Page 1: Biography
Cottrell, Violet May
Writer, poet, spiritualist
This biography, written by C. Joy Axford, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Violet May Grainger was born in Napier on 17 May 1887. She was the youngest of eight children of Eliza Jane Fleetham and her husband, George William Grainger, a civil engineer who was employed by the Napier Harbour Board as clerk of works for the construction of the breakwater. By the time she was five the family had left Napier to clear 200 acres of bush in the Maharahara East block (now Kiritaki), in southern Hawke's Bay. The Graingers were prominent settlers in the district. George was postmaster until 1909, and also used his engineering skills to introduce many labour-saving devices to the other settlers. May attended school at Kiritaki until she was 13 – the extent of her formal education – and lived on the farm until about 1910. She later wrote of the effect that isolation and the rigours of farming had on her mother's health.
May Grainger married Horace Spence Cottrell, a salesman in his father's china and fancy goods store, at Napier on 23 February 1915. They were to have two children, and it was as a housewife and mother that May discovered her literary talent. Writing initially for her own satisfaction, she explored a range of subjects: health, sex and marriage, philosophy, religion, psychology, economics and war. She popularised the pursuit of health, fitness and the outdoor life. Her ideas were unusual for the time. In advocating premarital instruction about sex, May wrote that 'a commonsense campaign should be commenced immediately in the schools and colleges throughout N.Z. in an endeavour to break down, once and for all, the strongholds of ignorance and misinformation concerning sex.' She and Horace wrote many letters to Marie Stopes, the English pioneer advocate of birth control, and, ironically, May recommended an unscientific and misleading method of contraception: 'if conception is neither desired or feared at the time of contact nothing will happen – as far as procreation is concerned, – because through the action of the subconscious mind the semen will be rendered sterile before entering the womb'.
During the 1920s and 1930s May Cottrell suffered from 'nervous disorders' and depression. At this time she believed that she received psychic messages from the spirits of Arthur Conan Doyle, 'Zonia of the Stars' (an ancient Arabian philosopher), and others. She was convinced that the subconscious mind had power over the body, good would triumph over evil, and that there would be eternal life after death. Many of her psychic audiences were printed in the Harbinger of light, a magazine of the occult.
Keen members of the New Zealand Native Bird Protection Society, May and Horace Cottrell made an intensive study of the gannets on the rocky promontory, Cape Kidnappers. A lecture illustrated with Horace's hand-coloured lantern slides proved so popular that they were invited by the American Chautauqua Association to tour New Zealand in 1923. The lecture was given 99 times.
Poems flowed abundantly from May's pen: mostly brief verses on pertinent topics and often from a feminist perspective. With titles such as 'Mothers' (so-called) holidays' and 'Sport & hobby "widows" ', they found ready acceptance in women's magazines. In 1930 a romantic epic poem appeared in an English shipping publication, the Blue Peter. The story was based on a little-known legend surrounding Pania, daughter of the sea people, and the reef that lies beyond the Napier breakwater. Widespread local interest was to result in the commissioning of a bronze statue of Pania, which from its completion in 1954 became a city icon, and the subject of a stamp issued for the provincial centennial in 1958.
The Cottrells lost their business in the 1931 earthquake. Horace subsequently joined the Daily Telegraph in Napier and Waipukurau and then the Land and Income Tax Department in Wellington. Here, May worked at the Rehabilitation Board during the war and published little, although she had joined the New Zealand Women Writers' and Artists' Society in 1939. A miniature carved Māori patu was presented to the society by the Cottrells and awarded annually for a composition with a Māori motif. They returned to Napier in 1947. Throughout the 1950s May produced many stories, radio plays, poems and articles featuring New Zealand scenic attractions, bird life and Māori. The destruction and rebirth of Napier following the earthquake inspired a historical pageant and song, as well as numerous other articles publicising the city.
May Cottrell published more than 1,000 articles in 13 countries. Described by her daughter as 'quiet in herself' and 'a deep thinker', May was encouraged to write by her husband, who marketed her articles with such skill that rejection slips were virtually unknown. Predeceased by Horace in 1960, May died at Napier on 28 May 1971, survived by her daughter. Her son had been killed on active service with the RNZAF in 1942.