Page 1: Biography
Basten, Alice Henrietta Gertrude
Businesswoman, local politician
This biography, written by Raewyn Dalziel, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Alice Henrietta Gertrude Basten was born in Auckland on 24 January 1876, one of five children of Rachel Lang and her husband, George John Basten, a coachbuilder. Her father died in 1893 and her mother supported the family with a boarding house in Vincent Street. She was the strongest influence in Alice’s life. Around 1914 she acquired Rexcourt in Symonds Street and ran a successful boarding house there in addition to her other property.
Alice went to the public school in Wellesley Street and later took night classes in typing and shorthand. By 1898 she had moved to Coromandel to take up a position as secretary to Francis Hodge, a mining engineer who had the management of several mines in the district. In this fairly cut-throat business 'Miss Basten' became known for her incorruptibility and her ability to maintain confidentiality. Outside of work she belonged to the local Mutual Improvement Society, where she contributed satirical and other poetic offerings.
When Hodge closed his Coromandel office in 1904 Alice returned home to Auckland, where she worked as a secretary. By 1910 she and her sister Caroline had established a business as reporters, typists and accountants in Queen Street. For some years they were the only women public accountants and auditors in the country. Both had qualified as associates of the Public Accountants of New Zealand by 1911. The business also incorporated a commercial college and the Bastens trained hundreds of young women in office practice. The college closed in 1922, although the sisters remained in business until the 1940s.
Alice's interest in women's organisations and politics is apparent in her membership of the Civic League, Auckland, founded in 1913, and the Auckland Women's Club, founded in 1919. These associations brought her into contact with leading women activists such as Ellen Melville, Jessie Gunson and Lucinda Wilson. She also joined the Auckland Hospital Auxiliary, which she represented at the Auckland branch of the National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCW) in the early 1920s. In 1924 she became a member of the executive of the local NCW and in 1925 branch vice president; that year she was elected national secretary. She remained active locally through the 1930s, and in 1943–44 was the branch president. She also audited the NCW accounts.
In 1927 Alice became the third woman to be elected to the Auckland City Council. She stood with endorsements from the Protestant Political Association of New Zealand and the Progressive Citizens, but saw herself as a spokesperson on women’s issues rather than as a party person. She was re-elected to the council until the Labour landslide of 1935. She served on the Parks and Reserves and Library committees and took a particular interest in the building of women's restrooms. She also fought for the right for women to carry collapsible prams onto trams. This was a heated issue in a number of towns in the 1920s when many tram drivers and conductors refused to help women struggling with public transport.
In January 1931 Basten was made a justice of the peace. In June that year she joined the executive of the Auckland Unemployed Women's Emergency Committee, formed to assist unemployed women and girls. However, she resigned in October when a lack of funds forced it to close its unemployment register and hand its work over to the YWCA. In October 1934 she joined a 12-women delegation, led by Elsie Andrews, who represented women teachers, to the third conference of the Pan-Pacific Women's Association. She was also a member of the Tamaki Women's Progressive League and of the Navy League. After losing her city council seat she focused her attention on her many women's and community organisations.
Alice Basten was one of an old type of independent woman working within a particular sphere of a mainly man's world, while drawing support and friendship from a network of women. She used business and local body politics to provide opportunities for women and to improve their material conditions. She never married and died in Auckland on 6 March 1955.