Margaret Bullock – Whanganui Suffragist

The Women’s Franchise League (later renamed the Wanganui Women’s Political League) led the campaign in Whanganui for votes for women. Margaret Bullock was the Wanganui League founder, vice president, president and committee member until 1900. Born in Auckland, Bullock moved to Whanganui in 1877.

Widowed with five sons, she worked as a reporter and assistant editor on the Wanganui Chronicle, owned by her brother Gilbert Carson. She also worked as a special parliamentary correspondent for several colonial newspapers. In later life she supported herself by writing a novel, short stories and government tourist guides. As a journalist and parliamentary correspondent, however, she gained a credible place within a predominantly male profession. She also played a pivotal role in the nineteenth century women’s movement at both local and national levels.

Margaret Bullock believed women had the same mental ability as men, but lacked men’s knowledge of methods, public affairs, political questions and the world’s needs. Her particular passions were removing what she termed “women’s disabilities” and promoting economic independence for women.

Through her work as a parliamentary journalist, she acquired knowledge of the parliamentary system. With this knowledge she was able to help the passing of the Electoral Act 1893 when she warned leading New Zealand suffragist Kate Sheppard of possible obstruction. Bullock sent Sheppard a telegram that read, “Electoral Bill returned House for strangulation ostensibly amendment wire Parliament instantly.”

1. Telegram to Sheppard

 Facsimile of a telegraph from Margaret Bullock to Suffragist Kate Sheppard. Ref: 1805.417

The Act specified that every person aged 21 years and over (who qualified and was registered) was entitled to vote. The Act declared that the definition of the word “person” included women. After the 1893 election Margaret Bullock visited every household in Whanganui, signing up hundreds of women on the electoral roll.

In December 1899 local printer and publisher A D Willis began his second term as the Member to the House of Representatives for Wanganui; he held the seat until 1905. He had previously been elected for a term in 1893 following the death of his friend, the previous MHR John Ballance, but was defeated in 1896. Bullock was Chairwoman of the Ladies Committee that helped return Willis to Parliament, ironically, as her brother Gilbert Carson lost in his attempt to enter Parliament.

2. Election memento 1899

 Memento of the Wanganui Election 1899. Ref: 1932.6.4

She was prominent in the National Council of Women executive, appointed to the Standing Orders Committee in 1897 and elected vice-president in 1900. She was appointed an official visitor to the female department of Wanganui Prison in 1896. Margaret also worked on behalf of the elderly residents of the Jubilee Home in Whanganui, publicising their poor living conditions.

Margaret Bullock had a strong political and social justice impetus. But she also had many other talents. She wrote short stories for British and New Zealand magazines, often signing herself as “Madge”. She wrote her only novel Utu: a story of love, hate, and revenge under the name Tua-o-rangi. She wrote stories for children, which were printed and published by the firm of A D Willis, her old political friend. She was also an accomplished artist and exhibited her paintings at the Auckland Art Society under the name Maggie Bullock, often using Māori sitters as subjects.

3. Book of Wanganui River

 The Wanganui River – Sketch and Story by Margaret Bullock, late 19th century.  Ref: 1953.108.2

Margaret Bullock was plagued with continual ill-health after she settled in Whanganui. She was diagnosed with cancer and died on 17 June 1903 soon after an operation.


Libby Sharpe is Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum


The first Telegram in Whanganui

In the Museum collection is the first telegram to be received in Whanganui.  Received at 3.40 pm on 3 November 1869, the telegram was addressed to the settlers of Wanganui and the district and was sent by then Premier William Fox. The message reads, “I congratulate you on the completion of the telegraph. May it strengthen the Bonds of Union + promote the prosperity of the Colony.”


The telegram sent to Wanganui by Premier William Fox on 3 November 1869 (ref: 1802.5812)

The first government-owned telegraph line in New Zealand was established between Christchurch and Lyttelton in 1862, and the first lines in the North Island appeared two years later. Initially the North Island line was for military use only, to assist with the land wars of the time. By 1866 it had been purchased by the provincial government and incorporated with the wider public telegraph system.

The telegram, or electric telegraph, was revolutionary for its time. Previous attempts at communication were slow and cumbersome, limited to the speed a human could travel on foot, horse, or boat. The invention of the electric telegraph, however, hugely altered the face of global society and economy.

From the first days of electricity in the 18th century people have been finding ways to use it to improve our lives; communications benefited greatly. Various attempts had been made to use electrical currents to send messages but none were very successful until 1837 when William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone started experimenting. They devised a machine on which a series of needles was attached to a board, each of which could turn clockwise or anticlockwise, depending on the electromagnetic charge it received. The operator would choose the direction of the current and the needles would turn to point to corresponding letters on the diamond-shaped board.

This system was gradually refined and simplified until only one needle was required. Numerals were then added to the repertoire. This format was closely followed by Morse code with its familiar dots and dashes, and some telegraph machines were developed with printing capabilities so the message was automatically printed for later deciphering and delivery. Improved communication methods removed the message from the object carrying it and enabled it to move much faster, requiring only someone on the receiving end to transcribe it and ensure its delivery.


Steve Veitch dressed in his uniform for delivering telegrams (ref: P-CH-006)

Almost instant communication saw the rapid growth of business and organisations, which in turn encouraged society to embrace telegrams for a more personal use. To keep costs down, the message had to be short and to the point – the average telegram was less than 15 words – and required the language to be free of any local or regional colloquialisms which could be misinterpreted.

The speed with which information could travel the globe changed the face of news reporting. Many newspapers began bearing the title of “Telegraph” indicating they received their news timely and accurately. Misinformation still got through, however; the New York Sun and Honolulu Evening Bulletin published on 15 April 1912 both reported receiving telegrams stating all passengers aboard the Titanic had been saved.