Charlotte Eliot Warburton was born in Palmerston North on 14 March 1883, the eldest of five children of English parents George Hartopp Eliot Warburton, a solicitor, and his wife, Sophia Isabella Budd. The Warburtons joined in the busy social life of the small town, and Charlotte later wrote of picnics, tennis, horse-racing, polo tournaments and riding. There were musical evenings, parties and balls, visits to the theatre and services at All Saints’ Church.
Charlotte and her two sisters had a pony and riding was a favourite pastime. She was an accomplished equestrian, winning prizes for the best girl rider at the Manawatu agricultural and pastoral shows of 1896 and 1897, and taking part with distinction at local events for many years. The family had swimming lessons at the new borough baths and holidays at Plimmerton beach.
Charlotte received a good education, beginning at Craven School for Girls in Palmerston North. When the family went to England in 1898 she attended the Queen Elizabeth College in London and later a finishing school in Switzerland. She enjoyed sketching and painting in watercolours. While Eliot Warburton was in favour of education for his daughters he was totally opposed to the idea of women working or having a career. Charlotte had hopes of becoming an architect, but he would not hear of it, and it was not until after his death in 1922 that she was able to participate fully in community life.
After returning to New Zealand in 1903 she lived with her family. She won another prize at the agricultural and pastoral show – this time for photography – and took several trips up the Whanganui River, riding through to some of the river settlements. On the land behind the family home in Palmerston North she started a poultry farm. In 1920 her team of White Leghorns won first prize in an egg-laying competition run by the Auckland Poultry Breeders' Association. She also specialised in Orpington ducks and seems to have introduced the Light Sussex breed of fowls to Palmerston North.
In 1916 she gained her St John Ambulance Association certificates for first aid and nursing, and from this time helped on both the practical and administrative sides of the association. She served as a committee member and vice chairman, and from 1948 to 1950 was chairman of the Palmerston North sub-centre. In 1957 she was admitted to the Order of St John as a serving sister.
When a girl guide company was formed in the town in 1925, Charlotte Warburton became the first district commissioner for Palmerston North. Her great interest was camping and she was appointed a training officer and camp adviser. She resigned as commissioner in 1931, but continued her involvement in guiding. She represented the Girl Guides Association on many occasions, regularly attending special functions as an honoured guest.
In 1931 Warburton became the first matron of the newly built refectory and hostel at Massey Agricultural College. She was granted leave of absence in 1935, and while in England was presented at Court and attended an international domestic science conference. When she retired in 1938 the college council recorded its appreciation of her efficient services.
She joined the YWCA’s Palmerston North Business and Professional Women’s Round Table Club, which later became the Palmerston North Business and Professional Women’s Club, and was an executive member and president. She was also active in political affairs as a supporter of the New Zealand National Party for many years. She became a foundation committee member of the Palmerston North women’s section in 1936, and in 1950 became chairman.
During the Second World War Palmerston North became an important training centre for several army groups. When the Women’s War Service Auxiliary was established in 1940, to co-ordinate women’s war work in New Zealand, Warburton was elected chairman of the Palmerston North district committee. In 1946 she was made an MBE for her meritorious service throughout the war years.
In her seventies Charlotte Warburton wrote two books. Changing days and changing ways (1954) is an account of social life in Palmerston North in the late 1800s, and is still widely used by local historians. Part one was written from letters and notes left by her uncle, Piers Warburton, and part two is based on her mother’s and her own early memories. She included one of her 1896 sketches in the illustrations. The Wanganui River: the Rhine of New Zealand, published posthumously in 1965, records her impressions of a journey by steamer from Wanganui to Taumarunui and includes descriptions of the scenery and the history and traditions of the people along the river.
Charlotte Warburton never married. She died on 17 December 1961 in Palmerston North, which had grown in her lifetime from a small town to the city which she had served in so many ways.