Story: Kent-Johnston, Agnes Gilmour
Kent-Johnston, Agnes Gilmour
Community leader, broadcaster
This biography was written by Margaret Lovell-Smith and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000
Agnes Gilmour Brown was born at Killearn, Stirlingshire, Scotland, on 27 September 1893, the daughter of Elizabeth Gilmour and her husband, Walter Brown, a ploughman. Agnes was one of a large family and had only a primary school education. She helped on the farm, did some nurse-aiding, and worked in munitions during the First World War. On 24 November 1917 in London she married a New Zealand post office worker, Walter Frederick Kent-Johnston, who was at that time a second lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery. The couple were to have two children.
The Kent-Johnstons arrived in Auckland in 1919. They lived in Devonport and Mount Albert before moving to Hamilton in 1926. While there Agnes (usually known as Nan) became the first woman to serve on a school committee in Waikato and founded the local parent teacher association. She was the first woman on a YMCA board of directors and founded the women’s auxiliary of the YMCA. She was also the founder and president of the Hamilton Post and Telegraph Women’s Association; Fred Kent-Johnston was president of the Post and Telegraph Employees’ Association from 1931 to 1933.
In 1933 the Kent-Johnstons moved to Christchurch, where Fred was telephone branch supervisor for the Post Office. Nan became well known for her weekly cookery broadcast, ‘Every-day Meals’, from station 3YA and she published Everyday recipes. She also organised a cookery book to help raise funds for the school gymnasium at Christchurch Boys’ High School, and in 1935 founded the school’s home and school association. After she led a deputation from the National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCW) to Parliament calling for a new obstetrical hospital in Christchurch, she was one of three lay people appointed to the government Committee of Inquiry into Maternity Services (1937–38). She founded and was president of the Friends of St Helens.
During the Second World War, when the Christchurch branch of the NCW was considering what active work it might do, Nan Kent-Johnston suggested that they form a club that would provide meals and entertainment for soldiers on leave from camp. (She herself had met New Zealand soldiers while working at a club like this in Glasgow during the First World War.) The Christchurch Welcome Club was run by a citizens’ committee under her leadership and provided a ball-room, supper room, lounge and games room. Over 600 men could be accommodated at one time. She also founded and chaired the Next-of-Kin Club, an organisation for wives and mothers of men serving in the New Zealand army, air force or navy, and inaugurated the Girls’ Guild of Service as an auxiliary of the Welcome Club.
Fred was transferred to Napier in 1941, Hastings in 1943 and New Plymouth by 1946. After about a year, when he was appointed chief postmaster, they returned to Napier. There Nan founded the Council of Good Neighbours for St John’s Cathedral, and published a cookery book in 1950 to raise funds for the rebuilding of the cathedral; the book sold over 4,000 copies and went to a second edition. She became involved in Heritage, the Women’s War Service Auxiliary and the Napier Rehabilitation Committee. She was also the secretary–organiser for the Napier CORSO committee for over 20 years, and was made a life member of the New Zealand Crippled Children Society.
For her extensive community work Nan Kent-Johnston received the Coronation Medal in 1937 and was made an MBE in 1946. The mainspring for her activities was her gift for friendship. She excelled at making people feel at home and at helping people. She had boundless energy, was a successful organiser, and took the initiative to start a new organisation wherever she saw a need. Concerned about the status of women, she told an NCW meeting in 1945 that the question of the economic independence of married women was of the utmost importance in the post-war period.
Fred and Nan Kent-Johnston returned to live in Christchurch in 1972, where they celebrated their diamond wedding in 1977. Fred died in 1979 and Nan in Christchurch, on 10 March 1981. She was survived by a daughter.