Page 1: Youth
Davies, Sonja Margaret Loveday
Nurse, labour activist, women’s rights activist, politician, peace campaigner
This biography, written by Anne Else, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2010.
Sonja Margaret Loveday Vile was born on 11 November 1923 in Wallaceville, Upper Hutt. Her mother, Gwladys Ilma Vile, was a state-registered nurse; her father was Gerald Dempsey, an army major from Cork, Ireland. Sonja did not learn his identity until she was 20, and never contacted him. As a baby, she had four foster homes before her mother took her to her grandparents, Margaret and Arthur Vile. They cared for her in Ōamaru, then in Woodville, until she was seven, when she was sent to Wellington to live ‘on sufferance’ with her mother, her new sister, Beverley, and her stepfather, Douglas Mackersey, a divorced photographer. A move to Dunedin enabled her to meet her maternal great-grandmother, Maria Mouat, but she did not discover her Ngāi Tahu links (through Maria) until later in life.
Independence and war
Sonja’s secondary schooling ended after two years, when her stepfather moved the family, including a new brother, David, to Auckland, then back to Wellington. In 1939, as she was forming her opinions about violence as a solution to problems, war was declared. Her ardent response to speeches by pacifists Ormond Burton and Arch Barrington resulted in a family quarrel, and she left home at 16 to support herself by working in bookshops.
Sonja had felt the ‘first stirrings of a social conscience’ when she saw her mother disparaging the unemployed during the 1930s depression. Now she became part of a left-wing group of socialists centred on Victoria University College. In 1940 she met Charles Edward Mercer (also known as Charlie) Davies. They found they had a lot in common and soon had an understanding that they would marry after the war.
On 14 November 1941, however, Sonja married Lindsay Nathan at Wellington. At the same time she joined an intake of nursing trainees, where she made lifelong friends, and attempted to start a union for nursing staff.
Romance and illness
Sonja fell in love with Don (‘Red’) Brinsen, a Marine corporal from Nebraska, and discovered she was pregnant after he had been posted to the Pacific. By the time their daughter, Penelope (Penny), was born in Te Kūiti in 1944, Sonja had already shown the first signs of tuberculosis contracted from patients. The diagnosis was not confirmed until 1945. One of 11 nurses in her class to be affected by the disease, she had to leave Penny and enter hospital. She was at her lowest ebb when she learned that Red was missing in action.