founded. In 1899 the group successfully approached Lady Ranfurly, the wife of the Governor General, to request her patronage. She visited the club in 1900, and 'expressed herself as being very pleased with the arrangements'. [3]

Ranfurly Club group image
First committee of the Ranfurly Club, Masterton, 1899. Prominent early members were Helen Garden Moore (far left), Hannah Valllance (front row, left) and Alice Hosking (centre).

The first meeting of 22 members set the entrance fee at 10s and the annual subscription at one guinea. The committee broadly followed procedures used at the Masterton Club, to which their male relatives belonged. On the whole, Ranfurly members were the wives and daughters of landowners. Many were related and had been to the same private schools: 'Everyone knew each other, or knew of each other.' [4] Ages were mixed, and approximately half the members were single. However, by the 1950s young women no longer followed their mothers into the club, and the generation mix had almost disappeared. From its foundation the club welcomed children; though the rule that they must not be left unattended was strictly enforced, a member could 'introduce a governess or lady help in her employ', presumably to look after them. [5]

In the early 1900s Masterton did not have even a tearooms where a respectable woman could wait before embarking on a long buggy ride. The club answered the need: by 1903 it had 55 members, and rented a building, which was later named Ranfurly House, in Perry Street, where it could become residential. A custodian was appointed to clean and cook, although not until 1916 was she paid a wage. Instead she could let four of the seven bedrooms to women boarders, keeping the other three for members and charging 1s for meals and 1s 6d for beds. The house committee made detailed rules, including 'no fowls, ducks, or cats'. [6] Few custodians lasted a year.

By 1922, overnight beds were no longer required, and a rent increase left members with two options: to close the club or find more modest accommodation. They voted to continue in temporary rooms, and in March 1925 moved to a flat designed to their specifications in the Central Arcade, where they stayed for thirty years. The club remained a useful place to change before an evening function, but its main purpose became social. Bridge started to be played in 1924, and in 1931 a gardening circle was formed.

The Ranfurly Club took little part in community activities except in wartime. In 1917, it raised funds for Dr Agnes Bennett in Serbia; in World War II a spinning circle sent garments and parcels overseas, and worked for the Red Cross. However, individual members were prominent in a number of other organisations: Ruth Beetham, president 1906–1929, was active in the temperance movement, the Women's Division of the Farmers Union, the Women's National Welfare League, and running Sedgeley Anglican Boys' Home.

The Ranfurly was the earliest founded club belonging to the Federation of Women's Clubs in New Zealand, which began in 1925. In 1920 the Ranfurly affiliated with the Pioneer Club in Wellington, and by 1923 with clubs in Auckland, Canterbury, Otago, Gisborne, London and Sydney, before joining the Federation in 1928. Inter-club visiting linked Wairarapa women to a wider social network.

In 1953, fearing financial problems ahead, the club started raising funds, including the sale of £10 debentures, to build their own clubrooms. In 1956 they moved into their new building in Chapel Street, where approximately 190 members in the older age group were still meeting in 1993. The bridge and gardening circles continued to flourish then, together with a new pursuit, mahjong and other games after noon. Once a month there was a luncheon with a speaker or other entertainment, and once a year a function to which members could bring their husbands. Every member had a key to the rooms, and some out-of-town members used them regularly to rest, make tea or change.

1994 – 2018

In 1993, with a roll of 181 and falling, the Ranfurly Club had needed new and younger members. Maureen Forbes, past president of the Club and president of the Federation of Women’s Clubs for New Zealand, suggested starting an evening circle. Clubs in other towns had found meeting at this time appealed to businesswomen and mothers at home. The idea was to gather at 5.30 for a Happy Hour, followed by dinner and a speaker. Twenty-three women joined at the inaugural meeting in July, and this number soon grew to 90. Sometimes a waiting list became necessary.

When the Masterton Club finally admitted women as members in 1997, it was feared that they would take members from the neighbouring Ranfurly Club. However, this did not happen: some women belonged to both clubs, but the Ranfurly membership remained stable. Although men could not join the women’s club, they were invited to lunch once a year.

In 1998 the Masterton Club again suggested merging the premises of the two clubs. (The idea had first been mooted in 1991, after a fire gutted the Ranfurly Club building, but insurance had covered restoration and the suggestion had been refused. ) There was intense discussion about the pros and cons of amalgamation, but again the idea was dropped. However, the issue of the shared car park was resolved and the Ranfurly Club paid the Masterton Club $44,000 to safeguard their future needs.

Being able to rent out their clubrooms kept the Club financially viable, and members worked hard to maintain their attractive premises: the clubrooms were refurbished several times, padded stacking chairs were purchased, and in 1999, when the Club proudly celebrated 100 years, they bought a piano. The clubrooms were often hired to groups such as the neighbouring Baptist Church and the Probis antiques group. Other regular users included the Embroiderers’ Guild, from 1986, and the mahjong circle, from 1988. The rooms were also in demand for one-off occasions, such as a Solway Old Girls’ class reunion and a 90th birthday party.

The Ranfurly’s objective had always been to provide a social club for the amusement and convenience of its members, and this continued in 2018. Although the gardening group went into recess in 2008, the bridge circle, founded in 1924, continued to meet weekly.

One of the biggest changes for the committee was the decision to employ caterers. Unusually for women’s clubs, the committee had previously done most of the catering themselves. In 2018, the annual subscription was $70, plus $20 for each dinner. The committee had envisaged that as members retired, they would move from the evening group to the lunch group, but this proved not to be the case: the evening people liked their dinner meetings and did not want to change. By 2018 the lunch group had only 40 members, while the evening group had more than 80.

Although members came from all walks of life, the Ranfurly Club had been started in 1899 principally for rural women. Over a century later many of its members were once again rural women, who had retired to town with their husbands from local farms. As in the past, members belonged because they enjoyed a pleasant social occasion and a chance to meet their friends.

Susan Upton


[1] Ranfurly Club Rules, 1906.

[2] Minutes of AGM, 1926.

[3] Draft article for Lyceum Club paper, 1924.

[4] Interview with Isabel Guscott, Masterton, 31

[5] Minute book, 1914.

[6] Club Rules, 1908.

Unpublished sources

Beetham, Ruth, scrapbook, in possession of the Beetham family, Masterton, 1992.

Federation of Women's Clubs in New Zealand minute books, 1925–1992, Wairarapa Archives

Forbes, Maureen, Jean McLeod, and Jennifer Jury, personal communications, 1992

Guscott, Isabel, 'History of the Ranfurly Club', c. 1970

Ranfurly Club records, 1899–2006, Wairarapa Archives

Upton, Susan, interviews with John and Erica Broad, Isabel Guscott, Margaret Cowie and Phil Maunsell, March 1992

Published sources

Masterton Club N.Z. 1877–1977, Masterton Club, Masterton, 1977

Stubbs, Laura, 'A Plea for Ladies' Clubs', New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, Vol. 7 No. 2, November 1902, pp. 138–41; Vol. 7 No. 3, December 1902, pp. 231–37