Pearl Howard Dawson was a leading figure in the formative years of women’s team sports in New Zealand, particularly hockey, both as a player and administrator. She sought to raise the status of women’s sport by establishing strong associations, run by women, and by fostering high standards in umpiring. She was also a pioneer as an early woman veterinarian.
Pearl was born on 29 April 1887 in Auckland to Elizabeth Annie Lee and her husband, Walter Howard Dawson, a chemist. Named Minnie Pearl Lalah at birth, in 1966 she changed her name by deed poll to Pearl Howard Dawson, the name she had used all her adult life. She attended Wellesley Street School and then Auckland Girls’ Grammar School. Ambitions to be a doctor were quashed by her father, who would not allow her to leave home, so she was apprenticed in his central city chemist shop. When he gave up the business, she took up work with a local veterinarian. As no formal training was available in New Zealand, around 1920 she obtained a diploma in veterinary science through an American correspondence course; she may have also attended some science classes at the University of Auckland.
In 1926, when a formal university qualification became necessary, Pearl Dawson was able to continue working – but as a veterinary practitioner, not as a surgeon. She was an animal inspector for Auckland Agricultural and Pastoral Association shows, and in the 1920s and 1930s was medical officer for the Animal Welfare Association. Although in her later years she specialised in small animals, she initially worked with farm animals, particularly at the farm attached to Dilworth School.
A straight-talking woman ‘of very decided views’, Dawson had a reputation for being quarrelsome. Her forthright manner was underlined by her unusual habit of addressing other women by their surnames, but she did not lack wit. The short-cropped hair and masculine jackets that she adopted suited her active lifestyle. For work she preferred knickerbockers, lace-up shoes, a collar and tie, and a broad-brimmed felt hat. When she donned a skirt, severely cut in tweed, she still retained the collar and tie. In the 1920s she was a distinctive figure as she drove around Auckland in a Calcott and later a Model T Ford.
Pearl Dawson never married and her friendships were formed around sport, but she lavished affection on the animals under her care: ‘I never lost a cow,’ she boasted. ‘I liked all the animals, more than people’. At the time of the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake she loaded her car with veterinary supplies and drove down to tend homeless pets.
Dawson had learned about sport by playing with boys at primary school. When she was given her first hockey stick, she was so entranced she took it to bed. The strong shoulders she developed delivering calves explained the power with which she could strike a hockey ball as left wing in the ‘flying five’ forward line of the Mount Eden Ladies’ Hockey Club. The team, which she captained, won the Auckland championship year after year in the 1920s, and she represented Auckland four times at national tournaments.
In its early years women’s hockey was dominated by the men’s association. In 1917–18 Dawson and other women, supported by the YWCA, began to revitalise the Auckland Ladies’ Hockey Association; from 1924 until 1949 she was its chairwoman. She was also one of the first women hockey umpires in New Zealand, and at different times was coach and sole selector of the Auckland team. At a national level she was president of the New Zealand Women’s Hockey Association in 1933–34 and 1958–59, and first president of the New Zealand Women’s Hockey Umpires’ Association (1949). She was the first New Zealander to be appointed to the International Federation of Women’s Hockey Associations.
In 1926 Dawson joined with women from the YWCA to take over a sports ground previously leased by men’s hockey. The men had been less than generous about allowing women to play and had charged high fees for the worst grounds. The women raised money to open the Girls’ Sports Ground in Remuera in 1928, but in 1933, during the depression, they could no longer afford the rental. In 1939 Dawson and two colleagues were instrumental in gaining a permanent sports ground for Auckland women, located in Epsom. At Dawson’s suggestion it was named Melville Park to honour the city councillor Ellen Melville, who had given the project her wholehearted support.
Melville Park also hosted Dawson’s other chosen sport, cricket. The Auckland Girls’ (later Women’s) Cricket Association, the first of its kind in New Zealand, was formed in 1928. Pearl joined in the first season and became chair of the association in 1932, holding the post until 1944; she was also president several times. She captained the Auckland team, winning her hat-trick badge in the 1934–35 season at the age of 47. She was awarded a British Empire Medal for sport in 1969.
Pearl Dawson kept playing sport well into her 50s and even in her 90s attended opening days at Melville Park, where, as an honoured guest, she often bowled the first ball of the cricket season. She died at Selwyn Village, Auckland, on 16 May 1987, shortly after her 100th birthday.