Anna Elizabeth Jerome Spencer, known to her friends as Bessie, was born in Napier on 16 November 1872, the third child and eldest daughter of Anna Heatly and her husband, William Isaac Spencer, a surgeon. Dr Spencer was mayor of Napier from 1882 to 1885. Bessie and her sister Emily were educated by a governess until 1884, when they went to Napier Girls' High School. Bessie's lifelong friend Amy Large was also a pupil. Holidays were spent with Hawke's Bay farming friends. Bessie loved their rural lifestyle and wrote in her diary, 'Life seems purer in the country'.
Spencer became a pupil-teacher at the high school while studying extramurally at Canterbury College for a BA; she gained her degree in 1895. She was a student all her life, reading English literature, learning languages and photography, studying astronomy and 'microscoping' specimens. Although a confirmed Anglican, she also read about theosophy, Buddhism, Catholicism and Christian Science. With her sister Emily and Amy Large she founded the Theosophical Society in Napier. In the early 1900s she joined the Havelock Work, a group which from 1912 followed the eclectic esoteric philosophy of Robert Felkin of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. She published articles in their magazine, the Forerunner, writing of the spiritual good that came from mundane work, and her belief that kindly deeds would lead to the evolution of the human spirit.
In 1898 Bessie Spencer became first assistant at Napier Girls' High School. In 1901 she became principal; Amy was matron. Being principal meant living on the premises, and Bessie hated leaving her mother and invalid brother, Willie; her father had died in 1897. In 1904 she was on leave in England when Willie died.
Spencer was a popular and innovative teacher but she yearned for rural life. She was delighted in 1900 when her school pupils presented her with a bicycle, and she and Amy Large cycled to Rissington and Puketitiri, approximately 35 miles away. Early in 1908 she began to plant an orchard at Awataha in Rissington, and at the end of 1909 she retired from teaching to run an orchard and apiary. For the first 18 months she lived at Awataha with Geraldine and John Absolom. Amy had married Geraldine's brother, Frank Hutchinson, in 1907 and in 1911 Bessie went to live with them at Omatua. It is uncertain how she managed financially as the orchard was never commercially viable; she may have inherited money from her mother, who died in 1908.
Rural life saw her packing fruit and churning butter. She also taught Sunday school, joined Frank botanising, and enjoyed intellectual chat with the many visitors to Omatua. When war was declared in 1914 Spencer organised sewing meetings and offered her services for war work. Eventually, in 1916, she went 'home', her sister and brothers, who all lived in England, having arranged work for her. In London she nursed shell-shocked victims in Lonsdale House and in 1918 joined the Women's International Street Patrol.
Returning to New Zealand, Bessie set up Hillsbrook Domestic Science Hostel in Havelock North. This scheme to train British women for domestic service in rural areas failed, and in 1921 she returned to Omatua to join Amy spinning and weaving. Her interest in a handcraft exhibition in London had introduced her to the Women's Institute of England, and she was sure this organisation would be beneficial to countrywomen in New Zealand. In January 1921 Amy and Bessie held a meeting at Omatua at which the Rissington Women's Institute was founded. By 1925 there were six institutes in Hawke's Bay and they formed the first provincial federation.
The institute emphasised wholesome country pursuits and aimed to provide women with interests outside the home. The Townswomen's Guild, which Bessie Spencer started in Napier in 1932, aimed to provide similar opportunities for urban women. Throughout the interwar period she energetically toured the country establishing institutes and demonstrating handcrafts. In 1933 she attended the National Federation of Women's Institutes meeting in London and the inaugural meeting of the Associated Country Women of the World in Stockholm.
In the meantime Bessie Spencer had been active in other women's issues. In 1923 she attended the jubilee celebrations of Canterbury College and met Kate Sheppard and Jessie Mackay, who persuaded her to revive the National Council of Women of New Zealand in Hawke's Bay. She was the first president of the Napier–Hastings branch in 1924. She was also president of the Hawke's Bay Women's Club, on the advisory board of Woman To-day magazine, and in 1934 was the only woman on the Napier High School Board of Governors. She was made an OBE in 1937.
A small, austere-looking woman, wearing steel-rimmed glasses from 1923, Bessie Spencer believed in simplicity and fellowship. She welcomed new experiences and had accompanied Herbert Guthrie-Smith on bird-watching expeditions to Long Island, off Stewart Island, in 1923 and to the subantarctic islands in 1927.
Amy and Bessie left Omatua in 1952 (Frank having died in 1940), and moved to Napier. Bessie, who had never married, died there on 23 October 1955.