Page 1: Biography
Homemaker, dairy worker, petitioner, charwoman
This biography, written by Ellen Ellis, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Annie Dowd was born on 24 May 1862 in County Kerry, Ireland, the daughter of Patrick Dowd, a buyer, and his wife, Elizabeth Foley. At the age of 16 she went to New Zealand as an assisted immigrant, listed as a general servant. On 22 October 1878 her ship, City of Auckland, bound for Hawke's Bay, was grounded on Otaki beach. All crew and passengers were rescued and sheltered by local Māori and Pākehā. Most passengers went on to Napier, but Annie joined a party that walked to Waikanae and made their way to Wellington. A week later she was one of the signatories to a letter to the Evening Post thanking the 'noble and brave' ship's surgeon, Dr Andrews, and his wife for their help and encouragement during the rescue.
On 16 June 1880 at St Mary's Cathedral, Wellington, she married Louis Chemis, a 26-year-old Italian labourer. They lived at Kaiwarra (Kaiwharawhara) and over the next seven years had five children. With her husband Annie ran a milk-walk business. She milked after getting up at 4 a.m. and in the evening before Louis returned from his day spent delivering milk then working as a roadman with Hutt County Council.
In 1889 Louis became involved in a civil law suit disputing his lease of land from Thomas Hawkings. On 31 May Hawkings was found stabbed and shot to death in nearby scrub. Louis was charged with the murder and convicted on circumstantial evidence, without proper counsel, due to the fatal illness of his lawyer. With the assistance of another lawyer, E. G. Jellicoe, and the support of prominent citizens, Annie Chemis fought to prove his innocence. Affidavits, including a personal examination of her eight-year-old daughter, were presented to Parliament and to the governor, Lord Onslow, who commuted the death sentence to penal servitude.
During the trial Annie had visited Louis, but on conviction he was sent to Mount Eden prison, Auckland, where he attempted suicide, and later to Lyttelton prison. In 1891 she presented a petition to Parliament setting out the case in full and requesting an inquiry so 'that justice may be done'. The Public Petitions Committee agreed in October 1892 that the evidence should be reviewed. Efforts for Louis's release continued, including a motion for a new trial, which was dismissed, and the raising of the issue in Parliament by C. H. Mills MHR, who had been persuaded by Annie Chemis to become involved.
By 1893 Annie Chemis had moved to Tinakori Road, Wellington, where she was to live for the rest of her life. In October that year she began as a temporary charwoman on four shillings a day at the House of Representatives, Parliament Buildings, where her working day started at 3.30 a.m. This type of work in government was reserved for widows and other women bringing up their families alone. Her duties included washing, scrubbing and mopping floors, dusting and polishing wood, marble and brass, cleaning out and setting fireplaces, lifting and shaking rugs and carpets, and cleaning water-closets.
When Louis was finally released on 22 June 1897 as part of an amnesty celebrating Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee, Annie met him at the gates of Lyttelton prison. Her actions had kept her husband's situation before the public and contributed to debate concerning the criminal justice system and its reform. Louis could not find regular work after his release and was severely depressed as he felt himself 'to be a drag on his wife, who had so much to do'. On 22 October 1898 he committed suicide on Mt Victoria by blowing himself up with dynamite. At his inquest Annie reported how it 'troubled him…that a strong man like he should lie in bed and I have to get up to work'. She also stated, 'We have never quarrelled in our lives'.
Annie Chemis continued her work as a charwoman, cleaning in Parliament Buildings and government offices. She was made a permanent employee in 1907 while working at the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts. By 1913 she was the longest serving charwoman, receiving an extra £9 per annum as long-service pay. In 1916, when working for the Department of Internal Affairs, her wages were fixed at 35 shillings per week. On her retirement in June 1926, after 32 years 5 months in the public service and one of two charwomen listed as permanent staff, her wages were still only £105 a year. She died in Wellington on 21 February 1939, survived by three daughters and a son.