Skip to main content

Te Ropu o te Ora Women's Health League

1937 –

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

1937 – 1993

Kia hiwa rā!  Kia hiwa rā!  Be on the alert! Be on the alert!

Once the resounding cry of the sentries standing guard on the fortified pa, this became the motto of the Women's Health League (WHL). [1] As its name shows, it was founded for all women dedicated to improving the health and welfare of Māori people, though its members were predominantly Māori. The league cry reminded them of the need to be on the alert and to prepare for any danger coming through disease, illness or neglect.

At the end of the 1920s the standard of living of Māori people was low, health problems were widespread, and infant mortality was high. The Depression brought growing unemployment and lack of access to credit, worsening the effects of land loss, overcrowded and inadequate housing, poor sanitation, unsafe water supplies, unhealthy Pākehā foods, and lack of access to health services such as hospital and dental care.

A small Scottish nurse, Robina (Ruby) Thomson Cameron, who came to be known affectionately as 'Kamerana', was determined to improve the situation. Arriving in New Zealand after five years' service in World War I, she spent eleven years as district nurse at Ōpōtiki, where her interest and concern for the welfare of the Māori began.

In 1931 she was appointed to the huge Rotorua district, the largest in New Zealand, with instructions to pay special attention to child health and health education. [2] The first nurse there to use a car as well as a horse, she travelled long distances on bad roads to reach 'the places where advice was needed most'. As Guide Rangi recalled, she had 'the knack of getting her message across', and 'the gift of inspiring confidence and co-operation'. [3]

With the support of Te Arawa leaders, women were encouraged to come to fortnightly health lectures and films, and to attend mother and child health clinics on the marae. They were instructed in child care, diet, gardening, disease prevention and hygiene. Soon they began forming health committees in each settlement, the forerunners of WHL branches, to deal with their own problems. Within a few years, with close co-operation between the women's committees and marae committees, there were major improvements in health, home life and the pā environment.

Women gathered in front of marae

This photograph, taken in 1937 at Tūnohopū marae in Ōhinemutu, shows the first conference of the Women's Health League. (Sourced from Te Ara).

The next step came at a historic meeting of women on 2 September 1937 at Tūnohopū marae, Rotorua, where the Women's Health League was formed. Its aims and objects covered fellowship and understanding between Māori and European; guidance in care and feeding of infants, cooking, fresh air and sunshine; growing vegetables, flowers and fruit trees; teaching Māori arts and crafts (and insisting on the use of Māori dyes); recording births and deaths; working with the Komiti Marae on improving the pā and Māori welfare; and helping members in sickness and misfortune. At that first meeting the WHL decided to approach Te Arawa Māori Trust Board to set up a free hospital service, keeping a subscription collected from every Māori in a special fund to pay the cost—an early social security scheme.

Within a short time the league had ten sub-branches and more than 400 members. It soon spread to the East Coast, Taupō and Ōpōtiki districts. Men and women, Māori and Pākehā, working together, achieved rapid improvements such as clean, safe water supplies and a dental clinic with free transport. Nurse Cameron, assisted by teachers and parents, gave typhoid inoculations at the schools. Typhoid fever was stamped out, and maternal and infant death rates dramatically reduced.

Each WHL committee chose 'a president who was a woman of high rank, a secretary to keep records of meetings and births and deaths in their district, also a treasurer'. [4] From the beginning, Janet Fraser, wife of Prime Minister Peter Fraser, was a strong and active supporter. She was made a patroness of the league and regularly attended its conferences. Other patronesses were Te Aomihi Mitchell and Ani Pareraututu Waaka; Eruera Riini Mānuera was also a patron. The first three presidents of the WHL were Nurse Cameron (1937–71), Hūhana Eru (1971–78) and Inez Kīngi (from 1978). Many others, too numerous to name, contributed to the good work of the league.

In 1939, against the prevailing attitude of the time, the WHL sent remits to the government urging that the Māori language be taught in schools, and WHL members were encouraged to speak Māori at home to their children. Traditional Māori crafts were fostered through competitions, together with knitting, sewing and thrifty use of resources.

In 1937 the milk in schools scheme began, providing free pasteurised milk for primary pupils. However, it did not then reach the 'areas of isolation and scattered population' where many Māori children lived. [5] Instead, most Māori schools were to receive free malted-milk powder, which had to be boiled up using a copper and milk mixer supplied by the Department of Education. But obtaining the equipment could take a long time, and by 1940, 'a significant number of schools were still not receiving milk'. [6] With the help of league members and local men, Nurse Cameron made sure that many more did so. When the free milk scheme ceased in 1967, the WHL sent remits to Parliament urging that it be resumed, or free fruit supplied.

The problem of excessive liquor consumption among Māori was discussed at several early WHL conferences. In 1941 Nurse Cameron asked the Rotorua Licensing Committee to enforce the by-law prohibiting a Māori person from carrying beer or spirits out of a hotel. This was done, wardens were stationed in Rotorua hotels on Saturdays to see that no Māori became intoxicated, and hotels refused to supply alcohol to Māori women. [7] 

During World War II the WHL sent food parcels to Māori servicemen overseas. In 1941 a soldier wrote from Egypt, 'I am taking this opportunity because I may never get another. . . . On behalf of the boys in the Battalion here at present I thank you the local leagues for the Christmas parcels which I know are on the way. All we are looking forward to now is the eating part.' [8]

The Native Housing Act was passed in 1935, but not implemented. In 1940 the league encouraged the Native Affairs Department to build small homes for pensioners and cheap homes to lease to young couples with no claim to land. By 1952, 645 houses had been built in the thermal district. The WHL was also concerned that Māori coming to visit relatives in hospital in Rotorua could not obtain accommodation in hotels and boarding houses, for reasons of cost and racial prejudice. The situation worsened when a military hospital was set up. At the 1942 conference of the WHL, members planned a guesthouse, to be subsidised by the government. On 28 August 1948, after nearly seven years of fundraising, Peter Fraser opened the Janet Fraser Memorial Guesthouse, situated on Pukeroa Hill near Rotorua Hospital and dedicated to the memory of his late wife. Nurse Cameron wrote from London for the occasion, '. . . let not wood, brick, and mortar be the only memorial to our great leaders. Please let today be the turning point which brings new lifeblood into our Leagues.' [9]

In 1970 the guesthouse became a hostel for young apprentices; in 1993 it accommodated young women and men working and studying in the city. The league helped many other projects over the years: it contributed to a unit at the Waikato University Halls of Residence in 1966, and made a donation for a pew in the chapel at Tokanui Hospital. The WHL's economic base came mainly from donations and fundraising, with little assistance from the state.

In the 1970s and 1980s the WHL worked to make health care more responsive to Māori needs and concerns. During the late 1970s it discussed problems concerned with the release of dead bodies, but its remits to government were not heeded. In 1978 the WHL helped the Department of Health to set up the Fordland Clinic at Rotorua, in line with the policy that health clinics could serve better when they were based on a marae and provided a practical, relevant approach to health care and promotion in the community. The WHL began working toward achieving the same goal.

On 30 August 1986 the Nurse Cameron Memorial Health Centre, also known as the Tūnohopū Health Centre, was opened at Ohinemutu. It offered the local community the services of doctors and nurses as well as of traditional Māori healers. In 1980 at Rotorua, the WHL presented an ear suction machine for the use of public health nurses. In 1991, coming full circle, the Tipu Ora health scheme was launched at the Nurse Cameron Memorial Health Centre, to monitor the health of babies and assist young mothers.

The WHL badge, a green circle surmounted by a tiki, with the words 'Te Rōpū O Te Ora 1937', was designed by Harry Dansey Jr in 1937. Into the 1990s, the business conference was held in March and the birthday conference in September, on different tribal marae. To commemorate each birthday, a tree was planted on the marae where it was held. Birthday conferences also featured displays of traditional Māori craft work. The green and white WHL flag, designed by Wikitōria Butt in 1938, flew twice a year at both conferences. It was very sacred and was draped over the coffin of deceased members.

Each branch had to have a tablecloth for their meetings, with the branch name and ‘WHL’ embroidered on it in white letters. It was customary for members to work some design on the tablecloth and for new members to add to this. At the beginning of WHL meetings members stood and sang the opening ode. The Aims and Objects were recited and the closing ode was chanted at the end of the meeting.

After World War II the Controller of Māori Social and Economic Advancement, Te Rangiātaahua Royal, asked the Arawa branch of the WHL to join with the new government-sponsored Māori Women's Welfare League and change its name. A deputation of Nurse Cameron, Guide Rangi and Ngahuia Ruhi travelled to Parliament to refuse the request. It was their wish that the WHL remain an independent voluntary organisation with its own identity.

As in other women's organisations, urbanisation and the upsurge of women entering the workforce eventually resulted in a marked decline in membership. Yet from the beginning, Māori and Pākehā women joined together in the WHL in a common cause, and their work continued into the 1990s.

Raina Meha

1994 – 2018

Over the years from 1993, the WHL worked to maintain the aims and objectives initiated by Nurse Cameron in the 1930s. From 1978 right up to 2003, the strong leadership of Inez Kingi (Ngāti Whakaue) advanced the health and wellbeing of Māori children. She established relationships with health officials and ministers, and her passion for promoting effective and culturally responsive mother and child healthcare resulted in the establishment of the Tipu Ora Health Centre in Ohinemutu. [10] Inez played a significant role in assisting branch members Bub Brell, Maggie Cleal, Robin Morrison, Rona Larsen and Minnie Vercoe to set up kaumatua activities to prevent social isolation. [11] Many of the eleven branches continued to deliver effective kaumatua morning teas that included health talks, social activities and day outings and work with their marae committees.

Putiputi O’Brien (Ngāti Awa) used her nursing background and passion to advance and strengthen the Māori nursing workforce. She promoted and lived the kaupapa of the WHL to her Kokohinau members. To the wider WHL members she would be fondly remembered as the ‘health guru’ serving the Māori delicacy kaanga pirau (fermented corn) at Kokohinau marae. Putiputi was awarded the Queen’s Service Order (QSO) for her contribution to Māori health, community and welfare in 1987 [12]. 

In the Tairawhiti region, Charlotte Hitaua, Pansy Nepia, Kuini Ruru and others worked tirelessly to maintain marae complexes; support ‘red shed’ health and safety project and ‘atawhai programme’; and provide free travel for rural school children to attend high school, and for kaumatua to shop and visit whanau in Gisborne.  [13]

The dental needs of Māori were met in 1997 with the setting up of Hei Oranga Niho mo te Iwi Māori, a collaboration between the University of Otago and Tipu Ora Dental Clinic, with students in their fifth year of study providing free dental care under supervision. This was undoubtedly a key legacy that WHL could be proud of. [5]

Inez Kingi’s contribution to the health and wellbeing of Māori was recognised in 2000 when she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) for services to the community; in 2009 she received the Queen’s Service Order (QSO) for her ongoing services and commitment to WHL. 

After Inez Kingi resigned in 2003, due to ailing health, Hariata Paikea (Ngāti Kearoa, Ngāti Tuara), took up the role of president. Hariata was encouraged by her mother to strengthen the Horohoro Branch and to encourage younger members. Her strong sense of hapū and community networks enabled her to quietly and unassumingly assist the WHL branches to take a more active role within their communities and learn Māori arts, kapa haka and te reo. Hariata invited Rotorua secondary schools to enter a speech competition on the topic of how the WHL could best meet their needs at the seventieth birthday celebrations in 2007. Positive ideas were gleaned. Promoting the WHL using social media saw the establishment of the WHL website (which proved ultimately unsustainable). However, Hariata’s vision to embrace new world approaches was commendable.

In 2012, Moewaka Morrison wrote the book Women’s Health League Memories 1937–2012, aiming to capture memories and photographs of some of the foundation members from Te Arawa, Te Teko and Tairawhiti-Ngāti Porou. In 2015, a promotion and recruiting campaign was initiated by Hariata Paikea at the Aged Concern Expo in Rotorua. The coming together of Māori and non-Māori sharing memories of Nurse Cameron and foundation kuia prompted Laurie Morrison to apply for funding to write a history of the Te Arawa foundation members of WHL.

In June 2016, the Rotorua Branch formed in 1954 was revived. [14] The original branch amalgamated the groups scattered about the then township of Rotorua. Under the leadership of Mary Hodge (mokopuna of founding president Tirita Bonnington), passion and energy to strengthen and continue the legacies saw the branch initiating a monthly Farmers Market fund-raising activity, jam and pickle workshops, and later kaumatua gym-friendly activities.

Hariata Paikea was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (MNZM) in 2016 for her services to health and Māori. Her brother, Bishop Rahu Katene, described her as a quiet achiever who first and foremost cared about the health, culture and wellbeing of her people, whanau and iwi. She was the only wahine representative in the Ringatu Church, and also a member of the Nurse Cameron Trust, Tipu Ora and Te Utuhina Manaakitanga Trust.

In 2017, Te Ropu o te Ora—The founding of the Te Arawa Women’s Health League 1937 was launched to celebrate 80 years of the Te Arawa WHL. It told stories of key office bearers from the branches set up in and around Rotorua in 1937, and the hardships that the founding women worked with Nurse Cameron to overcome.

Hariata retired from office in September 2018 and was succeeded by Joyce Gardiner (Ngāti Pikiao). Joyce had been part of Tipu Ora and Manaaki Ora for nineteen years and president of Rotoiti Branch for twenty years.

In 2018 the women of the WHL could take strength from all of those kuia and koroua kaumatua who had gone before, and hope that this chapter of the league’s story would help to strengthen the kaupapa of the Women’s Health League heading into the unknown future. Kia hiwa ra! Kia hiwa ra!

Laurie Morrison


[1] Dennan, 1968, p. 113.

[2] The Rotorua district stretched from Wairākei to Pūtāruru and through Rotorua to Rotomā and Otaramarae. In 1939 it had a scattered population of approximately 2500.

[3] Dennan, 1968, p. 99.

[4] ‘Erihapeti', 1952, p. 14.

[5] Report of the Minister of Education for the year ended 31 December 1937, AJHR, E-1, Vol. 11, 1938, p. 10.

[6] Katherine Goodfellow, 'Health for the Māori? Health and the Māori Village Schools, 1890-1940', MA research essay, University of Auckland, 1991, p. 46.

[7] In 1956 Māori wives of Rotorua RSA members and Māori servicewomen were exempted from this ban, then in force in two hotels; it was fully lifted in 1957.

[8] 'Erihapeti', 1952, p. 7.

[9] 'Erihapeti', p. 18.

[10] Inez Hariata Kingi, quoted in Kingi, Pihopa, 2013, p. 23.

[11] Hariata Paikea, personal communication, 31 October 2018.

[12] Hariata Paikea and Pareake O’Brien, personal communications, 6 November 2018.

[13] Niki Hitaua, personal communication, 5 November 2018.

[14] Raewyn Bourne, personal communication, 6 November 2018.

Unpublished sources

Kingi, Inez and N. Brell, personal communications, 1992

Published sources

Dennan, Rangitiaria, with Ross Annabel, Guide Rangi of Rotorua, Whitcombe & Tombs, Christchurch, 1968

'Erihapeti', The Binding of Te Arawa, Rotorua Newspapers Ltd, Rotorua, 1952

Kingi, Pihopa, Inez Hariata Kingi, MNZM QSO, WHL, Rotorua, 2013

Women's Health League, The Unfolding Years 1937–1987, Women's Health League, WHL, Rotorua, 1987

Morrison, Laurie, Te Ropu o te Ora—The Founding of the Te Arawa Women’s Health League 1937, Advocate Print, Rotorua, 2017

Morrison, Moewaka, Women’s Health League—Memories 1937–2012, Mahi Atu Cultural Trust Inc., Rotorua, 2012