Annie Smyth was born on 25 October 1878 at Kaiwharawhara, Wellington, the seventh of ten children of currier Edward Smyth and his wife, Isabella Cansick. The family attended the Wesleyan Methodist church. However, in 1891 Annie’s elder sister Rosamond went to a meeting addressed by William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, and decided to become a soldier. Annie often accompanied Rosamond when she sold the Army’s paper the War Cry and also took part in open-air meetings.
Annie attended school in Kaiwharawhara and Thorndon, then went on a scholarship to Wellington Girls’ High School. She taught in 1900 and 1901 at Clyde Quay School as a pupil-teacher and for the next two years at Mount Cook Boys’ School as an assistant teacher. She also studied at Victoria College, graduating BA in 1905. Having been involved for some time with the Salvation Army’s young people’s corps, she decided to train as an officer in the Army. She entered the training garrison in Melbourne on 30 April 1905, remaining there until 1 February 1906. She took up her first commission at Ballarat North as the young people’s lieutenant, then moved to Ballarat East, where she worked with her former Wellington leader, Lieutenant Colonel Fred Burton, and his wife. Before long she was asked by the Army leadership to go to Japan as the first New Zealand salvationist to undertake overseas missionary service. She accepted willingly.
On her arrival there in September 1906, Smyth was associated with the Army’s rescue home for the rehabilitation of prostitutes, putting into practice William Booth’s slogan: ‘Go for souls and go for the worst’. Some six years earlier Army officers had marched into the notorious Yoshiwara red-light district of Tokyo and, although violently assaulted, had gained enormous publicity. The emperor subsequently signed an ordinance permitting their rehabilitation work.
Smyth was based in Tokyo, but travelled extensively throughout Japan, collecting for the Army’s work from tourists, foreign residents, seamen and businessmen. She went to waterfront cafés that were used as a front for prostitution and talked her way out of numerous difficult and dangerous situations. She also travelled to Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai, the Philippines and Hawaii.
Smyth never married and served in Japan for 34 years, visiting New Zealand on furlough for six months every seven years. When, as a brigadier, she reached retirement age, she returned to New Zealand, leaving Japan on 28 September 1939. However, her leaders in Japan, with the sanction of international headquarters, recalled her, and she went back on 30 March 1940. When the Army was closing down its work she declined to leave, but at the end of 1940 the Japanese authorities told her to go and she left on 2 December.
Back in New Zealand Smyth insisted on further service, telling Commissioner J. Evan Smith to ‘Send me to the most difficult place you have got, and I’ll go gladly’. Smith arranged for her to go to Wairoa with her sister Rosamond, who had become very deaf. After arriving on 16 January 1941, Annie was often seen cycling around the district with her copies of the War Cry. She frequently wore a white dress and a Japanese coolie hat. It was known that she intended to return to Japan when she could. For all her zeal, it was said that her aggressive manner offended many local people.
On or about 8 August 1942 Annie and Rosamond were murdered in their home at the Salvation Army hall. It was 13 days before the deaths were reported to the police. A lengthy and exhaustive enquiry followed, involving a large team of police led by Chief Detective J. Bruce Young of Wellington (later commissioner of police). Salvation Army Commissioner Smith officiated at the joint funeral for the two sisters held at the citadel in Wellington on 26 August; they were buried at the Karori cemetery. It was established that the murder weapons were an axe and a poker, and police enquiries included the offer of a £500 reward. Despite this, the murders remained unsolved and on 19 January 1943 the coroner delivered an open verdict of ‘murder by some person or persons unknown’.
Some years later, on 30 October 1950, Leo Silvester Hannan, described as a bushman and a bootmaker, was convicted at the Wellington Supreme Court of murdering a railway guard in Wellington with a heavy spanner the previous August. Hannan had lived an itinerant life in various parts of the lower North Island between Wellington and Taumarunui, but had spent much of the 1940s in prison. He was represented at his trial by George Joseph and was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1962, knowing he had terminal cancer, Hannan asked to see Joseph and told him he had killed the Smyth sisters, and also an old man named Herbert Brunton at Wairoa in December 1948; Brunton had also been killed with an axe. Bruce Young had investigated Brunton’s murder, which had remained unsolved. Hannan’s criminal record establishes that at the times of both the Smyth and Brunton murders he was out of prison. He died still serving his sentence in October 1962.
Despite the circumstances surrounding her death, Annie Smyth is remembered as the New Zealand Salvation Army’s first overseas missionary and as one of its most outstanding officers.