Story: Kirk, Cybele Ethel
Kirk, Cybele Ethel
Temperance and welfare worker, teacher
This biography was written by Dale Ashenden Williams and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996
Cybele Ethel Kirk was born at Auckland on 1 October 1870, the youngest of nine children of Sarah Jane Mattocks and her husband, Thomas Kirk, a secretary. The family pronounced her name 'Sibillee', but in later years she was also known as Ethel. When she was three the family moved to Wellington, where Thomas Kirk became a lecturer in natural sciences at Wellington College.
Cybele Kirk attended the Greenwood sisters' Terrace School. She grew up in a strongly moral, fiercely temperance Baptist household which was, however, genial and full of fun – even the cat was called Prohibition ('Proey' for short). Given to good works, the Kirks supported the socially progressive ideas of their time. At the age of 15 Cybele helped a woman take her drunken husband home, and from that day she became dedicated to the temperance cause, joining both the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union and the New Zealand Alliance at their inception.
With her mother and sisters, Amy and Lily, Cybele assisted Thomas Kirk with his botanical work, his correspondence and the labelling and mounting of specimens. Occasionally she rode out with him to gather native flora from Makara and Karori streams. She and her mother and sisters also helped to teach English to recent Chinese immigrants, and reading and domestic science to young women factory workers in central Wellington. However, during her teens Cybele's health was fragile, and when in 1897 her name was put forward unsuccessfully as a candidate for the secretaryship of the newly formed Wellington branch of the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children, her mother commented, 'Amy & I think Cybele far too nervous & sensitive for the position, much of the work must be of a terribly painful kind.'
After her father's death in 1898 the family was hard up, and she and her sisters needed to work for their living. Already active as a Sunday school teacher in the Vivian Street Baptist Church, Cybele Kirk entered primary school teaching, working at first in country schools and later in private and denominational schools in Wellington. In 1905 she helped establish the Richmond Free Kindergarten Union, and as a teacher at the Tory Street Free Kindergarten became involved in fund-raising functions for the union. Dressed in her uniform of blue dress, red belt and sailor hat, she spoke at many gatherings. In 1908 she also worked to promote the YWCA in Wellington. In 1910 she taught at schools near Hokitika and in the Marlborough Sounds.
In her early years she was protected and outshone by her brilliant family, and it took the death of her mother and sister Lily to help her find her individual strength. She accepted a post at Otaki Maori College in 1917 and during the influenza epidemic of 1918 ran an emergency hospital in the town hall. She stayed in the district until 1921 and made many lifelong friends among the Maori people.
From now on Cybele Kirk was to devote her life to social work. From 1924 to 1937 she was paid secretary of the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children. Travelling between Wellington and Palmerston North, she visited the homes of the needy, those affected by drink or violence, and deserted or unwed mothers. Her duties included investigating reports of child abuse, providing food and blankets for sick mothers, pursuing errant husbands for maintenance, and supporting women in the courts. Kirk managed the Wellington branch office and its clerical work, and was an effective lobbyist for changes to the laws affecting women and children. She developed an extensive knowledge of the workings of the justice system and campaigned for women to serve on juries.
In 1926 Kirk was one of the first four Wellington women to be appointed justice of the peace. She had been president of the Wellington branch of the National Council of Women of New Zealand for several years, and from 1934 to 1937 was president of the national body. She opposed the economic dependency of women and supported the right of married women to paid employment. Kirk was local president of the WCTU from 1923 to 1927, district president in 1923 and dominion president in 1946, and was still treasurer of the Wellington branch at her death. In 1935 she was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal for her outstanding community service.
Cybele Kirk never married, but over the years she cared for her mother, sister Amy, and brother Harry, all of whom predeceased her. Her niece, Janet Atkinson, also lived with her. Tall, with striking good looks, Cybele Kirk had 'a keen intellect, a quiet humour, and a strong personality'. She was kind, witty and had a good business sense, but never sought the limelight. She believed that women should unite to serve the community, and decried the woman 'who wants to grind her own little axe and be arrayed in a little brief…authority'. She died in Wellington on 19 May 1957, having retained her lifelong active interest in temperance and in the civil rights of women and children.