Jeannie Begg was born on 7 October 1886 at Port Chalmers, one of 10 children of Scottish parents Eliza Johnstone and her husband, John Begg, a tanner and rug-maker. Her close-knit Presbyterian family considered her the most dynamic and boisterous of the children (her mother put this down to her having been breast-fed by a local prostitute when her own milk failed). Usually known as Jean, she attended North-East Valley School (1893–99) and Otago Girls’ High School (1900–1904), then enrolled for a BA at the University of Otago.
In 1908, one year short of attaining her degree, Begg decided to become a missionary and enrolled at the Presbyterian Women’s Training Institute in Dunedin. In December 1910 she sailed to American Samoa, where she taught at Atauloma Girls’ School and ran a daily health clinic. She quickly had to learn how to deliver babies, working with an obstetrics manual by her side. She earned the love and respect of many Samoans and developed a keen understanding of cultural differences.
After nearly nine years at Atauloma, Begg was impatient for new challenges. Through her contact with Jane Addams of Hull House, a model settlement in the slums of Chicago, she studied at the School of Social Work associated with Columbia University, New York. Supporting herself by working as a waitress, English teacher and factory worker, she also studied sociology at the university. She completed a thesis on Inwood House, a bleak reformatory for delinquent young women, proposing that it be sold and the inmates rehabilitated within the community. She argued that girls should be taught to fight temptation where it occurs – in the community – rather than behind closed doors and walls. To her amazement the board of the house employed her to implement her progressive plan. She also spent time working with women police and probation officers in New York.
By 1923 physical exhaustion forced Jean Begg to return to New Zealand. She wrote a report on child welfare for the government, gave evidence to the 1924 Committee of Inquiry into Mental Defectives and Sexual Offenders in New Zealand, and in 1929 was appointed to the Eugenics Board. Generally, she favoured segregation of the mentally ill, but urged that each case be treated individually, and maintained that those who did not display ‘anti-social tendencies’ could, if sterilised, lead useful lives in the community. She also arranged the women’s court at the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition in Dunedin in 1925–26.
In 1926 Begg was recruited to become general secretary of the Auckland YWCA, beginning a long association with the organisation both within New Zealand and internationally. Building on the work of her predecessor, Jean Stevenson, she transformed the YWCA into a focal point for many Auckland girls. She completed the fund-raising for a large hostel next to Myers Park and was instrumental in the purchase of the Holiday House at Blockhouse Bay, where working girls could vacation by the sea. Her story-telling ability, energy and willingness to treat everyone equally made her popular and even revered by those who came into contact with her.
A big woman, forthright but good humoured, she was never daunted by the size of any task. By 1928 Begg supervised a paid staff of 13, and the organisation had 150 volunteers and a paid membership of nearly 2,000. She also fostered the formation of women’s sports organisations, working with like-minded women to establish hockey, cricket and athletics clubs in the city and to obtain a sports ground for their use in Remuera.
Jean Begg championed feminist causes and challenged women to become involved in commerce, civic life and politics, chastising them for being ‘apathetic’. She became a vice president of the Auckland branch of the National Council of Women of New Zealand and attended a number of national conferences. In 1930 she led the New Zealand delegation to the Pan-Pacific Women’s Association conference in Honolulu, and on her return home initiated the formation of a New Zealand branch. Although many of her colleagues in women’s organisations were conservative, she was egalitarian in her approach. She believed that as New Zealand was a democratic society ‘anything that tends towards class distinction should be done away with’, and she spoke out against the privilege of private schools.
In 1931 Begg left New Zealand to take up the post of YWCA national general secretary for India, Burma and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). She travelled all over her territories and attended an All-India Women’s Conference at which 3,000 women united to oppose child marriage. In 1940 she was recruited by Clementine Churchill to take on the special position of director of the British YWCA’s war services. Her task was to provide recreational facilities for allied servicewomen and nurses serving in the Middle East and North Africa. She eventually developed a network of 65 clubs, stretching from Italy, Egypt, Palestine and Iraq to India, Burma and Japan. With her formidable organisational abilities she requisitioned some of the most luxurious hotels and palaces for YWCA clubs, although no alcohol was served. She recruited many of the women who ran the clubs from the New Zealand YWCA.
In 1945 Jean Begg was asked to set up welfare services in Singapore for internees being liberated from Japanese camps. She immediately took over the famed Raffles Hotel – much to the annoyance of some male military officers. In 1946 she turned down the position of national general secretary of the New Zealand YWCA, claiming that she was too old and ‘worn-out’. Instead she went to Japan to rebuild the YWCA there. In the wake of the war there was much anti-Japanese sentiment, but she called on her helpers to treat the Japanese people with respect and fairness. For her war services Begg was appointed an MBE (1943), OBE (1946) and CBE (1948).
Following her time in Japan she spent three years revitalising Helen Graham House, a large YWCA hostel in London with a multinational clientele of over 350. Begg returned to New Zealand in 1952, and two years later was appointed a justice of the peace. She worked first for the YWCA in Hamilton and then as a CORSO organiser in Wellington, retiring in 1956. She had never accumulated wealth, but Bernard Freyberg organised a war pension for her and she was bequeathed a house in Dunedin by her friend Ann Strong, a pioneer of home science in New Zealand. Jean, who never married, lived there with two elder sisters for the rest of her life.
In 1967 Jean Begg was delighted when the Auckland YWCA named a hostel for university students after her. Three years later she attended a reunion in her honour in Auckland and went on to Samoa to renew acquaintances there. She died in Dunedin on 15 February 1971. She was accorded a military funeral and her ashes were buried in the soldiers’ cemetery at Andersons Bay, Dunedin.