Story: Pearce, Edna Bertha
Pearce, Edna Bertha
Kindergarten teacher and director, policewoman, internment camp supervisor
This biography was written by Jamie Mackay and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000
Edna Bertha Pearce was born at Christchurch on 26 March 1906, the daughter of Lucy Elliott Allison and her husband, Ernest Walter Pearce, a farmer. She attended St Albans School until, aged seven, she moved with her family to a Canterbury farm for six years, before returning to Christchurch for her secondary education at Christchurch Technical College. She enjoyed tennis, tramping, cycle touring and gymnastics.
In 1927 Pearce started a two-year training course with the Christchurch Free Kindergarten Association. She gained a kindergarten diploma and spent the next 12½ years as a kindergarten teacher, becoming director of Selwyn Kindergarten (1931–37) and Phillipstown Free Kindergarten (1938–41). By 1940 she was looking for a new challenge and applied to join the police.
Aged 34, and only five feet four inches tall, Pearce seemed an unlikely candidate for a policewoman, but her application was accepted and in 1941 she joined the first batch of women recruits. She and the other nine trainees were assigned to the police barracks in Newtown, Wellington, where they underwent the same training as male officers. The women completed training as temporary constables in September, but had to wait several weeks until suitable accommodation was prepared before joining the stations they had been posted to.
At the Auckland Central Police Station Pearce’s duties included escorting female prisoners between the police cells, courts and criminal institutions. The female constables were not issued uniforms and were designated to assist the detectives in plain clothes duties. She later remembered that although they were treated with courtesy and respect, ‘a current of discrimination was present’. The women were allotted the most menial duties on cases where there was little chance of a conviction. However, soon the male officers were ‘only too glad … of our assistance and company when they had to interview the obstreperous and sexy type of female’, and when searching females, which Police Regulations did not permit male officers to do. She also patrolled the streets, making the first arrests by a policewoman.
In December 1941 Pearce’s normal police work was put on hold because of the Second World War and she was assigned to take charge of a number of Japanese women and children who had been evacuated from Tonga. After an initial nine-day stay at a YWCA holiday camp, the women were moved to a house at Pokeno, south of Auckland. Pearce was accompanied by a translator, who lived with her in a Public Works Department hut, and a retired couple, who were live-in caretakers. Initially there were seven Japanese women and nine children in the seven-room house, but during 1942 one of the women was removed to a mental hospital and two more children were born. The house, which was damp and had inadequate sanitary facilities, was intended as temporary lodging, but it was not until February 1943 that they were all moved to better premises at Pukekohe.
Under the Alien Control Emergency Regulations the women were to be kept on ‘close parole’: they were not free to leave the property and had to accept restrictions required by the supervisor for the running of the camp. Pearce’s duties ranged from teaching correspondence school to procuring adequate supplies of rice and censoring letters.
During 1943 the government made arrangements to repatriate the Japanese in exchange for British and Allied prisoners of war. The women, their husbands and children were to fly to Australia where the exchange would take place. The American Liberator, a bomber rebuilt to accommodate freight, took off from Whenuapai airport at 2.30 a.m. on 2 August 1943, but crashed into a mangrove swamp adjacent to the airport, killing eight Japanese, three Thai nationals, and three members of the crew. This was to be Pearce’s first experience of mortuary identifications. Among the dead were two of the women and four of the children who had been under her supervision. Most of the surviving Japanese women and children sustained injuries, and another of the women died later.
In November that year a ship was commandeered to transport the internees, accompanied by Pearce, to Sydney, from where they were later returned to Japan. Her work with the evacuees was praised by the commissioner of police, D. J. Cummings, who recognised the ‘additional strain’ she had suffered after the crash and granted her a month’s special leave. She resumed police duties at Auckland in February 1944 but found it hard to go back to the clerical work assigned to her. She later recalled, ‘I didn’t join the police to sit behind a ruddy typewriter, I joined to work with people’.
In 1945, after the death of her parents, Pearce took extended leave and transferred temporarily to Christchurch. She returned to active patrol duties in Auckland in early 1946, although she was away again from March to June that year suffering from nervous exhaustion. In 1949 she went on a six-month tour to Britain and Europe, visiting New Scotland Yard and observing the work of uniformed policewomen in London.
In 1952 New Zealand policewomen were issued uniforms, and as Pearce had been in the first group of recruits she was honoured with the lapel number ‘S1’. By this stage her work had become much more varied, including the investigation of murder, rape and suicide cases and the raiding of opium dens for prostitutes. She was also involved in more peaceful activities such as escorting tours by stars and royalty and attending VIP functions.
In November 1954 Pearce was transferred to Hamilton, where she remained until her retirement in 1966. The city’s only policewoman, she was active in the New Zealand Police Association and its long-running campaign for equal pay for women police. In 1956 she was awarded a police long-service medal. After her retirement she became secretary for many years and president (1980–82) of the Hamilton ex-police association. Edna Pearce died in Christchurch on 23 May 1995; she had never married.