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Women's Patriotic Associations

1914 – 1945

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

On news of the outbreak of war in August 1914, Lady Annette Liverpool, wife of New Zealand's Governor-General, appealed to women throughout the country to form organisations to provide 'necessaries' for the troops at home and abroad. Within a matter of days, Women's Patriotic Associations or Guilds were established in the military districts of Auckland, Wellington, Canterbury and Otago, and began making, receiving and distributing food and clothing. The associations continued their work for the duration of the war, disbanding after all the troops had returned.

This pattern of organisation and activity was repeated in World War II, when Women's Patriotic Associations were established as part of the eleven Provincial Patriotic Councils formed under the Patriotic Purposes Emergency Regulations 1939. Although the associations were part of a wider patriotic movement in both wars, they functioned independently of the men's groups.

Thousands of women were attracted to the work of the associations, although only a small number of mainly well-off, middle class women acted as organisers. A meeting called to establish an association in Otago in 1914 attracted over 800 women, the largest number ever assembled in Dunedin for a public meeting; fewer than 30, however, served on the association.

Garden Party, 1919

Christchurch City Libraries Photograph collections, PhotoCD 11, IMG0086.

Garden party at Holly Lea, Christchurch, 1919. This was the final meeting of depot workers and branch representatives of the Lady Liverpool Fund.

The associations interpreted their patriotic duties very broadly. In both wars, they made and sent items of clothing and bedding to Belgium, France and England in response to international appeals. During World War I, they provided bedding to hospitals in New Zealand, and gave assistance during the 1918 influenza epidemic.

Most of the associations' attention, particularly during World War I, was centred on the welfare of New Zealand soldiers, whether serving overseas or returned from service. For those about to go overseas, the associations organised entertainments and farewell functions. In centres such as Dunedin, the local association opened a hall for soldiers, providing refreshments and hospitality daily for much of the war. Returned soldiers were offered practical assistance, such as a supply of warm underclothing, and in both wars the associations contributed funds to soldiers' or services' clubs.

The primary focus in both wars was providing parcels for soldiers, containing clothing, food and tobacco. The Dominion Parcels Scheme of World War I was a massive undertaking: at a conference of patriotic committees in Wellington in 1916, the delegates pledged to send away over 20,000 parcels each month for the duration of the war. [1] To achieve their monthly quota, members not only made items themselves, but organised the making of goods and the collection of material from other patriotic groups. For some associations, this entailed daily meetings throughout the war. The scheme was not without its problems, however, as troops reported receiving poorly sized and unusable items. During World War II, associations published standard patterns and sizes for women who wished to make clothing.

In both wars, associations financed their activities through donations and intensive fundraising campaigns, including fētes, street collections and entertainments such as Queen Carnivals. Although fundraising entailed considerable work, it ensured independence from government control, a fear voiced at the 1916 conference.

Financial independence, however, did not exempt the associations' activities from public scrutiny. In 1919 the executive of the Otago Association was accused of paying its members a salary from funds it had raised. The executive directed critics to the accounts, which revealed only £41 for 'sundry items', and no payment of any form of wage to the women.

WW2 fundraising activites

Auckland Libraries, Auckland Weekly News, 08 OCTOBER 1941, Sir George Grey Special Collections, AWNS-19411008-24-4

Scenes from a Sports Gala day in Dunedin held in 1945 in aid of Patriotic Funds - a Women's marching team and a women's football match. The marching team has the letters DSA printed on their blouses, standing for Drapery Supply Association, a Dunedin store.

In World War II, the National Patriotic Fund Board and Provincial Patriotic Councils assumed considerable responsibility for patriotic events. The women's associations lost much of the autonomy they had experienced 25 years earlier, although this did not detract from their work.

Bronwyn Dalley


[1] In their kitbags, World War I soldiers needed ‘two pairs each of socks and underpants; two each of woollen shirts and undershirts, towels and cholera belts; one handkerchief, chest protector, pair of braces, holdall, balaclava cap, service bag for rations and ‘housewife’. Most of these items were provided by soldiers’ families and the women’s guilds.

Unpublished sources

Anderson, Margaret, 'The Female Front: The Attitudes of Otago Women towards the Great War 1914-1918', BA (Hons) research essay, University of Otago, 1990

McLeod, Jan, ‘Activities of New Zealand Women during World War One’, BA (Hons) research essay, University of Otago, 1978

Otago Women's Patriotic Association records, 1885-1920, Otago Early Settlers Museum, Dunedin