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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


JAMES, Annie Isabella, M.B.E.



A new biography of James, Annie Isabella appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Annie Isabella James was born on 22 April 1884 at Herbert, North Otago, her parents being very early farmers of the district. She was one of a family of 12, six boys and six girls, and, in the tradition of most farmers' children in those days, left primary school to assist on the farm. From her childhood she had nursed the idea of becoming a missionary in China, which was then being opened up to Christian missions. When her mother died in childbirth her eldest sister took charge of the home and Annie decided to go to Dunedin to seek training. She secured employment as a domestic in a Magistrate's home and attended St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, which was then under the care of a famous minister, the Rev. Dr Rutherford Waddell, a distinguished preacher, writer, and social worker.

When she first approached an official of the church, she was rebuffed on account of her lack of education and background, but eventually she was able to enter the training institute and completed her course by 1911. She was given her first instruction in Cantonese by the Rev. Alexander Don, who had pioneered Christian work among the Chinese on the goldfields of Central Otago and had been entrusted by them to carry gold and messages to their relatives in Canton. This work had in fact opened South China to Christian mission work and Annie James received the benefit of his first-hand experience. She sailed on the SS Eastern, reaching China in 1912. Dr Sun had overthrown the Manchu Dynasty and the Nationalist movement was growing amid very disturbed conditions. Annie James began itinerant work in the villages until a break in her health forced a temporary return to New Zealand, where she received Karitane and maternity training. Back in China, she was soon in a ward in the newly opened Kong Chuen Hospital, until the arrival of fresh staff allowed her to go 50 miles into the hinterland to the market town of Kaai Hau, in which she established the Hospital of Universal Love which won the deep affection of the countryside. Known as Tse Koo, she was given the honorary title “Mother of the Tsung Fa District”. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 brought disaster to the hospital, which was first bombed and then used as military barracks. Tse Koo organised 40 carriers and created a mobile hospital, which moved with the fortunes of war, always in no man's land between the enemy fronts, and with no financial help or contact with the outside world for seven years. In New Zealand she was believed to be dead. Her experiences and sufferings during this period defy description.

When peace was declared, Annie James found her way back to New Zealand, staying only long enough to recuperate before setting out again for Kaai Hau with new equipment to rebuild the hospital. For five more years the work prospered until the hospital was overwhelmed by the southern drive of the Red Army. For a time the Chinese Communists dared not touch her, but as their hold increased on the town accusations were made and she was arrested and charged with mass murder. Stoutly denying the absurd charge, she was placed in a tiny cell beneath the stairway of the Red headquarters and for many weeks endured great humiliation and mental torture. When she was condemned to a public trial she resigned herself to death, but when the day came all the inhabitants of Kaai Hau shut themselves indoors and refused to appear. After her fourth private trial her health became most precarious, not only by physical privation but also by the attempts to “brainwash” her. It appears that she was finally released for political reasons when she was on the point of dying. She lived for a time in Hong Kong, but finally returned to Dunedin with one of her four adopted Chinese children. She was recommended for the award of the M.B.E. in 1939. This was granted in 1942 and she was invested at Government House, Wellington, on 29 March 1952. Today she is regarded as one of the truly great figures of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand.

Annie James died at Auckland on 6 February 1965.

by Frederick Roy Belmer, M.A., Presbyterian Minister, Port Chalmers.

  • I Was in Prison, James, A. I. (1952)
  • The Teeth of the Dragon, Belmer, R. (1964)
  • Tse Koo – a Heroine of China, MacDiarmid, D. N. (1945)
  • Never a Dull Moment, Snowden, Rita (1948).


Frederick Roy Belmer, M.A., Presbyterian Minister, Port Chalmers.