Page 1: Biography
Crooke, Helen Iris
Nurse, voluntary aid administrator
This biography, written by Jan Rodgers, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Helen Iris Crooke was born in Lawrence, Otago, on 14 December 1895, the daughter of Jane Duthie Smith and her husband, Alfred Crooke, a lawyer and magistrate. Iris (as she was known) and her three sisters spent most of their childhood in Marton, Rangitikei, where they boarded at Nga Tawa School. In 1912–13 Iris was head prefect of the school and records of her achievements in sport, acting and academic subjects show her to have been an all-round success. All four daughters did acting and singing, initially at school, and later through the Marton drama group. After Iris’s father retired in 1919 her parents moved to Marton, where their home, Astolat, was built in Wellington Road.
In 1920 Iris qualified as a registered nurse at Wellington Hospital and served there briefly as a nursing sister. By 1922 she had returned to Marton to care for her ageing parents. Her nursing skills came to the fore when she became involved in organising the Marton sub-centre of the New Zealand Red Cross Society. She also provided home-nursing lectures and some of her students later joined the New Zealand Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachments during the Second World War. Her comfortable life included golf, tennis and bridge, travel abroad, and acting in performances to raise money for the unemployed in Marton during the depression years. She also sang in the choir of St Stephen’s Anglican Church.
After the deaths of her parents in 1940 and 1941, Crooke, who remained single, was able to extend her social work beyond the confines of Marton and nursing. In 1942 she became director general of the New Zealand Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachments movement. Under her leadership the local emergency hospital, a building unused for many years, was prepared for use in case of need during the war. She travelled throughout the country promoting the organisation’s work and by 1943 had moved to Wellington.
In 1944 Crooke was a foundation member of CORSO in New Zealand and chaired its personnel committee. In this role she helped select people to work with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Greece in 1946 and China in 1947–48. She remained an executive member of CORSO after the Red Cross withdrew in 1947.
In 1948 she represented the New Zealand Red Cross Society at the 17th International Red Cross Conference at Stockholm, Sweden. She then visited the League of Red Cross Societies in Geneva and the Red Cross in the United Kingdom. Her observations of the organisation of Meals on Wheels in England prompted her, on her return, to attempt to implement the scheme in New Zealand. Although she was unsuccessful, Meals on Wheels later became an important aspect of Red Cross work in New Zealand. Her services to the Red Cross were recognised by her being appointed an MBE in 1946. Throughout this period she continued to live part of the time in Marton and in 1948 earned the distinction of being the first woman appointed to the Nga Tawa school board. In 1946 Astolat became the Girl Guides’ national training and conference centre.
In 1950 Iris Crooke retired from her mainly voluntary work as director general of the New Zealand Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachments. She attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and spent her retirement in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. She died in Dorking, Surrey, on 23 February 1985.