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Social Hygiene Society

1916 – 1927

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

The Social Hygiene Society was established in Christchurch during World War I, when the spread of venereal disease once again became a matter of public concern. [1] The society's campaign for 'social hygiene' – the elimination of venereal disease by confining sexual contact to marriage – focused mainly on practical issues, unlike the earlier Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and National Council of Women work on this issue.

Formed in September 1916, after a lecture for women on sex education and 'social diseases' given by Dr Daisy Platts-Mills at the invitation of the North Canterbury Hospital Board, the society had ethical, educational and practical aims. It hoped to 'promote and maintain a high moral tone in the community', to assist mothers in teaching their children 'the principles of social purity and sex hygiene', and to arrange medical advice and treatment for 'women's diseases'. [2]

Initially, the society consisted of 'a committee of women social workers' led by Emma Wilson, a member of the hospital board. [3] In February 1917, the society began work in earnest: it enrolled subscribing members at a large public meeting for women, obtained books and pamphlets from various sources, including the American Social Hygiene Society (as well as producing them itself), and established an advice bureau and lending library at centrally located rooms in Chancery Lane.

The rent and furnishing of the rooms, plus a female attendant's salary, were paid by the hospital board for a six-month trial period; then an annual subsidy was granted. During the first four months of operation, eight young women were referred to the hospital and four to private doctors for treatment; another 50 women visited for information and advice, and much larger numbers telephoned for details of the society's services.

The society benefited from the hard work and commitment of its longstanding president, Eva Roberts, [4] and secretary, Rhoda Tomlinson. Other prominent Christchurch women involved included Nurse Maude, Sister Annie Tocker, Dr Elaine Gurr, and writer Blanche Baughan. Although the society was primarily concerned with educating women about sex hygiene and social purity, it maintained the 'law of purity as equally binding on men and on women'. [5] It vigorously opposed the use of prophylactics in curbing the spread of venereal disease; its solution was chastity.

Lectures on social hygiene were an important aspect of the society's work. In 1918 Edith Howes, a writer of children's books, gave a lecture for the society which was later distributed in pamphlet form. [6] Later that year, Nurse Chappell was employed for a two-month lecture tour of Christchurch; and 65 addresses were given to female audiences, such as senior pupils at Christchurch Girls' High School, women prisoners at Addington, the staff of St Helen's Hospital, and Young Women’s Christian Association classes. The society used modern educational techniques: a film on social hygiene, The End of the Road, was screened to large audiences in 1920. [7]

Under the Social Hygiene Act 1917, treatment for venereal disease became compulsory and it became an offence to 'knowingly' infect another person, yet notification was not required. The Minister of Public Health was empowered to appoint both male and female health patrols, whose duty was 'to protect the health and morality of young persons'. [8] At the society's 1918 conference, the Act was declared by medical and lay experts to be unworkable. The society was against compulsory notification, believing this discouraged sufferers from seeking medical advice; it advocated instead free bacterial and diagnostic testing, drugs and treatment, with notification in cases where the patient refused treatment or exposed another person to infection.

Social Hygiene poster

Archives New Zealand - Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga.

Poster printed by Christchurch Hospital Board on behalf of the Social Hygiene Society, or Women’s Social Hygiene Association as it was also known, July 1920. To publicise the society’s services, the poster was displayed in women’s waiting rooms at railway stations throughout Canterbury.

By 1919 the society wished to extend its work to men and boys, partly because it feared returning servicemen would exacerbate the spread of venereal disease. This extension was delayed, however, by the District Health Officer, who believed the society's funding should be cut because it was 'uncooperative' with the newly appointed female health patrols. Yet unlike institutions such as the Plunket Society, the Salvation Army and the District Nurses' Association, the society was not in a position to provide information on 'suspected cases' of venereal disease, because of its guarantee of client confidentiality. Its approach was strongly supported by local MPs, clerics, prominent medical men and hospital board officials. Further, 'the class of persons attending their office' was 'not one that would go to a public hospital clinic, or one that would consult the Women Patrols'. [9] Funding was continued.

In 1920 a men's branch was formed, and in 1922 the two branches mounted a combined campaign to inform school children about aspects of social hygiene. Speaking tours were extended to Timaru, Hokitika, Ōamaru and Dunedin, while requests for literature were received from all over New Zealand. By 1924–25 the society's patronage appeared to have declined, with only 268 visitors to the rooms, compared with 645 in 1919–20. The society apparently disbanded in 1927.

Fiona McKergow


[1] It was also known as the Women's Social Hygiene Association.

[2] Fenwick, 1926, p. 30.

[3] Fenwick, 1926, p. 30.

[4] Eveline (Eva) Roberts was a daughter of Eveline Willett Cunnington, well known for her social work in Christchurch; a member of the hospital board (elected 1910), as was her daughter, Cunnington had taken part in the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act.

[5] Fenwick, 1926, p. 30.

[6] In 1916 Howes wrote the hugely successful children's book, The Cradle Ship, which presented the 'facts of life' in a manner considered excessively frank by some of her contemporaries, though today it appears extremely oblique.

[7] The film contrasted the 'maidenly modesty' of the heroine with the forwardness of her old school friend, who eventually died of venereal disease.

[8] Social Hygiene Act 1917, New Zealand Statutes, 8. Geo. V., p. 124.

[9] Memo from T. Fletcher Telford, District Health Officer to Chief Health Officer, Wellington, 30 March 1920.

Unpublished sources

Parcell, Kay V., 'The 1922 Committee of Inquiry into Venereal Disease in New Zealand', MA research essay, University of Auckland, 1990

Social Hygiene Association, Department of Health files H45/3, 1916-1927, National Archives, Wellington

Published sources

'A Medical Man', Lines for Suggested Legislation for Dealing with Venereal Disease, Social Hygiene Society, Christchurch, 1918

Fenwick, Dr Percival Clennell, The Christchurch Hospital: Historical and Descriptive Sketch, Andrews, Barry & Co Ltd, Christchurch, 1926