Page 1: Biography
Scholar, teacher, temperance campaigner
This biography, written by Eric Low, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Elsie Low was born on 25 July 1875 at Horndon on the Hill, Essex, England, the youngest of five children of Sabine Susanna Harris and her husband, Benjamin Low, general storekeepers. The family left England for Canterbury, New Zealand, as assisted immigrants, arriving on the Soukar in January 1876, when Elsie was six months old. Her father became the first schoolmaster at Willowby, Ashburton county, a district recently opened up for mixed farms by John Grigg of Longbeach. Benjamin and Sabine both immediately began studies for the basic teachers' class E certificate, obtaining their qualifications in 1881. Benjamin taught at Willowby from 1876 until 1897, and for most of this time Sabine was assistant teacher. After 1897 the Lows moved to Waimate to take up farming.
Elsie Low's considerable intellectual gifts were fostered by the vigorous social, educational and musical life of the school and the local Methodist church. A scholarship took her to Ashburton High School for three years from 1888, a privilege not shared by her three sisters and brother. Other scholarships gave her an additional three years at Christchurch Girls' High School from 1891. There she joined a small group of equally talented girls who received special attention from the principal, Helen Macmillan Brown, née Connon. As the first New Zealand woman to have gained an MA, Brown inspired and assisted other young women to pursue studies at university. In 1894 Elsie Low was awarded a university junior scholarship, coming fourth in New Zealand, and entered Canterbury College. During her four years there she was awarded exhibitions in natural science, and a senior scholarship in natural science.
Academic distinction was acquired at some cost. As a girl Elsie Low had suffered attacks of rheumatic fever, which left her heart permanently impaired, and which interrupted her career several times. She graduated BA in 1897 but in early 1898 her MA examination papers were lost at sea. She declined the subsequent offer of second-class honours in English, French, botany and biology, and after a year's teaching at Waimate District High School, sat again, gaining first-class honours in English and French and second-class honours in botany in 1899.
Elsie Low had a brief but brilliant teaching career. In 1899 she was a teacher and house mistress at Napier Girls' High School before returning to Christchurch Girls' High School as a staff member for the next three years. A brass plaque at the school, unveiled in 1913, bears witness to the esteem in which she was held as scholar and teacher.
On 3 June 1903 at Nukuroa, Elsie Low married Henry (Heinrich) Dohrmann, the Christchurch-born son of immigrants from Hanover, Germany, who was farming at Studholme Junction. She gave birth to a daughter, Adelheit Susanna, in 1905. Thus she returned to the mixed farming environment in which she had been reared, and her interests from this time owed much to the rural Methodism of her upbringing.
Her fluency in writing and speaking, and her organising ability, quickly established Elsie Dohrmann as a leading figure in the Women's Christian Temperance Union. She was president of the Waimate branch from 1906 or before until her death, national treasurer (1906–7) and national corresponding secretary (1907–8). From this time until her death she held the position of superintendent of non-alcoholic medication, a campaign for medical temperance to stop doctors from prescribing alcohol for medicinal purposes. She was also involved in the WCTU campaign against gambling. Although she was earnest in her beliefs, Elsie Dohrmann enjoyed life to the full: she was remembered as lively and fun-loving by her friends and colleagues.
Elsie Dohrmann wrote an unsigned temperance column for the Waimate Times for several years and undertook long journeys at night and in all weathers to speak at public meetings, where she impressed listeners with her command of the subject and her charm of manner. As controversy over liquor reform intensified, she met opposition capably and confidently. These campaigns were interrupted by more attacks of rheumatic fever, which led to her early death at Waimate on 14 February 1909. She was survived by her husband and daughter.
That Elsie Dohrmann's influence on others was profound is borne out by tributes paid to her after her death. An anonymous contributor to the White Ribbon in March 1909 wrote: 'It is given to few to mean so much to so many.'