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Story: Bullock, Margaret

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Bullock, Margaret


Journalist, writer, feminist, social reformer

This biography, written by Bronwyn Labrum, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Margaret Carson was born in Auckland, New Zealand, on 4 January 1845, the only daughter of four children born to Jane Kennedy and her husband, James Carson, a road maker. The Carsons had emigrated from Scotland; James Carson later worked as a carpenter and possibly a debt collector in Auckland.

Nothing is known of Margaret's early life. On 10 February 1869 at Auckland she married George Bullock, a warehouseman. The couple were to have five sons. On or about 17 March 1877, George Bullock died when the ship he was travelling on, the May Queen, was lost in a hurricane near Tonga. Margaret Bullock was left a widow with five children who were still 'mere babies'. Sometime in the late 1870s she took her family to Whanganui, where her eldest brother, Gilbert Carson, owned and edited the Wanganui Chronicle. Margaret Bullock joined him as a reporter, assistant editor and business associate for the next 10 years.

From about 1887 Margaret Bullock began to write short tales with local settings for English and New Zealand magazines and newspapers. 'Madge', as she often signed herself, gained a following throughout the colony. In 1894 she wrote her first and only novel, Utu: a story of love, hate, and revenge, under the pseudonym Tua-o-rangi. Based on her own research and set during the late eighteenth century, it was illustrated by Kennett Watkins, an Auckland artist who made a special study of Māori life and culture. Utu was dedicated to Sir George Grey, whom she admired for his 'intimate knowledge of the traditions…of the Natives of New Zealand'. In writing the book, she wanted to 'preserve the memory of manners and customs now obsolete, and fast fading from the recollection of even the Natives themselves.' It nevertheless became a 'sensational story of the "shilling shocker" type', written to sell to a mass audience, at the request of a publisher. Subsequently Bullock wrote tourist handbooks for the government, publishing guides to Wanganui and Rotorua in 1897 and Taupo in 1899.

Margaret Bullock had an interest in painting, and was a working member of the Auckland Society of Arts between 1884 and 1886. In 1884 and 1885, as Maggie Bullock, she exhibited oil paintings including 'A Māori Hebe', 'Kawana Tiwhitorangi, a Wanganui chief' and 'Native girl'. However, like many women she devoted much of her spare time to voluntary work. Campaigning for women's rights and welfare activities kept her in the public eye in Wellington and Whanganui. While working for the Chronicle, Margaret Bullock became, after Laura Suisted, one of the first women parliamentary correspondents. This experience led her to believe that female suffrage would be the first step to ending discrimination against women. Her knowledge of the parliamentary system enabled her to smooth the passage of the Electoral Bill in 1893 when its success hung in the balance, by warning Kate Sheppard, the leader of the women's suffrage movement, of impending political obstruction.

In May 1893 Margaret Bullock established the Wanganui Women's Franchise League (known later as the Wanganui Women's Political League), which led the campaign for the vote in Whanganui. Once the vote was won, she visited every house in Whanganui, enrolling hundreds of women and explaining how their vote might count. She was vice president of the league until the inaugural president, Ellen Ballance, left for England, and was then president from 1893 until 1897. She served as a committee member from 1898 to 1900. She was also a central figure in the National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCW), holding the office of national vice president in 1900.

Margaret Bullock gave a number of papers at NCW meetings, including one on the 'burning question' of illegitimacy. She felt that it was a 'standing disgrace to civilisation and a satire on so-called Christianity.' Placing a legal disability on children was of no help in solving the problem. However, the need to remove 'women's disabilities' and to promote economic independence for women were Margaret Bullock's particular passions – evidently the result of her own experiences. In 1895, with two other league members, she met Premier Richard Seddon to discuss the removal of barriers to women's employment in the civil service and equal pay. Yet she did not support the temperance movement, and the feminist campaigns in Whanganui – in contrast with many other towns – did not involve the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union.

Margaret Bullock became an official visitor to the female department of the Whanganui prison in 1896. She also worked for the elderly residents of Whanganui's Jubilee Home, publicising their appalling living conditions in trenchant letters to the local papers. Her feminist and welfare work often made her unpopular with local citizens. Yet while she pursued certain reforms, she did not question the fundamental structure of her society. As a member of a prominent Whanganui family, she and her children moved in élite circles, and she strongly defended the parliamentary system and the British Empire.

Personal adversity provided a counterpoint to Margaret Bullock's success in public life. Early widowhood was followed by continual ill health after she settled in Whanganui. In 1892 at Kai Iwi her son William died, aged 17, after falling into a threshing machine. By 1902 cancer forced her to withdraw from many of her activities. Despite an apparently successful operation, Margaret Bullock died on 17 June 1903, at her residence in Sydney Place, Whanganui.

Energetic and talented, Margaret Bullock was a pioneer in several respects. As a journalist and parliamentary correspondent she gained entrance into a predominantly male profession. She also played a pivotal role in the nineteenth century women's movement at both local and national levels. In memory, she deserves to stand alongside better-known figures such as Kate Sheppard.

How to cite this page:

Bronwyn Labrum. 'Bullock, Margaret', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2b49/bullock-margaret (accessed 18 July 2024)