Hilda Kate Smith was born at Riccarton on 10 July 1886, the third daughter of ten children of Mary Jane (Jennie) Cumberworth and her husband, William Sidney Smith, a printer. Later the family changed their name to Lovell-Smith. She enjoyed a semi-rural childhood; her parents kept to a vegetarian diet and believed in the benefits of fresh air and physical exercise. Both were close friends of Kate Sheppard, the suffragist leader, whose name was given to Hilda. Sheppard lived with the family for many years and later married William, following Jennie’s death in 1924.
Kitty (as she was known) attended Riccarton School and as a teenager played hockey. She did not go to secondary school but received further education at home; her mother had been a teacher before her marriage. At the age of 17 Kitty joined several of her older siblings at the family printing business, Smith and Anthony Limited. She became a Linotype operator and later the manager of the retail stationery section.
Growing up in a household where the adults were dedicated workers for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of New Zealand and the women’s suffrage movement, Kitty Lovell-Smith imbibed a belief in equality for women and a commitment to the women’s cause that never left her. She joined the Christchurch branch of the revived National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCW) and was appointed secretary in 1918. She held this position until 1927, when she became dominion secretary. In 1930 she attended the quinquennial conference of the International Council of Women at Vienna. She found this trip inspirational and her sister Connie, who travelled with her, wrote that Kitty ‘sniffed like a warhorse and her eyes sparkled if anyone mentioned women’s work’.
On her return to New Zealand Lovell-Smith joined the YWCA and was appointed general secretary of the Timaru branch in 1932; a major part of her job involved helping unemployed women. In 1937 she left Timaru to become general secretary of the Dunedin YWCA, a large organisation with numerous girls’ clubs, sports teams, a cafeteria and residential hostels. From 1945 to 1947 she was general secretary for the Hamilton YWCA before returning to live in Christchurch.
Kitty Lovell-Smith became a member of many community organisations. In November 1949 she was made founding president of the Soroptimist Club of Christchurch. She also joined the local women’s unemployment committee, the Canterbury Women’s Club, the United Nations Association of New Zealand and CORSO. In the 1960s she edited the journal of the New Zealand branch of the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women’s Association.
Her main love, however, was the NCW. She had been president of both the Timaru and Dunedin branches. Once back in Christchurch, she joined the executive of the local branch, became involved in the Associates group and chaired several committees; she was president from 1951 to 1955 and in 1956 was made a dominion life member. She continued to attend NCW meetings until she was well into her 80s.
From 1952 until 1960 Lovell-Smith was assistant editor (Minnie Havelaar was editor) of the NCW’s New Zealand Women in Council. She wrote a history of the Christchurch YWCA (1961) and, with Havelaar, a history of the Christchurch branch of the NCW. She had a keen historical sense and often spoke about the earlier struggle to get women’s franchise.
Kitty Lovell-Smith was short and stout, with a friendly smile. A benign and comfortable person, she was a natural peacemaker, remembered not as a leader but as a dependable, tenacious and persistent worker. She believed that the strength of the NCW was its ability to draw together disparate women’s organisations in order to work co-operatively to influence public opinion and legislation for ‘the betterment of conditions’. While she wanted to see more women serving on public bodies and in Parliament, she was generally satisfied with what she saw as the NCW’s growing influence on government and civic authorities, and the improving status of women in society.
Her return to Christchurch in 1947 had been prompted by ‘family claims’ and she helped care for her two older sisters until their deaths in 1953 and 1959. She then continued to live in the family home at Riccarton with her younger sister, Doris. Kitty Lovell-Smith died at Christchurch on 3 February 1973; she had never married. An obituary described her as ‘a woman with a fine mind, tolerance, and a deep understanding of people’.