Page 1: Biography
Eyre, Betsy Robertson
Teacher, community worker, local politician
This biography, written by Carol Markwell, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000.
Betsy Robertson Walter was born in Nelson on 28 November 1911, the eldest child of Mary Jane Mitchell and her husband, John (Jock) Sinclair Walter. Her father, from Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands, had been a silk merchant in Glasgow before arriving in New Zealand around 1907. He came to Nelson in 1911 as a tea merchant but later became the proprietor of the Metropolitan Private Hotel. Three further children were born to the family.
Betsy, or Betty, as she was often known, attended Brook Street School and later Nelson Girls’ Central School, before going on to five years’ secondary education at Nelson College for Girls. Her love of children and her cheerful and outgoing nature made her well suited to a career as a schoolteacher. After a year (1929) as a probationary teacher at Hampden Street School, Nelson, she attended the Teachers’ Training College, Wellington, from 1930 to 1932, taking an extra year to study the special needs of intellectually handicapped children. She was soon back in Nelson, working for the next 10 years as a highly regarded and popular teacher of the special class at Nelson Central School. She later spent 11 years as infant mistress at Auckland Point School, Nelson.
Public-spirited and energetic, during the Second World War Betsy Walter was secretary of the Territorial Force Association, secretary–treasurer of the Fighting Services Club and a member of Women’s War Service Auxiliary. She was an accomplished cook and caterer, and also helped with the YMCA canteen at Tahunanui aerodrome, serving thousands of meals to military personnel.
A big, outgoing woman with blue eyes and ‘a heart as large as her stature’, Betsy Walter had a quick sense of humour and a ready laugh. She loved to entertain: when a ship came into port she would offer meals and hospitality to visiting sailors; groups of hungry and homesick boarders from Nelson’s two colleges came to her house each Sunday for lunch and tea. Friends fondly remembered parties at her Brougham Street home ending with a breakfast of bacon and eggs at dawn.
Betsy Walter belonged to a myriad of professional, sporting, educational and welfare groups in Nelson. She was active in the Girl Guides movement for 23 years, trained church and Sunday school choirs, served on the repertory theatre committee, and conducted the children’s session on Radio 2XN each Friday evening. She was appointed a justice of the peace in 1962. A keen follower of cricket, she was president of the Nelson Women’s Cricket Association. She joined the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women’s Association (a peace group) at its inception in Nelson in 1961, and was awarded national life membership in 1982. She served on the local committee of Birthright New Zealand, and was for more than 20 years a member of the Nelson College for Girls Old Girls’ Association executive.
In 1956 Walter was elected to the Nelson City Council as its first woman councillor. She was to serve on the council until 1962, and again from 1965 to 1976. She retired from teaching in 1961, and on 27 January 1962, at Khandallah Presbyterian Church in Wellington, married Richard John Eyre, a retired army officer from Christchurch. He moved into her large Brougham Street home and always supported her work for the Nelson community. The couple had no children of their own, but became known as ‘Aunty Betty’ and ‘Uncle John’ to the many youngsters who visited their home.
Betsy Eyre was a conscientious chair of numerous council committees, topped the poll at four separate council elections, and served nine years as deputy mayor; she stood unsuccessfully for the mayoralty in 1962. In 1967 she was made an MBE. Ill health and subsequent hospitalisation forced her to retire from the council in 1976. John Eyre died in Nelson in August 1979. Betsy died at Hahei, Coromandel, on 17 January 1983, and was cremated in Nelson after a service at Christ Church Cathedral. A colourful and popular Nelson identity, she had given a lifetime of service to her community. A park in The Brook, Nelson, was named for her.