Story: McElligott, Sarah Isabella

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McElligott, Sarah Isabella

1883–1986

Cook, fruit-stall holder

This biography, written by Diane Woods, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Sarah Isabella (Bell) Hansen was born in Kawarau Gorge, near Cromwell, Central Otago, on 28 November 1883. She was the sixth of seven children of Henrick (Henry) Peter Hansen, a Dane, and his wife, Mary Ann Bennett, who was born in England. Bell's family were poor; her father was a miner, but 'never did any good at it', so her mother kept the family by taking in washing.

Bell attended the small Kawarau Gorge School, where she failed the inspector's examinations twice. At 14 she left and worked as a general servant. She was then a waitress, barmaid and cook in hotels at Cromwell and nearby townships, making three-course meals on coal ranges and scrubbing wooden floors on her knees. In her 20s she was a cook in Queenstown and Invercargill hotels, and in the home of an Invercargill merchant, William Hazlett. From there, aged 29, she wrote to her mother: 'I am leaving Hazletts I can't do the work my legs ache so'. A cousin's postcard at this time said, 'What a shame they won't let you go nursing'.

During these years Bell often returned to Kawarau Gorge. Her father now worked occasionally as a station cook and the family grew fruit for sale. With her sister Mary, Bell took it in turns to help their mother, who suffered ill health. She also nursed a local family during the 1918 influenza epidemic, and worked to support a neighbour's unmarried daughter through pregnancy. She continued to take positions as a hotel cook, in Lumsden and Queenstown, but returned home permanently when Mary married in 1924. Her mother was bedridden by this stage and Bell nursed her until her death in 1930; she had also cared for her father before he died in 1928.

On her brother's marriage in 1932, Bell moved to a neighbouring property, which her father had given her for looking after her parents in their old age. She made a home there in the old cob stable of the Sluicers' Arms Hotel, repairing it and later building on small rooms, and earning money by prospecting for gold. On 30 August 1933, at the age of 49, she married Jeremiah Joseph McElligott at the Catholic church in Cromwell; he was a miner whom she had known since childhood. The couple grew fruit and vegetables, Jerry trapped rabbits and Bell kept bantams and other birds. Each autumn for many years they picked wild rose-hips for W. Gregg and Company of Dunedin. Bell regularly biked the four miles to Cromwell, where she shopped, visited friends, went to church and attended the weekly meetings of the women's branch of the New Zealand Labour Party. She also went each week to the meetings of the local Country Women's Institute. She helped organise CWI activities, and competed for its annual points trophy. For 15 years she was caretaker of the community hall at Ripponvale.

After Jerry died in May 1949, Bell sold fruit, grown by local farmers, and her own jam from stalls at her gate every summer for almost 30 years. She had no children and to the district she was Aunty Bella, known for her simple life in an overgrown cottage with no bathroom, no electricity and only an outside water supply. She was 'used to wearing an old frock, an apron and boots and puddling about in the garden,' but she enjoyed fancy-dress events, card evenings, community fund-raising and attending the Cromwell horse races. She took an active part in the Clyde and Cromwell centennial celebrations, and willingly shared her memories and photographs of the past.

The hardships experienced in her childhood and seen during the depression shaped Bell's political beliefs. She had supported the Liberal Party, but when Labour came to power in 1935 she felt 'they were out for the down and out' and joined the party. For 10 years in the 1940s she was secretary of the Cromwell women's branch. An ardent supporter, she put Labour Party banners on her fence and in 1945 marked the 10th anniversary of Labour government by sending a telegram to Prime Minister Peter Fraser. Two of her constant interests were listening to Parliament on the radio and reading the New Zealand Parliamentary Debates. She wrote letters to the newspapers, stating, 'I am proud to be a Socialist,' and corresponded regularly with Prime Minister Norman Kirk. He presented her with life membership of the party and a gold badge for meritorious service in November 1972, telling her it was 'People like you who made the pioneer Labour Party what it was'. The following year the Kirk family attended her 90th birthday party at Cromwell.

After a slight stroke early in 1978, Bell closed her fruit stall and went to live in Christchurch with a niece. In 1983 she celebrated her 100th birthday with a party and an aeroplane trip to the West Coast. She died, aged 102, in Christchurch on 8 February 1986, still carrying Labour campaign badges in her handbag. Tough, spirited and independent, Bell McElligott responded to the needs of her family and friends throughout her life and helped others in practical ways. She fought for her beliefs, and took pride in the awards she received for her community and political activities.

How to cite this page:

Diane Woods. 'McElligott, Sarah Isabella', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4m9/mcelligott-sarah-isabella (accessed 19 August 2019)