Page 1: Biography
Savell, Edith Alma Eileen
Farmer, volunteer nurse
This biography, written by Jim Lundy, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996.
Edith Alma Eileen (known as Eileen) Neilson was born in Lyttelton, New Zealand, on 31 December 1883 to Sarah Alma Brown and her husband, Charles Magnus Neilson, a Swedish mariner. The Neilsons bought land in the Pohangina valley on the flanks of the Ruahine Range in 1887, had it cleared and settled there in 1888. Eileen began school at Pohangina and transferred to Awahou School in 1894. While in standard four she was put in charge of primer one in a tent beside the school. Two years later she passed her standard six certificate. After her mother died in 1900, she worked on the farm and cared for her father and young brother Charles.
Eileen Neilson was 30 at the outbreak of the First World War. When several men from the valley enlisted, she looked for a way to get overseas to care for them. In mid October 1915 she met Ettie Rout at the Hotel Cecil, Wellington, and enrolled in her recently formed New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood. On 21 October she sailed on the Manuka.
Eileen Neilson was overseas for two years and three months. At first she was in the YMCA canteen at the Esbekia (Azbakiya) gardens, Cairo, and often worked 12-hour days organising her team of volunteers to provide sandwiches, tea and cakes for the troops on leave. Except when she was too tired or ill from overwork she kept a diary. In December she wrote, 'three thousand served today. I have made paste sandwiches from half past nine to half past nine except for a few intervals to drink a cup of tea and coffee and gather up dirty cups.'
In February 1916 she was transferred to the hospital at Giza and spent months on night duty. Exhausted by the heat and long hours and suffering from an infected knee, Neilson spent some weeks in hospital herself. Her happiest times were spent with Pohangina valley soldiers when they were on leave. Although she loved dancing and sightseeing, she firmly believed that it was wrong to marry in the unsettled times of the war. She was quite scathing about women who spent too much time enjoying themselves socialising with the troops.
Eileen Neilson was often highly critical of Ettie Rout for committing her team of workers, who had no official status, to large enterprises without working out the details beforehand. However, in April 1916 she wrote that while it was debatable whether or not they should have gone there, they had certainly done good work and had cost New Zealand nothing. Nevertheless, 'Our own Country's officials treated us as if we were a band of Adventuresses wicked women or some such.' She returned to New Zealand in 1918 bringing with her a baby whose mother, a New Zealand nurse, had died in Egypt. In 1935 she was to join a delegation to the government asking for recognition of the Volunteer Sisterhood's war service; this was refused because the organisation had not been given official approval.
Settled back on the farm Eileen Neilson soon had everything under control. When her brother Charlie returned in 1919 the two continued farming together. He died in 1929 and she carried on with the help of Alfred Leopold (Leo) Savell, an old school friend. On 8 July 1931 at Awahou North they were married, and they farmed together until he died in 1940. There were no children of the marriage. From then on there was usually one temporary employee to help, often a man on probation looking for a fresh start. In the 1940s Rangi Larkins went to work for her and the two formed a very effective team until well into the 1960s.
Over the years the farm grew as Eileen Savell bought a further 100 acres and later inherited Leo's property of 200 acres. It was not easy country to farm but throughout her life she enjoyed the daily tasks. Guests were always welcome and she was a lively conversationalist. Many, however, were quite unprepared for the clutter in the house: Eileen only tidied up when necessary and spent most of her time outside working in the garden, in the yards or on the farm. On the roads of the valley her little Ford coupe was a familiar sight as she drove into town, went visiting her neighbours or took part in community projects. Her favourite pastime was talking over war experiences with the many returned men in the valley with whom she always had a special link.
At the age of 82 Eileen Savell was still riding round the ewes. Although she said, 'I'm just a caretaker these days but I like to fill in my day', neighbours recall that she crutched and dagged sheep, helped with the fencing and stock work, and often milked her cows right up to the last few years of her life. On the roll of honour in Awahou School her name preceded those of 38 men from the valley who served in the First World War and in 1966, as a surviving first-day pupil, she opened the Jubilee Pool. Eileen Savell died at Feilding on 27 August 1970.