Page 1: Biography
Cole Catley, Christine McKelvie
Writer, publisher, educator, activist
This biography, written by Tim Shoebridge, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2019. It was updated in January, 2021.
The distinguished writer and journalist Christine Cole Catley was one of New Zealand’s leading independent publishers of the late twentieth century. She was co-founder of the Parents Centre movement in the 1950s, and an influential teacher and shaper of broadcasting policy.
Early life and education
Christine McKelvie Bull was born in Wellington on 19 December 1922, the first of five children of Eileen Nesta Barker and her husband, Allan Russell Bull. Christine spent a happy childhood on the family’s sheep station near Hunterville, though her parents were eventually forced to leave the farm after a dispute with her grandfather. A fifth-generation New Zealander with deep roots in the Rangitīkei region, she identified strongly with her New Zealand heritage rather than the British traditions which dominated Pākehā society during her childhood.
The gender roles prevailing in wider society were subverted by circumstance in the Bull household. Eileen had been born with only one arm, so Allan undertook traditionally female household tasks while Eileen helped muster sheep on horseback. ‘It was simply taken for granted that whoever could best do a particular job at that time did it’, Christine later recalled.1 She grew up barely aware of the limited opportunities for women in interwar New Zealand. ‘It never crossed my mind I couldn’t do or be anything I wanted.’2
Christine received her early education through the Correspondence School before attending Hunterville Primary School. She loved books from an early age, winning school prizes for her writing and submitting articles to newspapers’ children’s pages. In 1936 she won a scholarship to attend New Plymouth Girls’ High School as a boarder. At 14 she offered her services as school reporter to the local newspapers, and she was soon writing a regular column for the Taranaki Daily News. She decided to become a journalist, against the counsel of a teacher that girls rarely found employment in the press.
University, motherhood, marriage
Christine commenced a BA in English at Canterbury University College in 1941, followed by an MA in 1944. She enjoyed the vibrant Christchurch literary scene, learning about New Zealand literature for the first time. She acted in Ngaio Marsh plays and contributed articles to the women’s page of the Press newspaper and to the university magazine Canta, which she also edited.
Christine became pregnant during her MA year, and gave birth to her daughter Sarah in 1945. She decided to ignore societal prejudices against unwed mothers and keep the baby. In 1946 Christine and Sarah moved to Wellington, where Christine enjoyed ‘carrying the banner for social justice’ as a journalist with the left-wing newspaper Southern Cross until it ceased publication in 1951. 3 Sarah attended kindergarten while Christine worked.
In Wellington Christine met John Reece Cole, a returned serviceman, library studies student and promising young writer. John was a protégé of the writer Frank Sargeson, and his short stories of the 1940s were collected in It was so late, and other stories (1949). Christine and John were married in Wellington on 19 November 1948. They had two children together, Nicola (1950) and Martin (1953). Their Upper Willis Street home was a regular meeting place for Wellington’s young writers, including James K. Baxter, Louis Johnson and Anton Vogt, and for visiting Auckland friends such as Maurice Duggan and Eric McCormick.
Christine Cole had been an advocate for natural childbirth since her student days, and in the late 1940s she penned a series of newspaper articles in favour of antenatal education, un-sedated births, having fathers present during labour, and the ‘rooming-in’ of parents and babies in hospitals. In 1952 she and her university friend Helen Brew co-founded the Wellington Parents Centre to advance these causes. Under their energetic leadership branches soon appeared in other centres, federating into a national organisation in 1957.
Christine worked hard to promote the cause through newspaper articles, meetings with doctors and officials, and public talks. She was the founder and editor of the Bulletin of the Parents’ Centre (1954–62), aimed at providing information to parents and promoting the organisation’s campaigns. She served as national president in 1962–63.
Journalism and advertising
Unlike most women of her time, Christine continued to work after motherhood and marriage. From 1948 to 1956 she delivered two radio talks each week, speaking on a variety of subjects relevant to New Zealand life. She also reviewed books for the New Zealand Listener (1950–73) and worked as a freelance writer for other newspapers and magazines.
In 1956 the Cole family moved to Indonesia, where John – by now a librarian at the Alexander Turnbull Library – had a two-year posting as a UNESCO library advisor to the Indonesian government. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation employed Christine to establish an office in Jakarta, from where she made regular cable, radio and television reports. She was one of the few female journalists then working in Indonesia.
When the family returned to Wellington in 1958, Christine took a job as an advertising copywriter to supplement her income as a journalist. She later recalled that one of her tasks was to suggest new names for the Chinese gooseberry in 1962. She was an early champion of the name ‘kiwiberry’, close to the name ‘kiwifruit’ which was eventually adopted.
In 1963 the Dominion invited Christine to write a regular column about television, which had recently begun broadcasting from the four main centres. The new medium gained strength during the 1960s, as the nation watched and discussed the shows broadcast on the country’s single channel. Christine’s columns, published under the pseudonym ‘Sam Cree’, were well-received, and when the Dominion Sunday Times commenced publication in 1965 she agreed to contribute another television column under the name ‘Hillary Court’. She enjoyed having the two pseudonyms occasionally challenge each other’s judgments in print.
Wellington Polytechnic and writers’ workshops
In 1962 John Reece Cole suffered serious brain injuries in a road accident, and these were aggravated by a second accident in 1964. In 1965 ill health forced him to resign from his post as the Turnbull’s chief librarian. Christine resigned from her advertising job to nurse him, increasing her journalism work to help pay the bills; at one point she was writing under eight different pseudonyms. John grew violent and unpredictable, and the children had to be sent away from the household. Busy and struggling to cope, Christine made the difficult decision to separate from John in 1967; they were divorced in 1972.
Christine was appointed head of the newly-created journalism studies programme at Wellington Polytechnic in 1967. She and her colleagues taught the country’s first full-time journalism course, training young people who hoped to work in newspapers or broadcasting. Her classes were split evenly between men and women, at a time when there were still few female journalists. She also ran a course for older women seeking to re-enter the workforce. In 1968 she began running writers’ workshops at the Polytechnic, Victoria University of Wellington and the Workers’ Educational Association, eventually convening them in other centres.
Christine formed a relationship with retired engineer Douglas Catley, whom she subsequently described as her husband though the two were never legally married; she changed her legal name to Christine Cole Catley in August 1972. In 1973 the couple purchased a 3.2 hectare property in Whatamongo Bay, in the Marlborough Sounds, which they named ‘Cape Catley’. Christine retired from full-time journalism and teaching, and they lived on their yacht while their house was built.
In 1973, Prime Minister Norman Kirk appointed Christine to the Broadcasting Council of New Zealand, a newly-formed body empowered with overseeing the country’s television and radio corporations. This forced her, as a long-time commentator on broadcasting policy, ‘to put my money where my mouth is’.4 She used this platform to campaign for high standards of television programming, and insisted that the two channels should refrain from scheduling similar programmes in the same time slots. She and fellow members Ruth Black and Mira Szászy unsuccessfully campaigned for the channels to broadcast sex education programmes. Christine believed her tenure on the council was not extended in 1977 because new Prime Minister Robert Muldoon thought her too outspoken.
The move to the Marlborough Sounds and withdrawal from journalism saw Christine embark on the new career of publisher. From the late 1960s she had assessed manuscripts for A.H. and A.W. Reed, one of the few companies then publishing New Zealand writing. She was shocked by the conservatism of their editorial choices, and believed that local writers were being stifled by a lack of outlets. She regarded a move into publishing as a natural progression of her journalism and teaching careers, and used her experience at Reeds to establish a small publishing firm, Cape Catley Limited. This operated initially from Doug’s yacht and later from their Marlborough home. Christine later acknowledged that she lacked business experience and would not have succeeded beyond the formative years without Doug’s business knowledge and support.
Christine’s first publication, a book of Doug’s limericks, was launched on the deck of the couple’s yacht in 1973. More than 130 further titles followed over the next three decades and beyond. Her slogan was ‘Each book good of its kind’, and her guiding philosophy was to publish manuscripts she liked and which she felt might be of value to society. She published only books with New Zealand settings, because of New Zealanders’ ‘desperate need to read our own stories.’5
Christine was particularly proud of her third book, Heretaunga Pat Baker’s novel Behind the tattooed face (1975), one of the earliest novels about Māori life by a Māori author – and one that had been rejected by Reeds. She also reprinted Archibald Baxter’s anti-war memoir We will not cease, promising Baxter’s widow Millicent she would keep it in print as long as possible. Christine considered Margaret Hayward’s Diary of the Kirk years (1981) among the most important books she published. Alongside these other commitments she founded The Picton Paper in 1977, and edited it from 1977 to 1984 and again from 1992 to 1994.
Doug Catley died in 1981 aged 77, after a brief illness; Christine was devastated. In 1984 she was afflicted with an illness which left her exhausted and unproductive for several years. She spent two years living in England with family, where she was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) or chronic fatigue syndrome. Eager to promote public understanding of this illness, she commissioned medical author Jacqueline Steincamp to write Overload: beating M.E. (1988).
Frank Sargeson Trust and Michael King Writers’ Centre
Christine also supported the work of creative writers through two charitable trusts. In 1970 Frank Sargeson appointed her the executor and, from 1978, sole beneficiary of his estate, in place of the ailing John Reece Cole. Following Sargeson’s death in 1982, she established and chaired the Frank Sargeson Trust to maintain his home as a museum and meeting place and to offer an annual residential fellowship to writers. Christine’s friend Michael King was the Trust’s deputy chair from the outset, and after his 2004 death she championed the establishment of the Michael King Writers’ Centre at Devonport.
Writing career and later life
Christine’s many professional and other commitments forestalled her ambitions to write seriously, though she penned the light-hearted Xenophobe’s guide to the Kiwis (1996) and edited and co-edited several fiction and non-fiction collections. Her 1985 history of New Plymouth Girls’ High School, Springboard for women, brought an invitation from Edward Hill to write a biography of his daughter, astronomer Beatrice Tinsley. Bright star: Beatrice Hill Tinsley astronomer was published to acclaim in 2006; it was her most important work.
In 2000 Christine moved to Devonport, where she could pass some of the burden of the publishing business onto others and devote more time to her own writing. She was made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (DCNZM) in 2006 (reclassified as a Dame Companion in 2009). She was working on a projected three-volume autobiography when she died at Devonport on 21 August 2011, aged 88. Reflecting on her busy life in 2006, Christine Cole Catley remarked, ‘I would love to be four or five people. … One would do nothing but read.’6