Story: Taylor, Elizabeth Best

Page 1 - Taylor, Elizabeth Best

Taylor, Elizabeth Best

1868–1941

Temperance worker, community leader, social reformer

This biography was written by Margaret Lovell-Smith and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Elizabeth Best Ellison was born on 21 September 1868 at Lyttelton, New Zealand, the daughter of Robert Best Ellison and his wife, Rachel Robinson. Elizabeth spent her early childhood on farms in South Canterbury, moving to Dunedin when she was about 12. Here she attended the Normal School and did her first year's training as a teacher. When the Ellison family moved to Christchurch in 1889 Elizabeth transferred to the Christchurch Normal School, but left during the year to nurse her mother and look after her nine younger brothers and sisters. Her mother died in August 1889, and she continued to care for her father and siblings, the youngest of whom was six.

Diaries that Elizabeth Ellison kept at this time show her to have been deeply religious with high ideals. She attended the Durham Street Wesleyan Church, taught Sunday school, and belonged to the church's mutual improvement society. During her strenuous daily round of housework she also pursued a programme of self-education, taught her younger brothers and sisters French and Latin and took music pupils.

On 18 April 1892, at Christchurch, Elizabeth Ellison married Thomas Edward Taylor, a clerk and leading prohibitionist. They were to have six children. Tommy Taylor was always active in public life, and was a member of the House of Representatives for three terms between 1896 and 1911. Elizabeth's main preoccupation during this period was the care of the home and family. However, she had joined the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) soon after her marriage and collected signatures for at least one of the women's franchise petitions. In 1896 she attended the first meeting of the National Council of Women of New Zealand, where she read a paper on 'Marriage and divorce'. A resolution which arose during the ensuing discussion, calling for the economic independence of married women, proved to be one of the most controversial issues of the meeting.

After the birth of her fifth child in 1900 Elizabeth became dangerously ill and until the end of her life suffered intermittent ill health. A trip to Britain and Europe with Tommy in 1902 was a welcome break in a busy life. Their sixth child was born in 1906. In April 1911 Tommy Taylor was elected mayor of Christchurch, but he died on 27 July after a brief illness. After his death Elizabeth embarked on a career of public service which had four main strands: the temperance cause, children's welfare, women's rights, and peace. The organisation which encompassed all of these interests and the one with which she identified most closely, was the WCTU.

In 1918 Elizabeth Taylor became president of the Christchurch branch of the WCTU and in 1926 dominion president. She held this position until ill health persuaded her not to seek re-election in 1935. She was an inspirational leader whose Christian beliefs gave her a spiritual and international perspective on human development. Her presidential address to the WCTU convention always included an overview of the progress of women throughout the world and of moves towards world peace. She constantly reminded members that New Zealand women had been first to win the vote but had proven 'possibly last to make full use of it'.

Elizabeth Taylor was actively involved in other organisations which promoted the interests of children, women and world peace. She was the founding president from 1911 to 1914 of the Christchurch Crèche and Kindergarten Association, which later became the Christchurch Free Kindergarten Association. She also chaired the Phillipstown Kindergarten committee for many years. In 1912 she gave evidence to the Royal Commission on Cost of Living in New Zealand, and in the same year became the first president of the New Zealand Housewives' Union; she represented the union at the 1912 Labour Unity Conference. From 1913 she was a prominent figure in the Social Democratic Party and served as president of the women's committee. During the 1918 influenza epidemic Taylor was in charge of a hostel set up for children whose parents were afflicted with the disease. As one of the first women justices of the peace in Christchurch she was later made an associate magistrate to the Children's Court.

Within the Christchurch branch of the National Council of Women, Elizabeth Taylor promoted issues such as a motherhood endowment, women police, the right of married women to retain their own nationality, and women in politics. In 1938 she was made a life member of the NCW. Taylor was one of the New Zealand delegates at the first Pan-Pacific Women's Conference held in Hawaii in 1928, and she chaired the New Zealand branch committee of the Pan-Pacific Women's Association from 1931 until 1937. She was a founding member and vice president of the Christchurch branch of the League of Nations Union of New Zealand, and after resigning as dominion president of the WCTU actively promoted peace work in the movement as superintendent of the peace department.

Elizabeth Taylor was an extremely able organiser, writer and speaker. Her public service received recognition when she was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal in 1935 and made an OBE in 1937. She died in Dunedin on 27 April 1941.