Page 1: Biography
Statham, Edith Mary
Singer, nurse, secretary, war graves conservator, community worker
This biography, written by Jock Phillips, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996.
Edith Mary Statham was born on 13 April 1853 at Bootle, Lancashire, England, the daughter of William Statham, a solicitor, and his wife, Ellen Allen Hadfield. Edith came to New Zealand with her parents and her two brothers when she was 10. The family settled in Dunedin. It is not known where or how Edith received her schooling but she was later described as well educated. She trained as a singer, with some success in musical and amateur acting circles, and then as a nurse at Dunedin Hospital. Health problems forced her to abandon private nursing for secretarial work, which she continued on moving to Auckland about 1905.
In Auckland Edith Statham showed organisational talent in the service of voluntary organisations. Her most significant involvement was with the Victoria League, established in London in 1901 to conserve the memory of Queen Victoria and those who served the British Empire. An Auckland branch of the league was established in 1910 and Edith Statham became secretary of its graves committee. The committee hoped to restore the graves of soldiers who had fallen during the New Zealand wars of the 1840s and 1860s. Statham was frank that her interest was not in the wars themselves, about which she professed ignorance, but that the work might be 'a peg on which to hang Imperialism'.
Realising that the graves work would be costly, in February 1911 the Victoria League approached the premier, Joseph Ward, for assistance. After two years' negotiation it was decided that the Department of Internal Affairs should take over the work directly. In May 1913 Edith Statham was appointed a part-time official of the Auckland branch of the department with the title inspector of old soldiers' graves and an annual salary of £65.
Edith Statham threw herself into the task. Each month she made two or three visits of inspection, sent back meticulous reports, and wrote over 100 letters as she cajoled relatives or local communities into making contributions or conducted tough negotiations with stonemasons. Where headboards had rotted or graves were unmarked, Statham decided it was simpler to put up collective memorials. From the beginning of her work for the Victoria League it had been assumed that only the graves of soldiers who had fought on the British side would be tended. However, before long she was involved in erecting monuments to Maori who had died fighting the British.
For some time Statham combined her duties as secretary of the Victoria League with her work for the department. However, the league, believing there was a conflict of interest between the two roles, forced her to resign as secretary in 1914. When the First World War broke out money for monuments dried up and a government looking for bureaucratic talent transferred Statham in November 1915 to the passports and permits division of Internal Affairs. She continued to do some of her graves work during the day, but with the help of an Imperial typewriter she also worked at home in the evenings or early mornings. By 1919 she had been responsible for about a dozen collective memorials in the North Island and had persuaded the Victoria League to erect a memorial in Wakefield Street, Auckland, to all who had died to uphold British rule. By then 78 cemeteries were under her care. Hoping to imbue a younger generation with a sense of loyalty to the empire, she tried – not always successfully – to involve scout troops in the care of the graves.
The end of the First World War brought the huge task of commemorating the dead of that war: a task assumed by the Department of Internal Affairs in 1921. Statham was involved, but she also continued to work for memorials to the dead of the New Zealand wars until her retirement in 1928. Another dozen were put up in the second half of the decade. Even retirement did not stop her passion. She became honorary inspector of war graves for the Auckland Returned Soldiers' Association and was still writing imploring letters to the government in 1941.
Edith Statham's organisational skill and her interest in patriotic service found expression in other voluntary work. For two years she was secretary of the Navy League, which awarded her a special service decoration. She worked with the women's branch of the Medical Service Corps of the National Reserve and was a district secretary of the Girl Peace Scouts' Association, a forerunner of the Girl Guides movement in New Zealand. During the 1920s she was the prime mover of the Tamaki West Company of girl guides and active in community organisations in St Heliers, Auckland. She served as the local librarian, with the St John Ambulance Association and as a vice president of the Auckland Dickens Fellowship. She was a consistent worker for the local Presbyterian church, an early member of the Plunket Society and a member of the St Helier's Kohi Progress League. In such activities she typified the largely unpaid and often unrecognised labour of women which has always been the foundation of New Zealand community organisations.
Edith Statham never married. She died at the age of 97 at her home in St Heliers on 13 February 1951. Her lasting legacy is more than 20 memorials to the New Zealand wars.