Page 1: Biography
Shop assistant, trade unionist
This biography, written by Maryan Street, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4, 1998.
Samuelene Purcell was born in Gundry Street, Newton, Auckland, on 25 July 1898, the daughter of Irish immigrant parents Michael Joseph Purcell and his wife, Jane Galbraith, who both worked in the tailoring trade. Details of her early life are obscure, but it appears that Michael Purcell left his family around 1900 and never returned. Lena, as she was usually known, lived with her mother until the latter's death in 1962 and remained in Auckland all her life; she never married or had children.
By the 1920s Lena Purcell was working as a shop assistant. Her involvement with the trade union movement can be traced to 1928, when she succeeded J. H. Mortensen as secretary of several local unions, most notably the Auckland Retail Shop Assistants' Union (later the Auckland Amalgamated Society of Shop Assistants). She also became secretary of the Auckland Retail Chemists' Employees' Union and the Auckland Grocers' Assistants' Union that year, and from 1934 she was secretary of the Auckland Grocers' Shop Managers' Union.
Purcell also became active in the Auckland Retail Shop Assistants' Union Charity Club, serving as its secretary from 1928. This organisation raised money for a number of charitable organisations in the Auckland area, including 15 orphanages, primarily by holding 'cheer up' public dances, which often attracted up to 800 people. It also gave money to the Needy Shop Assistants' Fund, which helped unemployed shop assistants during the depression of the 1930s.
Purcell's role with the shop assistants' union was her primary occupation, and she was granted leave to carry out her other responsibilities, including preparation of the wage cases for the grocers' assistants in 1930 and the retail chemists' employees in 1937. She was regularly reappointed as assessor for the shop assistants' wage claims at the Council of Conciliation and frequently acted as the union's representative at the Court of Arbitration. After the Labour government introduced compulsory unionism in 1936, the shop assistants' and related unions expanded rapidly, greatly adding to Purcell's workload. Membership of the Auckland Retail Shop Assistants' Union soared from 309 in 1935 to 3,257 in 1937.
From at least 1938 to 1947 Purcell was active in the Auckland Trade Union Secretaries' Association, and for a time she provided meeting rooms for the association in Vulcan Lane, where the shop assistants' union was housed after moving from its earlier Swanson Street offices. The association, which had two women members during this period, received reports of wage claims from union officials and made representations on industrial issues to central government.
Lena Purcell's influence extended beyond Auckland, and she represented the local shop assistants, the grocers' assistants and retail chemists' employees on the New Zealand Federated Shop Assistants' Association. Established in 1922, the association was dominated by the capable secretary of the Wellington shop assistants' union, Alec Croskery. Purcell served on its executive for a number of years and rose to become vice president in 1940 – the first time a woman had achieved such a 'responsible position' in the association.
As she aged, however, Lena Purcell's management of the Auckland shop assistants' union was seen as increasingly inefficient. By the late 1960s membership was in decline and critics claimed that awards were not being adequately enforced. After several attempts to remove her, she resigned her union positions in 1971.
Purcell's years of trade union activism had spanned the depression, the term of the first Labour government, the introduction of compulsory unionism and the 40-hour week, and the ongoing campaign for equal pay for women workers. Her influence extended beyond her own unions, through the Auckland Trade Union Secretaries' Association and, nationally, through the New Zealand Federated Shop Assistants' Association. Alongside the leader of the tailoresses' union, Alice Cossey, she was Auckland's most prominent woman trade unionist from the 1920s to the 1960s. Lena Purcell died at the Lady Allum Home and Hospital for the Aged in Milford on 20 December 1982, and was cremated at Purewa cemetery.