women

Local women were pioneering wartime auxiliaries

When the South African (Boer) War was declared in 1899 between Britain and the Boer-ruled republics, colonies from across the British Empire rushed to participate in a wave of excitement; it went without saying that New Zealand would be contributing soldiers. New Zealand differed from its allies in that it had its own semi-official female troops. With Government approval, well-connected girls and women put on uniforms, held military titles and were trained by soldiers.

These female troops indicated relatively high gender equality in comparison with other parts of the world, and patrolled, wielding real weapons, just like their male compatriots. They did not, however, serve at the front like other New Zealand women who taught and nursed. Instead, they served as a singing, fundraising public face of support for the upholding of Empire, and to demonstrate a newly emergent New Zealand identity.

2. Wanganui Ladies' Contingent

An article from December 1900 shows “the latest and loveliest thing in khaki: the Wanganui Ladies’ Contingent”
Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19001207-9-4

Different regions had their own groups, grabbing media attention due to their unusual attire. For a short time “khaki girls” could be found all over New Zealand, appearing in overseas newspapers and books. One of the largest groups was formed in Whanganui in around June 1900. The Wanganui Amazon Carbineers were initially created to perform as characters in a fundraising pageant titled The Birth of the Empire.

Following the trend set by Wellington’s Young Ladies Contingent, local women created their own group. For months they rehearsed every Thursday afternoon into the evening under the training of a male drill instructor, Sergeant-Major Anderson. He appointed “most popular lady in the corps” Captain Manson as commanding officer. Members bought uniforms from local retailer J Paul and Co for 17s 6d (around $163) each. The high cost ensured that members came from comfortable and socially aspiring backgrounds.

3. Wellington Amazons

 Sister group to the Amazon Carbineers were the Wellington Amazons, seen here at Government House
Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, 31 Mar 1900, via trove.nla.gov.au

The Birth of the Empire was a great success, running for eight consecutive nights in September 1900, and as the Wanganui Chronicle reported, “the severe tax on the performers is beginning to tell its tale”. The Amazon Carbineers became the stars of the show, performing military manoeuvres and demonstrating their bayonet skills. Their advertised “weird war cry” was a “haka, which had to be twice repeated in response to vociferous encores”.

1. Wanganui Amazon Carbineers

 The Amazon Carbineers posing on Drews Ave for a group portrait c.1900
Whanganui Regional Museum Collection Ref: 2002.64.48

The Amazon Carbineers kept up their drills after the pageant ended and became a regular feature of the community. In the subsequent media frenzy there were only limited spaces for new applicants. Recruits were elected in a popularity contest by existing members. They became, however, too popular for their own good. After offering to hold a garden party for the 1901 New Zealand Band Contest they were ordered by the Contest committee not to appear in uniform at any of the associated events in fear that they would outshine the bandsmen. While frustrated and disappointed, members agreed to wear mufti instead.

By the end of the war in 1902, uniformed women had disappeared from New Zealand streets as the conflict had grown unpopular. Only one khaki uniform is known to have survived, in the Te Papa collection. The uniforms were probably recycled for other uses including later conflicts. The women’s groups of the South African War are now largely forgotten. Nevertheless, New Zealand’s ladies-at-arms were well ahead of their time and may have inspired future auxiliary women’s groups during the wars to come.

 

Scott Flutey is a student of Museum and Heritage Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. He is working as a summer intern at Whanganui Regional Museum.

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Cycling Ladies

The development of new technology often brings about the greatest changes in fashion. In the 1890s, the introduction of the bicycle led to significant changes in women’s fashion. Prior to this decade, women had always worn skirts or dresses whose design followed strict rules regarding appropriateness and modesty, and which were often very heavy and restricting.

Many women wanted to ride bicycles but this was considered unsuitable. While it was acceptable for women to ride side-saddle on a horse, riding a bicycle was deemed almost indecent, certainly shocking!

3. Lady on bike

Illustration of a woman cyclist wearing a tailored jacket and split skirt, 1894.  Ladies Standard Magazine, April 1894.

The first women to ride bicycles in New Zealand were twins Bertha and Blanche Thompson who in 1892, along with several other young adventurous women, formed the Atlanta Cycling Club, especially for women, in Christchurch. Suffrage leader Kate Sheppard, then in her forties, became a member and she and Bertha also served on the ACC committee. Christchurch did not view the ACC with approval; at times, the twins’ older brothers had to accompany the women cyclists to ward off stone-throwing spectators.

Women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wore very long skirts, which were not only difficult, but dangerous to wear while cycling. Many early lady cyclists had bad accidents when the hems of their skirts caught in the bicycle chain. A solution had to be found. Since decency, at that time, dictated that a woman’s legs had to be covered, many cyclists adopted a split-skirt. This was an adaptation of a garment designed by Mrs Amelia Bloomer, one of the pioneers of the Dress Reform Movement, in the mid nineteenth century. Mrs Bloomer was ridiculed when she and other women attempted to introduce healthier and more practical styles of clothing for women such as knickerbockers, or bloomers, for women engaged in active pastimes.

2. Split skirt

Split skirt from the cycling costume.  Ref: 1973.88b

The split skirt gradually became acceptable as a cycling garment because it was designed to look like a regular skirt. The split skirt was further adapted over time. Later versions began to resemble trousers, never worn by European women before.

1. Cycling costume

Lady’s cycling costume, 1890s. Ref: 1973.88

The Museum has in its collection a wonderful woman’s cycling costume, made in the 1890s. It is a smart and practical outfit for the new activity of cycling. The costume comprises a tailored jacket and divided cycling skirt, both made of dark charcoal wool twill, fully lined with heavy black silk. The costume was professionally fitted and sewn; there is no maker’s mark in either the jacket or the skirt. It’s in excellent condition; perhaps it wasn’t used very much.

 

By Libby Sharpe, Senior Curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.