Page 1: Biography
Burns, Violet Alberta Jessie
Journalist, political activist
This biography, written by Jocelyn Chalmers, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4, 1998.
Violet Alberta (Berta) Jessie Watson, one of the first women to achieve high office in the New Zealand National Party, was born in Winchester, South Canterbury, on 12 March 1893, the first of two children of Agnes McCaig Baillie and her husband, Andrew Carroll Watson. Her mother died in 1895. Her father, a blacksmith and coachbuilder in Temuka, married Fanny Hope in 1901.
Berta was educated at Temuka School from 1898. When she married farmer John Wisely at Temuka on 8 October 1913 she gave her profession as schoolteacher. They had three sons (one of whom was to be killed in the Second World War). The couple farmed successively at Temuka, Methven, Ashburton and Winchmore. In 1927 Berta moved to Christchurch and began work as a journalist on the Star; John continued farming at Winchmore.
Berta probably began work to help the family financially and also to extend herself. In 1919 she had met the poet Blanche Baughan, a 'fellow writer and social worker'. They became lifelong friends and founding members of the New Zealand Howard League for Penal Reform in 1924, and were associated in studying Vedanta, a Hindu philosophy. Berta was also a member of the Christchurch Psychic Research Society.
She wrote for the children's pages of Christchurch newspapers for a number of years: as 'Aunt Hilda' on the Christchurch Star and its successor, the Christchurch Star-Sun; and from 1930 to 1935 as 'Rata' on the Christchurch Times. As Rata she formed the League of Young New Zealanders, which devoted special attention to the country child. Her readers responded to her columns by writing letters, which she rewarded with praise and advice. As Aunt Hilda, Berta's numerous trips to the West Coast to visit Starlets – children belonging to the club associated with her column – became part of Coast tradition. She also wrote magazine articles, and edited the SPCA Junior League journal and The poetical works of Hugh Smith (The Bard of Inangahua) in 1946.
Berta divorced John Wisely in 1933 and at Christchurch on 1 March 1934 married John Sinclair Burns, a young Christchurch Times journalist. She was now known as Berta Sinclair Burns. In 1936 Berta and John moved to Wellington and she became involved in the journal Woman To-day, subtitled 'for peace, freedom and progress', which first appeared in April 1937. Burns claimed that the editorial committee worked in 'perfect harmony' producing the first issue of the magazine, but this was not to last. She felt that editorial responsibility was necessary and that she was most qualified for this; but Elsie Freeman, who had worked on the communist magazine Working Woman, was committed to co-operative editing. Burns insisted that 'no editor can do good work unless she feels that it is a trust imposed on her,' and she and two other committee members resigned after the publication of five issues. She later attributed her involvement with the New Zealand National Party to this experience, which she believed had shown her the tactics of communism.
Burns became chairwoman of the Brooklyn branch of the National Party, and in 1947 was selected to chair the Brooklyn electorate committee. As a member of the Wellington divisional executive she toured the division to encourage political activity among women. In 1949 she stood against the prime minister, Peter Fraser, in Brooklyn, seeking to represent those 'who believe in a spiritual approach to life, as opposed to atheistic materialism'. She stood for private enterprise and the right of ownership of private property, but this did not include the freedom to exploit. In particular she stood for freedom of conscience. Campaigning as the 'housewives' champion', she wrote jingles criticising the Labour government, which she held responsible for rising prices.
At the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts in 1939 Berta Burns had exhibited drawings she claimed had been executed under the influence of Zara, an Egyptian medium. When Fraser publicly ridiculed her for this, she responded that he was leading people down the path to suppression of freedom of religion and the arts. Although unsuccessful in 1949 and in a 1951 bid in Wellington Central, Burns waged spirited campaigns in safe Labour seats.
Burns belonged to the Wellington branch of the National Council of Women, the Intellectually Handicapped Children's Society, the Wellington Housewives' Association and the Gold Star Mothers' Club, an organisation for mothers of dead servicemen and -women. When Blanche Baughan died in 1958 Berta inherited her Akaroa cottage. She lived there from 1960 to 1963, when she returned to Wellington. The following year she and John moved to Pukerua Bay. Her health declined and she died there on 26 December 1972. She was survived by her husband and two sons.