Page 1: Biography
Thompson, Blanche Edith
Piano teacher, sportswoman, social reformer
This biography, written by Ngawi Thompson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Blanche Thompson was one of a small number of middle-class women who at the end of the nineteenth century began to participate in sporting activities. In doing so, they rejected traditional views on appropriate activities for women and claimed for themselves the benefits of physical mobility and independence.
She was born Blanche Edith Lough on 18 March 1874 at Brown's Bridge, near Amberley, North Canterbury, New Zealand. She and her twin sister, Bertha Ada, were the seventh and eighth children of Harriet Watters and her husband, Henry Lough. Their parents farmed land at Glasnevin, north of Amberley. Blanche was the more robust baby so was reared by her eldest sister, while Bertha was cared for by their mother.
From about the age of six Blanche attended a school which her grandfather had built for local children; subsequently she went to school at Amberley. When she was about 15 the whole family moved to Christchurch so that the children could further their education. There Blanche continued piano lessons begun in Amberley, eventually becoming a piano teacher. In order to visit her pupils in their own homes she learned to ride a bicycle and began cycling through the city and suburbs.
In 1892 Blanche, Bertha and some friends formed the Atalanta Cycling Club for women, with Blanche as captain. The club organised day trips and longer tours as well as social activities such as picnics and balls. Some citizens of Christchurch found the idea of women cycling immodest; others may have felt discomforted by the spectacle of a group of women publicly participating in a sport. The fact that a number of club members advocated rational dress – bloomers or knickerbockers – for cycling probably provoked some hostility. The women had abuse and sometimes stones hurled at them as they cycled around the city. One of Blanche's brothers often accompanied the women to deter such attacks. In September 1893, because of bad publicity, it was decided that none of the club members should appear in rational dress. The rule was relaxed as dress reform became accepted. It is not known how long Blanche was a member of the club; the club itself was in existence until about 1898.
On 20 April 1893 at Christchurch Blanche married Horace Thompson, a piano manufacturer and retailer. Blanche and Horace shared a love of music; after their marriage they formed a small orchestra and for a short time gave concerts at Professor Alexander Bickerton's experimental Wainoni community. Both Blanche and Horace were also interested in sports: she played tennis, while he was an excellent swimmer and built and sailed a sand yacht.
Soon after the turn of the century motor cars were beginning to be popular. Horace and Blanche Thompson learned to drive, and began to participate in driving events organised by the Canterbury Automobile Association. In 1905 Blanche won the CAA Ladies’ Driving Competition, her prize being a silver teapot. She was probably the first woman in New Zealand to win a trophy in a driving competition.
Blanche and Horace had five children: twin sons who died shortly after birth, and three daughters. The middle daughter became an accomplished pianist and with her mother travelled to England to continue her training. This was the beginning of Blanche Thompson's overseas travels; in all she made five voyages around the world.
Blanche was always an independent thinker with a keen sense of social responsibility. Her adventurous and progressive attitude, manifested in her involvement in sports, was evident in all the work she undertook. She became interested in the social and educational aspects of the kindergarten movement, and was associated with the Richmond Free Kindergarten in Christchurch. During the influenza epidemic at the end of the First World War she worked in soup kitchens and every night cooked food to be distributed to the sick the next day. She also carried out voluntary Red Cross work.
Following the death of her husband in Christchurch on 15 May 1934 Blanche Thompson took up croquet and was a member of two Christchurch croquet clubs. When her youngest daughter moved to Wellington to work in 1939, Blanche decided to go too, joining another croquet club there. In Wellington she became very interested in aeroplanes and from then on travelled by air whenever she could.
A gentle woman of firm resolve, Blanche Thompson broke with restrictive conventions and set an example for other women. She died, after a brief illness, in Wellington on 19 January 1963, and was buried in Christchurch.