Ruth Page came to prominence in 1955 when she led the controversial and much publicised Nelson women’s railway protest. Unusually small of stature, and always correct and ladylike, she stepped into the public gaze for a brief period, but when the railway was finally torn up a few months later returned to a quiet and private retirement.
Ruth Allan Ross was born in Whangarei on 23 November 1905, the daughter of Rosannah (Rosie) Morgan and her husband, Charles William Ross. They were a small, close-knit family. Charles Ross worked as a telegraphist, and the family later shifted to Cheviot in North Canterbury when he became postmaster. By 1921 they were in Takaka, Golden Bay, and 15-year-old Ruth was a boarding pupil at Nelson College for Girls. She became a probationer teacher at Riwaka School in 1923, moving on to teach at Lower Takaka District High School the following year. On 11 July 1928, at her parents’ home, now in Onehunga, Ruth Ross married Takaka farmer Oliver Eddis Richards Page.
Ruth Page was a devout Presbyterian and in many ways deeply conservative, but she had a strong sense of social justice. When a cause arose that she perceived to be just she had no hesitation in speaking out and in taking the lead. She worked in Golden Bay throughout the Second World War to raise money for soldiers and the war effort. When her only brother, Kenneth, was killed in the war it was an immense personal tragedy for her. Her marriage ended in divorce in November 1953 and soon afterwards she moved to Nelson to care for her elderly parents in their Mount Street home.
Successive governments had promised the people of Nelson that their railway would be extended until it linked with the West Coast, thus ending the province’s isolation. However, Nelson’s railway stock was old and increasingly run down, and the line was losing money to improved road transport networks. Both road and rail supporters lobbied vigorously for resources. On 2 September 1955 Sidney Holland’s National government reaffirmed its earlier decision to close and demolish the railway, prompting angry gatherings in Nelson. On 23 September Ruth Page and four other women drove over 40 miles to the small station at Kiwi, where they sat in the goods shed and on the railway lines for a week to block the demolition. It was a dignified, sustained yet sensational protest, and it attracted worldwide media attention.
Always polite and determined, and never seen without a coat and hat, Ruth Page was the group’s spokeswoman to police, railway workers and members of the public who arrived in ever-increasing numbers to support the protest. The women were arrested on 30 September, and appeared in the Nelson Magistrate’s Court charged with trespassing on railway property; they were convicted and fined. Soon after, Page travelled to Wellington to appear before a parliamentary select committee examining the proposed closure, but the government continued the demolition work and the railway was scrapped.
The Nelson women’s railway protest, although unsuccessful, was significant as an example of a local region strongly challenging central government’s attempts to deprive it of resources. It was also notable as a public protest organised and carried out by women. Some of those involved, notably Sonja Davies (who became a prominent union leader and politician), used the protest as a springboard into public life.
Ruth Page, however, returned to her parents in Nelson, and eventually retired to a small, neat flat in Richmond. Many local people remember her in her early 80s, still driving the Morris Eight car she had used during the railway protest. She had a lively sense of humour and a passion for language, reading and classical music. A very private person, in later years she did not speak often of her part in the protest, but she never regretted it. Ruth Page died in Christchurch on 13 October 1992, survived by her son. She was buried at Wakapuaka cemetery in Nelson.