Page 1: Biography
Abraham, Constance Palgrave
Community leader, sportswoman
This biography, written by Margaret Weir, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Constance Palgrave Martyn, community and church leader in Palmerston North for many years, was born on 12 May 1864 at Palgrave, Suffolk, England, the daughter of Catherine Elizabeth Harrison and her husband, Charles John Martyn, curate of Palgrave. He later became rector of Long Melford and was an honorary chaplain to Queen Victoria. Constance grew up at the centre of a busy, successful parish and took an active part in church affairs from an early age. On 19 June 1890 at Long Melford, she married Lionel Augustus Abraham, a seedsman and general merchant of Palmerston North, New Zealand. They went there after their marriage and lived at Lionel's newly built residence, Te Ranara Whare, where their seven children were to be born.
Staff were employed to help care for the family, house and garden and Constance and Lionel Abraham became well known for their hospitality. They entertained many visitors, particularly after race meetings and polo and golf tournaments. The large home and extensive grounds became the venue for fund-raising activities for the many organisations with which Constance became involved. For more than 40 years she pursued an active career in voluntary social work.
Her religious beliefs were the strongest influence in her life. A 'very cheery, tactful, and irrepressible enthusiast', at the Anglican All Saints' Church she proved to be a capable and effective fund-raiser, leader and organiser of women's and children's groups. Lionel was churchwarden, lay reader and vestryman there for many years and the carved pulpit was dedicated to them both for their service.
Constance Abraham was also an accomplished and keen sportswoman. She was an excellent equestrian, competing successfully in the show ring at Manawatū agricultural and pastoral shows. She won tennis championships in Suffolk and Manawatū. In 1902 she was the first champion of the Manawatū Ladies' Golf Club, and was also club secretary, captain, president and patroness, and became a life member.
She was particularly busy during the First World War. She worked on many local committees to assist the soldiers of the city and district, organising the Patriotic Shop (which raised £3,000 in the two years it operated), catering for lunch at the local agricultural and pastoral show, and producing a recipe book which sold out several editions.
In June 1917 she convened a meeting of representatives of local Protestant churches to establish a branch of the YWCA in Palmerston North. One of its aims was to provide a hostel for the wives of servicemen and for girls coming to live in town to take over jobs vacated by men serving overseas. She was the first president and in 1930 was made a life member. She was a founder of the Palmerston North Branch of the Plunket Society set up in 1918, later became president, and in 1925 became a life member.
From 1921 until retiring in 1935 she was the only woman representative on the Palmerston North Hospital Board. Her popularity was shown by her high poll at each election. As well as her work on the executive committee of the board, she took a lively interest in activities connected with the hospital itself, particularly the children's ward, where she was a frequent visitor.
For her outstanding work during the war Constance Abraham was made an MBE in 1919. She was appointed a justice of the peace in 1932, awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal in 1935, and in June 1937 a function, presided over by the mayor, was held to honour her. Representatives of 18 women's organisations and other societies with which she had been associated presented an address acknowledging her service to the community.
Although she was nursed at home during her last years, Constance Abraham maintained an interest in all her old activities and retained her characteristic cheerfulness. Her husband died in 1939 and she died at Te Ranara on 3 October 1942. She was survived by four daughters and three sons.