Page 1: Biography
Ferner, Ellen Elizabeth
Artist, photographer, community leader
This biography, written by Bronwyn Dalley, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Ellen Elizabeth Aley was born in Auckland on 13 September 1869 to Ellen Beck and her husband, Alfred Aley, a watchmaker and jeweller. Nothing else is known of Nellie’s life until she married James Ferner, a bill poster, on 13 October 1890 in Auckland. The couple were to have four children, one of whom died in infancy. Perhaps inspired by her growing family, Nellie Ferner became skilled as a portrait painter and photographic artist of children: her entry in the Auckland Exhibition in 1914 won a gold medal for portraiture. This interest was to blossom into a lifetime’s work in children’s welfare and education.
In 1917, influenced by international theories on the importance of play in forming children’s characters, she founded the Play and Recreation Association to organise games and leisure activities for children in Auckland’s congested central-city areas. She gave many public lectures on the importance of children’s playgrounds, including presentations to the New Zealand Town-planning Conference (1919) and the Child Welfare Conference (1926). She attended the former as a delegate for the Civic League, Auckland. The latter was organised by the Auckland branch of the National Council of Women of New Zealand, of which she was a member.
Faith in the advantages of fresh air and attractive open spaces spurred Ferner’s involvement in town planning and urban beautification schemes. As leader of the Civic League’s parks and playgrounds committee, she helped establish public parks and reserves. She also belonged to the Auckland Town-planning League and participated in tree-planting schemes in Te Puke and in the setting out of the town’s main street.
Ferner furthered her knowledge of children’s welfare and education with a trip to England and Europe: she left in the latter part of 1924 and visited children’s homes and educational facilities. She found the Swiss technical colleges and children’s health camps especially noteworthy, and returned home imbued with ideas for improving children’s well-being. A tour around the South Island in 1927, which included visits to open-air classrooms, intensified her conviction of the beneficial effects for children of sunshine and fresh air.
As a member of the Auckland Community Welfare Council when it formed in mid 1924, Ferner was involved in providing important support for the passage of the Child Welfare Act in 1925. This experience, and her wider work on children’s issues, culminated in her appointment as one of the first three associate members of the Children’s Court in 1926. Associate members acted as advisers to magistrates and as ‘public friends’ of the children. In 1927 she became a justice of the peace with jurisdiction in the Auckland Children’s Court, a position that entitled her to preside over the court proceedings. She was among the first women to have been appointed a justice of the peace in 1926, and one of the first two to be given special responsibility for the Children’s Court.
In 1928 the Play and Recreation Association became the Community Sunshine Association and under Ferner’s direction embarked on a more ambitious programme of activities for children. The association ran a children’s club and a school for ill and convalescing children, with assistance from the Education and Health departments. Through Ferner’s initiative, it purchased a disused school in 1928 to house the Community Sunshine School. When it opened in 1930 it had two open-air classrooms and a solarium: specialist medical advice was also available. Ferner extended the association’s work into running a residential health camp for undernourished children at Ostend on Waiheke Island. In the summer of 1930 she superintended the first camp.
Ferner served on the board of governors of Seddon Memorial Technical College, the council of the WEA, the Auckland Education Board and the committee of the Kowhai Junior High School. Her artistic interests were evident as a board member of the Elam School of Art, and in her membership of the League of New Zealand Penwomen. Despite growing ill health from the late 1920s, she continued her public activities, particularly those associated with the Community Sunshine Association, whose affairs she directed from her bedside until a few days before her death. She died at her Remuera home on 3 November 1930, survived by her husband, two sons and a daughter. Her son, Raymond, followed his mother’s footsteps, joining the Community Sunshine Association and becoming a magistrate in the Children’s Court in Christchurch.