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Story: Woodhouse, Airini Elizabeth and Woodhouse, Philip Randal

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Woodhouse, Airini Elizabeth


Runholder, wool-classer, cattle breeder, historian, community leader

Woodhouse, Philip Randal


Doctor, soldier, sheepfarmer, conservationist, community leader

This biography, written by Geoffrey W. Rice, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Philip Randal Woodhouse was born in Dunedin on 9 February 1886, the son of John Frederick Churton Woodhouse, a solicitor, and his wife, Edith Bathgate. Randal (as he was known) was educated at Otago Boys' High School and the University of Otago. After graduating in medicine in 1910 he joined the staff of Wellington Hospital, and was acting superintendent for part of 1913. He went to England later that year to study for his FRCS, but on the outbreak of war in 1914 he volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps and served in France until 1918. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1916 and a bar in 1917. In 1918 he was transferred to No 9 Field Ambulance of the Guards Division with the rank of acting major, and was made a DSO for service under fire. After the armistice he went to Germany with the British army of occupation, and was in Cologne when he heard that he had been appointed medical superintendent of Wellington Hospital.

Airini Elizabeth Rhodes was also born in Dunedin, on 8 November 1896. Her mother, Jessy, was the youngest daughter of Charles Robert Bidwill of Pihautea in Wairarapa. Her father was Robert Heaton Rhodes of Blue Cliffs station, South Canterbury. Although Airini was an only child, her parents' wealth and social position meant that there were many visitors at Blue Cliffs; holidays away included trips to England (1905–6 and 1910–12). Educated at home by governesses, Airini showed an early aptitude for writing. In 1913 she attended Craighead Diocesan School in Timaru for one year as a weekly boarder. One of her childhood playmates was Ngita Woodhouse, Randal's younger sister, and Airini met Randal several times before his departure for England. During the First World War she was busy with various fund-raising activities and joined the Red Cross. Through helping her father with mustering and stock work she learned much about farm management.

Airini's father died unexpectedly from pneumonia on 11 August 1918. She and her mother then went to visit relatives in England on a trip that lasted for nearly two years, returning in January 1921. Though she had seen Randal Woodhouse only briefly in eight years, they had kept up a wartime correspondence, and in March he visited Blue Cliffs to propose marriage. They wed at Upper Otaio on 22 September 1921 and went to live in Wellington.

Her father's will had given Airini first option on Blue Cliffs, but the trustees insisted she employ a manager. Randal had apparently seen too much death and suffering in military hospitals to spend the rest of his life practising surgery, and suggested to the trustees that he might become Airini's station manager, after a year's trial. His resignation from Wellington Hospital was greeted with dismay. Randal's apprenticeship as a sheepfarmer began in January 1922 with the basics: sorting dags after crutching. He easily passed his trial year, and was appointed manager of Blue Cliffs in 1923 on a salary of £200. But Airini insisted on classing the wool clip, a skill learned from her father.

The Woodhouses had three children in the 1920s: Elizabeth, Carne and Heaton. Airini was elected to the Blue Cliffs parish vestry in 1927 – the first year women were admitted – and remained a member until 1961. Randal read all the books he could find about sheepfarming, and sought expert advice on soils and pasture from Professor R. G. Stapledon of Aberystwyth, Wales, when he visited Blue Cliffs in 1926. He abandoned tussock burning, fenced off remnants of native bush, began topdressing with lime, and planted large numbers of trees to control gorse on steeper slopes. He bought the district's first tractor in 1925, and a Morris truck in 1926. Mechanisation and smaller paddocks brought a steady improvement in pasture quality which set an example for other South Canterbury hill country farmers.

Besides raising a family and helping her husband manage Blue Cliffs, Airini developed a strong interest in breeding cattle. She had been a member of the council of the New Zealand Red Poll Cattle Breeders' Association since its foundation in 1921, and in 1932 her name was added to its list of judges and inspectors. She was one of the first women in New Zealand to judge stock at an agricultural show, at Palmerston North that same year. In the evenings she was busy with historical research, producing a biography of her maternal grandfather (with W. E. Bidwill) in 1927 and a parish history of Otaio and Blue Cliffs in 1930. The biography of her other grandfather, George Rhodes of the Levels and his brothers (1937), was highly praised and led to an invitation to edit Tales of pioneer women for the women's institutes of New Zealand.

Airini managed Blue Cliffs during the Second World War, and again worked hard for the Red Cross. She was president of the Blue Cliffs sub-centre of the Red Cross during both world wars, and was awarded a Voluntary Aid Detachment medal for service 1939–45. Randal served from 1941 as deputy director of medical services, then as acting director, Southern Military District (1942–43) based at Riccarton Racecourse; he reached the rank of lieutenant colonel.

When catchment boards were being organised throughout New Zealand in the 1940s, Randal Woodhouse was asked to stand as the Waimate member on the South Canterbury board and was its first chairman (1944–58), later becoming president of the New Zealand Catchment Authorities Association (1956–58). He was awarded Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation Medal in 1953 for services to farming, and was made an OBE in 1958.

By the late 1950s the Woodhouses had become interested in the Maori rock drawings found in South Canterbury, and with advice from H. D. Skinner and Roger Duff campaigned for their preservation. Airini was on the committee of the South Canterbury Historical Society from its inception, and chair of the South Canterbury Centennial History Committee (1954–60). She continued her literary work, compiling New Zealand farm and station verse 1850–1950 and publishing a biography, Guthrie-Smith of Tutira (1959). She also chaired the South Canterbury Regional Committee of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust from 1959 to 1975. Rather to her embarrassment, this committee named a peak in the Hunters Hills range after her in 1965 (Mt Airini). In 1969 she became the first woman in New Zealand to be granted registration as an owner-classer by the New Zealand Wool Handling Committee, with the right to put the Kiwi brand on her bales.

Randal Woodhouse died at Timaru on 1 October 1970, and Airini moved to the house in Timaru where her mother had lived until her death. There she completed her fifth book, a detailed history of Blue Cliffs station, published in 1982. She was awarded the Queen's Service Medal in 1981 and was working on a biography of her husband when she died on 13 April 1989.

Airini Woodhouse was undoubtedly South Canterbury's outstanding countrywoman in this century, combining an active farm life and service on numerous voluntary organisations with her chosen vocation as a local historian. Short, serious and exacting, she was a fearsomely efficient organiser, yet to her friends and family she was generous and loyal, with a good sense of humour. As for Randal, the surgeon who married the sheepfarmer's daughter not only mastered his second vocation but proved himself a pioneer in hill country conservation. They were a devoted couple, and a formidable partnership, making Blue Cliffs a focal point for rural society in South Canterbury for half a century, as well as forming a direct link with the district's earliest European settlers.

How to cite this page:

Geoffrey W. Rice. 'Woodhouse, Airini Elizabeth and Woodhouse, Philip Randal', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4w26/woodhouse-airini-elizabeth (accessed 17 July 2024)