Dictionary of New Zealand Bography logo

Story: Reeves, Magdalene Stuart

Page 1: Biography

Reeves, Magdalene Stuart


Suffragist, social reformer, writer

This biography, written by Ruth Fry, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Magdalene (Magdalen) Stuart Robison was born on 24 December 1865 at Mudgee, New South Wales, Australia, the daughter of Mary Magdalene Saunders and her husband, William Smoult Robison, a bank manager. In 1868 the family moved to Christchurch, New Zealand, where William Robison was manager of the Bank of New South Wales for 31 years. Maud, as she was known, grew up in a large family; her younger sister Euphemia (Effie) was her close companion throughout life.

As a pupil at Christchurch East School and at Christchurch Girls' High School, where she was a foundation pupil, Maud Robison showed high spirits and intelligence. After leaving school she joined in Christchurch's abundant but monotonous social and charitable activities, and her theatrical talent was in demand. Tall and elegant with brown hair, penetrating eyes, aquiline nose and a deep voice, she had a vivacious personality. In 1883 she became engaged to William Pember Reeves, nearly nine years her senior. Ill health had curtailed Reeves's studies at the University of Oxford and, disenchanted with law as a profession, he worked as a political journalist and later as editor on his father's paper, the left-wing Lyttelton Times. Maud and William were married at Christchurch on 10 February 1885.

After her marriage, maternity and the social round could well have filled Maud's life, but she developed an interest in politics and sought outlets for her intellectual energy. Her first child, William, was born in September 1885 but lived only a few hours. A daughter, Amber, was born in July 1887 and William was elected to Parliament in September, owing much of his success to Maud's practical support. By the time her second daughter, Beryl, was born in August 1889, Maud had become lady editor of the weekly Canterbury Times, another family paper. After Beryl's birth she enrolled in a BA course at Canterbury College, studying English, French and mathematics.

At Canterbury College Maud was described as 'a leader in that little group of intellectual women who conferred distinction upon the "Women's Movement" '. Dedicated to the women's suffrage campaign, she determined to ensure that William voted for the cause in Parliament. Although the main body of New Zealand suffragists campaigned through the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union, Kate Sheppard, their suffrage superintendent, welcomed liberal supporters who, like Maud, did not advocate total abstinence. In 1890 a women's branch of the Canterbury Liberal Association was formed with Maud as its president. From the introduction of Sir John Hall's Women's Franchise Bill in 1890 she was an assiduous collector of numeral signatures to suffrage petitions.

Maud's campaigning accelerated when William became a cabinet minister in 1891 and the family moved to Wellington. She reluctantly abandoned academic studies, Wellington having no university at the time. With Ellen Ballance, the premier's wife, she listened to parliamentary debates from the ladies' gallery. She was there in August 1891 when all the women in the gallery signed Ellen Ballance's impromptu petition countering the claim of Henry Fish, spokesman for the drink trade, that women did not want the vote.

In September 1892 Maud Reeves was in Christchurch for the inaugural meeting of the Canterbury Women's Institute which wanted to ensure politicians' support for the women's vote. She worked for the final petition which was presented to the House with nearly 32,000 signatures. When on 19 September 1893 the right for women to vote was won, Maud vigorously encouraged registration with the election only two months away. She believed voters needed to be educated, and openly used the opportunity for her husband's political advantage.

A trip to England in 1894 may well have increased Maud's restlessness; it was rumoured that she was engineering an overseas appointment for Reeves. Their son was born in Wellington in December 1895, significantly called Fabian. Maud and William were both exponents of Fabian socialism, which advocated social research and gradual change rather than revolution. When William became New Zealand's agent general in the United Kingdom in 1896, Maud was happy to move to London with her family. They soon found themselves enjoying Fabian hospitality. Maud thrived on the interchange of ideas, the vitality of the London theatre and the chance to revive her feminist activism. In 1898 she was asked to address the annual conference of the Women's Liberal Association and the following year she gave a paper at a congress convened by the International Council of Women. Kate Sheppard sent a report from the New Zealand council and she, Maud and later Anna Stout drew on the New Zealand experience to support the English suffrage campaign.

Through Fabian links and shared summer holidays friendship grew between the Reeves family and H. G. and Jane Wells. Maud joined the Fabian Society in 1904. For professional reasons William was not a member and it was Maud who supported Wells in his impetuous drive to reform the Fabians. She had her own mission, to persuade the society to include sexual equality in its basic aims. Wells's reforming zeal incensed the older members and he was alienated. Maud, however, successfully pressed her point and was elected to the executive in 1907. In the same year she was instrumental in forming the Fabian Women's Group (FWG) which aimed to identify and study problems affecting women and children and seek socialist solutions. The FWG organised Fabian participation in suffrage marches and its social investigation foreshadowed much future welfare legislation.

Maud organised her own social investigation, into the effect of poverty on the health of mothers and children in Lambeth. With some training from Beatrice Webb, women from the FWG (but mainly Maud and her widowed sister Effie Lascelles) visited families on borderline wages with up to four children. They taught the mothers how to budget and, with medical help, tested the children's health. Maud's account of the experiment, published in 1913 as Round about a pound a week by Mrs Pember Reeves, became a best seller and her opinion was sought on matters of family welfare. Ahead of her time, she advocated financial assistance for mothers. Meanwhile Amber had completed a brilliant degree course at Cambridge University. However, her friendship with H. G. Wells had developed into a love affair and pregnancy, scandalising her parents and their friends who had unwittingly encouraged the link. Wells's use of the episode in Ann Veronica caused further gossip.

During the First World War Maud joined a Board of Trade inquiry into the high cost of food. This led in March 1917 to her appointment to the Ministry of Food as director of women's services. In June 1917 Fabian was shot down and killed in air operations over France and Maud took solace in spiritualism. She joined in the rejoicing when English women gained partial voting rights in 1918, and spoke on 'The education of women as voters' as she had done in 1893 in New Zealand. From 1908 William Reeves was director of the London School of Economics and Political Science. He was pressured to resign in 1919, and Maud now retired from public life, her later years devoted to her family; she was never domesticated but had a strong sense of family loyalty. In 1925 she and William visited New Zealand. After William's death in 1932, Maud Reeves lived for a time with Effie in Cambridge, her chief interest being the bridge club. She subsequently moved to London where she died on 13 September 1953.

How to cite this page:

Ruth Fry. 'Reeves, Magdalene Stuart', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3r11/reeves-magdalene-stuart (accessed 21 July 2024)