Story: Andrews, Elsie Euphemia

Page 1 - Andrews, Elsie Euphemia

Andrews, Elsie Euphemia

1888–1948

Teacher, community leader

This biography was written by Raewyn Dalziel and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Elsie Euphemia Andrews was born on a small farm at Huirangi, Taranaki, on 23 December 1888. She was the youngest of twelve children, two of whom died in childhood. Her parents, John Andrews and his wife, Emily Young, were both from pioneering families in Taranaki and Canterbury.

Elsie was the only Andrews child to attend secondary school. At Huirangi School she was encouraged by her teachers to sit for a scholarship, which provided her with free tuition and board at New Plymouth High School from 1901. Although she claimed that she was lazy and without ambition, she loved the companionship and social life. However, in 1905 she failed the entrance examinations to both university and teachers’ training college and was forced to become a pupil-teacher at Waitara School in 1906. After two years’ training she moved round a series of rural schools before obtaining a permanent position at Fitzroy School in New Plymouth. She taught 80 children at three primer levels and standard one with the assistance of Muriel Kirton, a pupil-teacher, who became her lifelong friend and from 1922 her household companion. From 1912 until 1935 she was the infant mistress.

Affection for her old school and isolation at rural schools led Elsie Andrews to found the New Plymouth High School Old Girls' Association in 1907; she was secretary (1908–25) and president (1927–29 and 1934–35). The group's main achievement was fund-raising for a school hostel, opened in 1928. Andrews, the most loyal and prominent of the school's old girls, frequently spoke at school functions and is credited with bringing baby contests and second-hand-clothes sales to New Plymouth.

Elsie Andrews belonged to the New Plymouth branches of the New Zealand Educational Institute and the New Zealand Women Teachers’ Association. She was a delegate to national conferences from 1916 to 1935, secretary of the teachers’ association from 1925 to 1928 and president from then until 1935. She advocated the advancement of women in the profession, arguing for their access to head teachers' positions in larger schools, and appointment to the inspectorate and to the department of education. At first a conformist teacher who dutifully drilled her pupils in the curriculum, she came to doubt the methods and aims of the education system, attacking the emphasis on rote learning, arithmetic and spelling. Education, she believed, should develop the mind and the moral individual.

Andrews resigned from teaching to contest the 1935 election as an independent; her slogan was 'peace, prosperity and education’. She argued that although women might not be wanted in Parliament, they were needed there: 'The world has two eyes, man's and woman's, and so long as man persists in keeping a shade over the woman's eye the world's view will remain distorted’. She attacked the government's record on unemployment and the 'sad muddle of the education system’. She received 786 votes to S. G. Smith’s 5,662.

Elsie Andrews belonged to local organisations such as the Women's Division of the New Zealand Farmers' Union. She helped to found the Taranaki Women's Club in 1926 and to revive the New Plymouth branch of the National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCW) in 1930. But the decisive influence on her life was the Pan-Pacific Women's Association. Her first trip overseas was as a member of the New Zealand delegation, representing women teachers, to the association's conference in Honolulu in 1930. She was overwhelmed by the occasion and the women she met, returning to New Zealand with a commitment to international peace and a new world order. She addressed many women's groups on the work of the association and in 1931 became the first secretary of the New Zealand branch. In 1934 and 1937 she led national delegations to Honolulu and Vancouver, where she took a very active part. She confessed to boredom at lengthy speeches but revelled in the organisational meetings and behind-the-scenes activity. At Vancouver she persuaded the association to hold its 1940 conference in New Zealand and was appointed programme chairman. The war forced the cancellation of the conference and Andrews helped reconstruct the association afterwards. Although she hated travel, foreign food and different climates, participation in the conferences increased her confidence in her organisational and speaking abilities.

After the first Honolulu conference Elsie Andrews became a frequent speaker at women's meetings. She addressed hundreds of YWCA, women teachers' and local women's groups, her talks ranging from sex education and intellectual progress to peace, which was her main topic. She had become a pacifist, believing that until there was a formula for international peace none of the modern problems of the world could be solved. During the Second World War her commitment to peace intensified when two of her nephews were killed. At the outbreak of war she was president of the New Plymouth branch of the NCW and offered her resignation on the grounds that the branch might wish to undertake activities in which she could not join. Her resignation was not accepted although it was agreed to review the position should such a situation arise. Later a member organisation seeking her resignation found no support for its action.

Elsie Andrews was involved in a myriad of community activities and in 1938 she was appointed an MBE. In the 1940s she became educational officer for the Women's Christian Temperance Union of New Zealand. In one month in 1945 she visited 10 towns in the central North Island and spoke at 22 meetings. In 1947 she organised the junior Red Cross for north Taranaki. She was on a Taranaki committee recording names of descendants of early settlers and an NCW committee to commemorate women's suffrage.

Elsie Andrews was one of the foremost women of the 1930s. She was an inspirational speaker, with a gift for friendship. She wrote: 'In some curious way I appear to count with people, probably because of my bulk and owl-like appearance. It passes for wisdom’. Although slim when young and a poor cook, she loved food and grew to nearly 16 stone. As she was only five feet three inches tall, this weight was difficult to carry. Almost always dressed in shapeless black frocks, with spectacles and hair that went prematurely white, she was immensely approachable. Her appearance, allied to a sharp mind and clearly delivered altruistic messages, made her unforgettable. She had a large, very close extended family and many professional women friends. Her home, with its large garden and adored cats, had many visitors. She wrote occasional verse and in 1947 published The Plymouth ships, and other verses. Elsie Andrews believed foremost in service; the areas open to a woman of her time restricted her public impact mainly to women and young people. She did not marry, and lived in Taranaki until her death at New Plymouth on 26 August 1948.