Page 1: Biography
Polson, Florence Ada Mary Lamb
Rural women's advocate
This biography, written by Delyn Day, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Florence Ada Mary Lamb Wilson was born on 4 October 1877 at Aberfeldy, Victoria, Australia, the sixth child of John Alfred Wilson, a wealthy merchant, and his wife, Martha Brown Lamb. After being educated at the Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne, and later at a Catholic finishing school in Paris, she travelled throughout Europe and then lived in South Africa with her brother, Colonel A. E. Wilson. On 15 February 1910 at Melbourne, Florence Wilson married William John Polson, a New Zealand pastoralist. The couple settled on the Polson family farm at Fordell, near Wanganui, and raised four children.
In 1921 William was elected president of the New Zealand Farmers' Union (NZFU). He supported its paper, the New Zealand Farmers' Advocate, and Florence, believing that the needs of rural women were being neglected, in 1922 began writing for it under the pseudonyms 'Martha' and 'Columbine'. Still in touch with events in Melbourne, she acclaimed the formation of the women's section of the Victoria Farmers' Union, emphasising the contribution farming women made to agriculture. In 1923, after an NZFU recruiting tour of the North Island with her husband, Florence described the hardships and loneliness of women living on back-blocks farms. Early that year her home, Manurewa, had been destroyed by fire.
When the Farmers' Advocate was superseded by the Farmers' Weekly in 1924, Florence briefly ran her own column, 'Wives in Council', suggesting ways to improve rural life for women. Concerned about farm women's lack of financial independence, she outlined a scheme to sell produce to townswomen and called for greater help in the home. She thought that the rural wife was taken for granted by her farmer husband and his union because there was 'too much church, children, and kitchen about his attitude'.
In 1925 William Polson warned that 'several ladies intended to be in Wellington during the Conference week', and the NZFU subsequently invited these women to a tea-party at the DIC department store on 27 July. Florence Polson asked L. H. McAlpine, NZFU organiser, to address the group and indicate the union's support for a women's division. The following day the women met separately to form the Women's Division of the NZFU (WDFU), electing Florence Polson as president. The organisation aimed at finding ways of improving living conditions on New Zealand farms and supporting the NZFU. Because Florence used pseudonyms, and asked McAlpine to initiate the formation of the WDFU, her importance has often been underplayed or unrecognised.
When William travelled overseas with the Royal Commission on Rural Credits in September 1925, Florence went with him to study rural women's organisations. She also translated documents for the commission. She returned in 1926 with plans for bush-nurse and housekeeper schemes to be run by the WDFU. These were implemented in 1927. She also introduced a market system, called the Women's Exchange, which enabled farm women to sell produce, and with Henrietta Jackson devised the rules and constitution for the WDFU. She set up a travelling book club in Marton and encouraged the WDFU to lobby government for more maternity homes and rural dental clinics.
Polson's work in the WDFU sometimes caused controversy and her abilities were not always appreciated. In January 1928, for instance, the WDFU executive was embroiled in a row over how the housekeeper scheme should be managed, and some members thought her too autocratic. Polson was returned as president in July 1928, but illness forced her to resign in 1929. In December 1927 her 15-year-old son, Donald, had died in a shooting accident, and this affected her health.
In 1928, after William Polson was elected independent MP for Stratford, they began to live at both Stratford and Fordell. Florence was made a justice of the peace at Stratford in 1931 and she joined the Stratford British and Foreign Bible Society and the Next-of-Kin Club. She was also a founding member of the Wanganui women's auxiliary of the Navy League. In 1933 she sought re-election as president of the WDFU but was unsuccessful, partly because she was opposed by a group of women eugenicists who were keen to reinstate the dropped clauses of the 1928 Mental Defectives Amendment Act and saw Polson as a threat to their aims. She served on the WDFU financial committee in 1935.
Florence Polson died on 14 May 1941 at Wanganui, survived by her husband, William, two sons and a daughter. After her death the organisation that she had founded (from 1946 known as the Women's Division Federated Farmers of New Zealand) continued to support and benefit rural women.