Story: Bain, Wilhelmina Sherriff
Bain, Wilhelmina Sherriff
Teacher, librarian, feminist, peace activist, writer
This biography was written by Megan Hutching and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996
Wilhelmina Sherriff (registered as William Sherif) Bain was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 5 September 1848, the daughter of Elizabeth Middlemass and her husband, John Bain, a spirit merchant. She came to New Zealand on the Gloucester in 1858 with her parents, four sisters and one brother and settled in Invercargill. Another brother, James Walker Bain, preceded the family to New Zealand, and became MHR for Invercargill from 1879 to 1881 and mayor in 1892.
Wilhelmina Sherriff Bain (she always used her full name) became a teacher in 1879. She taught in and around Invercargill until at least 1893 but by 1896 was living in Christchurch where she worked as a librarian. As president of the Canterbury Women's Institute that year, Bain hosted the inaugural meeting of the National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCW). She was probably the NCW member most identified with the cause of peace and arbitration during the council's first years from 1896 to 1906. She consistently articulated her opposition to war at NCW meetings and in public forums and once stated that she 'would live, and die, for Peace'. Her support for arbitration as a means of resolving conflict was rooted in her strong Christian faith and her belief in the bonds of humanity.
Bain lived in Christchurch until around 1899 then moved to Auckland, but by 1902 she was living in Taranaki, where she taught at Inglewood until 1904. At the 1900 conference of the NCW in Dunedin she delivered a speech on peace and arbitration which, while New Zealand soldiers were at war in South Africa, brought down the wrath of local newspaper editors and residents on the heads of the NCW. At the 1901 conference in Wanganui she was elected New Zealand's representative on the International Council of Women's standing committee on peace and arbitration, and in 1904 she travelled to Berlin to attend the quinquennial meeting of the ICW. She gave an address there and subsequently published a booklet on the proceedings. On her journey back to New Zealand later that year she also gave an address to the 13th Universal Peace Congress in Boston.
By 1909 Bain was working as a clerk in Riverton and looking after her invalid sister. From 1910 to 1913 she was employed there as a journalist. She worked hard in opposition to compulsory military training, introduced in New Zealand as a result of the 1909 Defence Act, and published a long article on this theme in the Southland Times in 1911. She also helped organise the Aparima Peace Union in 1912. However, peace was not her only interest: at NCW meetings she had also spoken in support of prison reform, women jurors, and protective laws for workers. As a teacher, she had agitated for more women on school boards and committees and the establishment of the principle of equal pay for equal work. A vegetarian and a spiritualist, she was also apparently an accomplished pianist and linguist; it is said that she spoke eight languages.
In 1914 at Invercargill, on her 66th birthday, Bain married Robert Archibald Elliot, a widower and general merchant from Fortrose. Elliot was quite a wealthy man who owned three general stores in Fortrose, Waimahaka and Tokanui. He died on 7 July 1920. Wilhelmina was not one to sit still, however, and in her 70s travelled to London where she had two books published: her collected poems, From Zealandia, and a novel, Service: a New Zealand story. On her return she lived in Auckland until she died there aged 95 on 26 January 1944.
A tiny woman, 'perfect in her speech', her public profile was low in later years and when she died she was remembered for her 'distinct literary gifts' rather than for her activism against war.