Page 1: Biography
Harsant, Florence Marie
Temperance worker, nurse, community leader, writer
This biography, written by Sally Maclean, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Florence Marie Woodhead was born on 19 September 1891 at New Plymouth, New Zealand, the second of six children of Catherine Davy and her husband, Ambler Woodhead, a teacher. In 1905 the family moved to Waitahanui, a Maori settlement on the shore of Lake Taupo, where Ambler Woodhead became the head teacher at the new native school. While her parents and older sister taught in the school, Florence looked after the home. The Woodheads were accepted by the Waitahanui community, attending tangihanga, weddings and Christmas dinner at the pa, but Ambler instructed his children not to learn Maori so that his pupils would be more eager to learn English. However, Florence learnt the language in her daily dealings with the women of the village.
At 16 Florence Woodhead left home for Whakarewarewa, near Rotorua, where she was invited to train at the Anglican mission. There she learnt basic nursing skills; indeed, almost as soon as she arrived she was required to tend the victims of a typhoid epidemic. In 1911 Florence's mother became ill and she was called home to nurse her. Soon after, Ambler transferred to another native school at Tanoa, on the Kaipara Harbour. Florence worked at a drapery in Hunterville for a short time, then rejoined her family and taught at the school. She did not enjoy the work. When in 1913 Eruera Te Tuhi suggested she become the national Maori membership organiser for the Women's Christian Temperance Union of New Zealand, she seized the opportunity.
Florence Woodhead received training in marae etiquette from Niurangi Puriri, a great temperance supporter and the mother of Hone Heke, MHR. Over the next two years she travelled through Northland, the East Coast, the Bay of Plenty, and the Whanganui River region. Her aim was to establish and foster WCTU branches and to give advice in hygiene and childcare. With government support Woodhead wrote and printed leaflets in Maori on these subjects for distribution by the Maori groups. She encouraged the women to take control collectively of their marae, banning alcohol, but at times they were 'afraid to go against their men'. She also encountered opposition from her own relations, who did not approve of 'all this travelling around with the Maoris'.
Florence Woodhead usually travelled on horseback, accompanied by a local guide. The tracks in remote areas were often rough and the horses she was loaned for her trips sometimes unreliable. Her first journey, made in the winter of 1913, was to the Bay of Islands. In the remote Whananaki region she found herself in the midst of a smallpox epidemic. Once she had been in contact with victims she was not allowed to travel back through unaffected villages, and, terrified of contracting the disease, she was eventually compelled to use subterfuge to escape. On her arrival in Whangarei she alerted hospital authorities to the desperate need for help in the outlying villages and medical staff and supplies were dispatched immediately.
The damaging impact of alcohol abuse in Maori families motivated Woodhead in her work, but she also had a sincere affection for Maori and their culture, rare among Pakeha. Her respect for Maori mores and spirituality, including belief in the power of tapu, helped win her acceptance. She had a strong religious faith but was non-denominational and flexible in her approach to her mission.
Florence Woodhead's work for the WCTU was halted in 1915 by a bungled appendectomy, which left her an invalid for some time. She returned home to Tanoa, where she continued her work with the local WCTU and taught in the school. She also nursed Maori during the 1918 influenza epidemic.
On 4 February 1919 at Whitianga Florence Woodhead married Horace Henry Harsant, a farmer from Hahei, on the Coromandel Peninsula. They had met when Florence and her younger sister were holidaying with his family. She soon realised that her life as a farmer's wife would be very different from her holiday experience. Horace and his brother ran the farm jointly, and Florence found her brother-in-law's tight control of all the finances difficult to accept. For many years Hahei remained isolated, and Florence's first baby died at birth because she was unable to reach medical help. She missed her Maori friends and her family and was often lonely. In time she found new occupations. She set up an aided school, teaching her own children and nephews who boarded with her. During the Second World War she lived at Matata, Bay of Plenty, where she ran the post office. On her return to Hahei after the war she and her son Vaughan established a public library in her home under the auspices of the Country Library Service.
After her marriage Florence Harsant wrote short stories for such publications as the New Zealand Dairy Exporter and Straight Furrow with the pen-names 'Quick Silver', 'Trouser Button' and 'Virgo'. Her primary aim was to make money for herself and her children, but she developed a strong interest in writing. She took a correspondence course in short-story writing in 1946. In her 83rd year she bought a typewriter and taught herself to type. She recorded the story of her life, which was published in 1979 as They called me Te Maari.
Following Horace Harsant's death in 1974, Florence renewed her links with the people of Waitahanui and in 1975 memories of her childhood there and journeys for the WCTU were recorded for two radio documentaries. In spite of failing eyesight and hearing she remained vitally interested in people and the world, maintaining a wide circle of correspondents, for whom she was a living link with New Zealand's past. She was awarded a Queen's Service Medal when aged 90, in recognition of her community work.
Florence Harsant died at Thames Hospital on 19 June 1994, aged 102, survived by her three sons and two daughters. In acknowledgment of her bicultural life she was given both a Pakeha service and a tangihanga at Matai Whetu marae near Thames.