Page 1: Biography
Wilson, Helen Mary
Teacher, farmer, community leader, writer
This biography, written by Bronwyn Jones, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Helen Wilson achieved recognition as a leading figure in the Women's Division of the New Zealand Farmers' Union and, in later years, as a writer. She was born Helen Mary Ostler at Oamaru, New Zealand, on 4 May 1869, the eldest of three children of Emma Brignell Roberts and her husband, William Henry Ostler, a runholder. She spent most of her early childhood on Ben Ohau station in the Mackenzie Country, and was educated at home by her mother. William died on 11 May 1879 leaving his family in a precarious financial position. They moved to Timaru where Emma earned money by teaching needlework and dancing. Helen attended Timaru High School and spent a year as a boarder at Otago Girls' High School. She left at the end of 1886 in order to support her mother who was no longer finding it easy to make a living. From May 1887 until the end of 1888, though unqualified and inexperienced, she taught at the sole-charge Upper Waitohi Flat School, north of Timaru.
She and her mother – the younger children were at school overseas – then moved north to participate in a ballot of land in the Levin area. Helen won a partly cleared section of 20 acres in 1888, and the two women became the first settlers on the Levin block. Through hard work they established a valuable property. They fenced, dug, cleared the land and extended their small dwelling. Emma Ostler became a prominent Levin businesswoman and a leader of the local Women's Christian Temperance Union and women's suffrage campaign. Helen was sympathetic to women's suffrage but had no time for some within the movement whom she saw as extremists. Although not actively involved in the campaign for the vote, she did sign the 1892 petition.
Helen was nailing shingles onto the roof of her house when she met her future husband, Charles Kendall Wilson, for the first time. On 16 May 1892 they were married at All Saints' Church, Foxton. They farmed for several years at Ohau, south-west of Levin, where their first child, Lesbia Anita Kendall, was born in 1893. They then moved north to a farm on the shores of Lake Horowhenua. A son, Lloyd Kendall, was born in 1897 and another daughter, Phyllis Hartley, in 1899. After the turn of the century the Wilson family lived for brief periods at Palmerston North, Levin, Plimmerton, Te Kuiti and Wellington.
Charles Wilson entered national politics as a Reform Party candidate and was member of Parliament for Taumarunui from 1911 until 1914. In 1916 the family moved to their last farm near Piopio, in the King Country, where Charles Wilson continued an involvement in farming politics. In the mid 1920s he persuaded Helen to attend a meeting in Wanganui of the newly formed Women's Division of the New Zealand Farmers' Union (WDFU). Always suspicious of 'strident man-haters and acidulated spinsters' in women's associations, Helen was relieved to find farming women anxious only to support the beliefs and aims of their men. She joined immediately. In 1927, for want of any other meeting place, she founded the Piopio branch of the division on the street outside the Farmers' Trading Company store. She guided the formation of other branches in the area and served for many years on the dominion executive. After the death of her husband in 1934, Helen became even more involved in the WDFU. She was dominion president between 1935 and 1937, and co-edited their publication for New Zealand's 1940 centennial, a collection of stories about settler women called Brave days.
Helen Wilson described the WDFU as her 'first and only love in public life,' but she was also busy in other public activities. Although her sympathies lay primarily with the rural sector, in 1932 she travelled New Zealand as one of a four-member committee set up by the Unemployment Board to establish women's unemployment committees in the main urban centres. She was representing Waitomo on the Waikato Hospital Board when she received a coronation honour, the OBE, in 1937. In 1939 she was made a justice of the peace.
In January 1942 Helen Wilson left Piopio to live with her daughter in Hamilton. As her sight and hearing began to fail she taught herself to type and concentrated on writing. A novel, Moonshine, written in the 1930s, was published in 1944, but it was her autobiography, My first eighty years (1950), that brought her acclaim. The work graphically evokes everyday existence in small-town and rural New Zealand during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and describes in detail the experiences of farming families. It is witty and penetrating in its observation of individual foibles, but essentially supportive of the rural way of life. It was followed by another novel, Land of my children (1955), and numerous articles and radio broadcasts.
White-haired and blind, using an ear trumpet and an 'impatient white stick', Helen Wilson impressed those she met in her later years with her eagerness, warm humour and vivid conversation. She regretted that her body was failing her while her mind remained alert, and that her husband was not alive to share her successes. She died in Hamilton on 16 April 1957 at the age of 87. Her remarkable autobiography is regarded as a New Zealand classic.