And yet, she persisted

Many of you will already know that Christchurch has a fascinating political history, from labour movements to radical social reform to the campaign for women’s suffrage. It is to my eternal disappointment that this “great ferment of ideas”, as Jim McAloon calls it, is almost invisible in the archaeological record – even more so when, as it was in many cases, this history of socio-political reform linked with the lives and actions of Christchurch’s women. We’ve talked before on the blog about how difficult it can be to see gender in the archaeological record and, more specifically, how difficult it can be to see women, who are often defined by the occupation, class, economic status and social profiles of the men in their lives. Yet, every now and then, we find ourselves in an exception to that rule. For example…

May I introduce the inimitable Mrs Fanny Cole, prohibitionist, staunch agitator for women’s rights and all round formidable woman.

Fanny Cole sits at the front right of this photograph – she’s the commanding woman with the no-nonsense expression on her face and the gavel in her lap. Image: Otago Witness, “Delegates attending the NZWCTU’s national convention in Dunedin, 1912,” Voices Against War, accessed August 11, 2017.

Mrs Cole (or shall we call her Fanny?) lived at a house on River Road, in Avonside, with her husband, Herbert, during the late 19th century. She was the daughter of Charles and Fanny Holder, Methodist preachers and activists, and first arrived in New Zealand in 1880. She married Herbert Cole in 1884 and, by 1893, they had purchased a section on River Road, on which they built their house.

(Herbert was a commercial agent and staunch prohibitionist himself, but as this is a blog about Fanny, not Herbert, we shall leave it at that.)

The Cole’s house on River Road, as it was in 2014. Image: K. Webb.

We first ran across Fanny Cole when we recorded her house on River Road. The house was a fairly standard late 19th century villa, nothing unusual or fancy about it. A few ceiling roses, a few extensions, weatherboards and sash windows, a modest house for a woman, her husband and her children.

An archaeological drawing of the south elevation (or front) of the house. Image: K. Webb.

From the back, you can see the extensions and modifications that occurred over the years. Image: K. Webb.

Ceiling roses and hidden wallpaper gems. Image: K. Webb.

Case windows and the reflection of an archaeologist in her natural habitat. Image: K. Webb.

However, while recording the house and monitoring the demolition, we found a few things – bits of ceramic, a knife handle, a poster for Goofy’s dance review. Among these, found in the rafters of the attic space, was a small, yet intriguing piece of card. On one side were the partial printed details of a lecture and, on the other, a handwritten appointment reminder for something in New Brighton or Burwood on Friday at 7.15 pm and the stamp of the W. C. T. U., Christchurch, 129 Manchester Street.

The rafters of the attic space, where the ticket was found. Image: K. Webb.

The card, with the stamp of the W. C. T. U and handwritten appointment on one side, and the details of an event on the other. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

The W. C. T. U. stands for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an organisation that was established in Christchurch in 1885 to combat the evils of drink in Victorian New Zealand, but which became a vehicle for the promotion of social reform and, not least, for the voices of women. Most notably, one of the earliest members – and national presidents – of the organisation was Kate Sheppard, and it was through the machinery of the W. C. T. U. that much of the campaigning for women’s suffrage in the late 1880s and early 1890s was carried out. This was an organisation of strong women, who believed that alcohol was destroying society, that something needed to be done about it and, that if no-one else would do it, they would break down the gender barriers to do it themselves. From there, really, there was no stopping them. Or, perhaps I should say, us.

We’re not entirely sure what the appointment in New Brighton at 7.15 pm on Friday happened to be, but the rest of that tiny piece of card – well, that’s another story. After a bit of sleuthing we discovered that the lecture referred to on the back of the card is likely to have been one in a series of lectures given by the Reverend Leonard M. Isitt at the Theatre Royal in 1894, along with a talk by William Lloyd Garrison “hero and slave liberator.” The Reverend Isitt was an active politician and labour leaning member of parliament in the early 1900s, a strong proponent of the temperance movement and a close friend of the Coles.

Advertisement for a lecture by the Reverend L. M. Isitt on the 4 December, 1894. Image: Poverty Bay Herald, 1/12/1894: 3. 

However, it was the W. C. T. U. that really intrigued us. As it turns out not only was Fanny Cole a prohibitionist and active member of the W. C. T. U. (inherited in some part from her activist Methodist parents, do you think?), she was, by 1897, the national W. C. T. U. secretary (Kate Sheppard was president) and, by 1904, the president of the Christchurch branch. By 1906, she was the national president for the union. And it is in this role, and through this association, that history – and archaeology – can hear her voice. And not just her voice – her political voice. Because, let me tell you, she did not hold back.

Fanny Cole’s signature on the 1893 women’s suffrage petition presented to parliament by John Hall. Image: Archives New Zealand.

She was vocal, as one would expect from the president of a temperance union, on the subject of alcohol, from publicly taking the ‘liquor party’ to task for stealing a W. C. T. U. globe tableau to employing graphic and dramatic rhetoric against the liquor sellers and their ‘no license’ agenda. In 1899, for example, she said (and I could not make this up):

“The term innocent can scarcely be applied to designate those men and women whose hands are red with the blood of hundreds and thousands slain ruthlessly by the liquor traffic. You say that those who vote for no license would do evil that good many come. That is not true. But the publicans and brewers are working evil all the time so that they may live.”

Press, 28/11/1899: 2.

Extracts from Fanny Cole’s letter to the editor on the ‘no license’ question in 1899. Image: Press, 28/11/1899, p. 2.

She, and the rest of the W. C. T. U., railed against what they considered the cause of harm to women, children and society. They took on everyone, from liquor sellers to the Sports Protection League (which I did not know was a thing – did anyone else know that was a thing?). As history tells us, theirs was a campaign that never quite succeeded in New Zealand – it was defeated by a vote margin of just over 4% in 1911, a measly 1% in 1919 and an incredible 0.3 of a % later that same year (New Zealand History). Individual districts of the country voted to ‘go dry’, meaning alcohol licenses were not issued for those areas, but New Zealand as a whole never did adopt prohibition.

Extract from Fanny Cole’s letter to the editor on the evils of the alcohol trade in 1899. Image: Press 28/11/1899 p. 2.

The temperance movement was not the only poker that the W. C. T. U. – and Fanny Cole – had in the fire, however. They dedicated themselves to matters of social reform outside the sphere of prohibition. For example, in the early 1900s, they sallied forth on the subject of prison reform – specifically, as it affected female prisoners. Fanny and her fellow members advocated for women to be ‘endowed the with powers of justices of the peace’ in order to act as official visitors to prisons, arguing that female prisoners should be better treated, that they should have women doctors and that, rather than men, women attendants should have charge of “violent or incorrigible female prisoners”.

On the subject of women in prisons. Image: Star 29/11/1897: 2.

In 1910, she and Miss M. B. Lovell Smith signed a public letter to the Honourable Dr Findlay (Minister of Justice at the time), criticising his proposed solutions to the problem of venereal disease, or, as the newspapers called it, “the black plague, peril to the country.” Their letter argued that instead of the reforms Dr Findlay was proposing (which included compulsory examinations and reporting for prostitutes, but not their male customers; McAloon 2000), that emphasis should be placed on providing treatment that didn’t also carry with it the fear of being reported to other authorities. They also argued strongly for the education of young people in schools on the subject of sex, venereal disease and their own bodies – a suggestion that is still controversial in some sectors of New Zealand and in some parts of the world (America comes to mind here…). I remember discovering for the first time that the radical and feminist women of Christchurch were actively campaigning for their economic and sexual independence as early as the turn of the 20th century – largely because, some days, it seems like we are still fighting for this.

“This department suggests that the Education Department of New Zealand should procure the services of specialists to educate the young people in our schools and universities by means of scientific teaching concerning the function of their bodies, the dangers consequent on the misuse of them and the value of healthful self-control.”

Evening Post, 5/09/1910: 8.

Throughout, no matter which areas of social reform she was pushing (and no matter what we think of those reforms now), Fanny was advocating for the necessity of women’s involvement, at all levels of the process. Whether it was women acting as officials in prisons, women making themselves heard in matters of health and education, or women sitting on the boards of aid foundations, she was actively and vocally doing what she could. I think possibly my favourite example was her prediction that, not too far off in the future, there would be women legislators, many of whom “will be far more capable than some of the men now in the House.”

You’ll be pleased to know, Fanny, that we’ve had two women Prime Ministers and currently have a woman Leader of the Opposition….Image: Taranaki Daily News, 12/03/1908, p.2.

Perhaps, nowhere is this unrelenting and forthright emphasis on the rights and position of women in society more obvious than in 1910, when she co-signed a furious letter to the Premier of England regarding the treatment of British suffragettes, and in 1912, when her remarks on the subject were printed in the paper. In both, she cites the shame the Empire endured from conduct of the British government and the total illogicality of keeping women out of the electoral process. Her remarks on the subject were blunt and to the point, questioning the condemnation of women who employed methods less violent than those used by men in their fight for enfranchisement, questioning the progressive credentials of men who cannot see the potential for social reform in politically active women, and condemning “indelible stain on the British Government” left by their actions against the British suffragettes. In her words (and I encourage you to read the full thing):

“We learn, in fact, that the consideration theoretically promised to all his Majesty’s subjects is not extended to women, who are thus shown to be on the footing of serfs in the eyes of his Majesty’s Government… Can anyone fail to draw the obvious inference. Nowhere on earth can the interests of women be safeguarded where Parliament is not as fully responsible to women as to men.”

Grey River Argus, 7/05/1910: 7. 

Remarks on the position of those fighting for women’s suffrage in Britain. Image: Otago Witness 20/03/1912, p. 63. 

Fanny Cole died on the 25th of May, 1913 at the age of 52, while national president of the W. C. T. U. Her funeral was attended by the Mayor of Christchurch, local and national politicians and members of the W. C. T. U. from all over the country. Her eulogy was delivered by the Reverend Leonard M. Isitt, M. P., the ticket to whose 1894 lecture we found in the rafters of her house more than a century later.

Jessie Garland


McAloon, J., 2000. Radical Christchurch. In Cookson, J. and Dunstall, G. (Eds.), Southern Capital, Christchurch: Towards A City Biography, 1850-2000. 

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