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Story: Kain, Frances Ida

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Kain, Frances Ida


Dietitian, women’s air force leader

This biography, written by Shirley Tunnicliff, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Frances Ida Tyson (known as Kitty) was born in Dunedin on 17 September 1908, the daughter of Ida Rochfort and her husband, Francis Edward Tyson, a clerk. She attended Otago Girls’ High School, then studied at the School of Home Science, University of Otago, graduating bachelor of home science in 1933. After doing postgraduate training in dietetics in Melbourne, she was appointed dietitian in charge at Hobart General Hospital.

In Hobart, Kitty became engaged to Maurice Colin Church Kain, a Dunedin mining engineer who was working in the tin industry in Malaya. In 1935 she travelled to the Straits Settlements, and on 8 October she and Maurice were married at Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Kitty then taught in local schools, mainly in Penang, while her husband was away in mining camps. However, when war threatened and she was pregnant with her first child, she returned to Dunedin. Maurice escaped later after the Japanese advance on Singapore.

After the birth of their son, Kitty worked for Muriel Bell, the state nutritionist and director of nutrition research at the University of Otago Medical School. On 18 March 1941, apparently on Bell’s recommendation, Kitty Kain was appointed superintendent of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). The formation of the service had been approved by the War Cabinet on 16 January 1941 when it was realised that the Royal New Zealand Air Force could not release enough men for service overseas without mobilising women. The WAAF was initially designed ‘primarily to take over messing, to control every phase of the choice, preparation, and serving of food’, which made it appropriate that a dietitian with experience in a large hospital should be appointed as first superintendent. Kain had also developed the management skills required to supervise the clerks, equipment assistants, medical orderlies, drivers and typists who were to be included in the first detachments.

Kitty Kain began the huge task of recruiting and organising the new service at Rongotai, Wellington, where the centennial exhibition buildings adjacent to the aerodrome provided additional accommodation for the RNZAF. Within a month of her appointment she was organising and supervising the training of the first draft of 200 recruits at Rongotai. By January 1942 the WAAFs, as they became known, were serving on 11 stations, and by July 1943 the number of women in the service had increased to 3,600.

Women who worked at Rongotai have happy recollections of the comradeship and enthusiasm of the time. Dances held on the polished floor of the old exhibition hall were compensation for work in the mess, which was done in shifts virtually round the clock as crews flew in at all hours and meals had to be ready for them and for the guards on duty. It was strenuous and physically demanding work with the heavy, cumbersome kitchen equipment of the time, but the mess was very efficiently and smoothly run.

As the war continued the trades available to WAAF members increased from 7 categories to 39 as women proved themselves more than capable of dealing with mechanical and aircraft trades. New opportunities as wireless operators, dental mechanics and meteorological assistants – unusual for women at the time – greatly assisted recruitment. In October 1942 the value of the WAAF was recognised when emergency regulations incorporated the service into the RNZAF, with its ranks becoming equivalent to those of men. Superintendent Kain became Wing Officer Kain, a rank equivalent to wing commander, with a salary of £350. A year later, in December 1943, when she was expecting her second child, she left the air force and went back to Dunedin. She was made an OBE in 1949 for her military services. At the investiture she was accompanied by some of the first WAAFs who had served at Rongotai.

Kitty Kain’s third child was born in August 1946. From the early 1950s she also looked after the two orphaned sons of her brother; he had died during the Japanese invasion of Malaya, and his wife had died soon after the war. Kitty spent some years bringing up the five children largely alone; Maurice Kain had been unable to find employment in his field and had returned to work in Malaya, coming back to New Zealand on three-month leave periods once every three years until his retirement in 1964.

During these years Kitty took an active part in educational work, chairing school boards and committees and serving on the board of King Edward Technical College. The New Zealand Federation of University Women was a cause she worked for energetically, and in 1968 she was a delegate at the international body’s conference in Karlsruhe, Germany. During 1963 she was employed as a dietitian at the Dental School at the University of Otago.

When Maurice Kain retired from Malaya he found the Dunedin climate too cold and the Kains moved to Whangarei. There Kitty campaigned for the Consumers’ Institute, in particular spearheading a hygiene campaign to have bread wrapped. After Maurice’s death in 1996, Kitty moved to Wellington to be near her family. She died on 16 August 1997 at Eastbourne, survived by a son and a daughter.

How to cite this page:

Shirley Tunnicliff. 'Kain, Frances Ida', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5k2/kain-frances-ida (accessed 29 May 2024)