Born in Wellington on 3 October 1901, Lettie Annie Skinner was the fourth and youngest child of Sarey Stuart and her husband, Edward Pond Skinner, a post office linesman and former seaman. She grew up in Berhampore, attending South Wellington School and then, during the First World War, Wellington Girls’ College. Her scholarship-assisted secondary education was followed by success in public service and chamber of commerce examinations at the age of 17.
Passionate about sport, Lettie excelled at swimming and lifesaving and in 1918 represented Wellington at the national women’s hockey championships. (She was later to become vice president of the Wellington Women’s Hockey Association and a life member of the Island Bay Lifesaving and Surf Club.) After college she worked for six years as a public service clerical employee, until her marriage in Wellington on 31 May 1924 to Sidney Berkeley Allen, a storeman and driver. The couple were to have seven children, one of whom died in infancy. Lettie’s circle of friends in this period included Robin Hyde, James Cowan and Henry Stowell.
Active in the New Zealand Labour Party since 1924, Lettie Allen was elected secretary of its Ngaio branch around 1936. She immediately became a delegate to the Wellington Labour Representation Committee (LRC), a position she held continuously for 30 years; she also regularly served on its executive. As a party activist, working-class mother and long-time advocate of state housing, she was consulted by the Labour leadership in the late 1930s on state-house kitchen design. She successfully proposed a series of modifications and pushed wholeheartedly (but unsuccessfully) for the provision of an electric washing machine in every home.
Allen’s interests, however, were wider than the domestic. Like a number of other progressive Labour women she used her long tenure on the LRC, together with her work on various annual party conference policy committees, to provide a feminist and left-wing voice within the party’s policy-making process. In particular, she lobbied hard for women’s political representation, occupational opportunities, government-funded child care and innovative educational policies.
Allen’s feminist ideals found particular expression in the New Zealand Public Service Association’s campaign for equal pay and equal opportunities in the public service. Having rejoined the service in 1943 as a clerical officer in the Price Control Division, in 1949 she took a leading role in reviving the PSA’s Wellington Women’s Committee (WWC), the driving force of the campaign. She served as its secretary-organiser (1949–52) and represented it on the National Council of Women of New Zealand. She also became an influential WWC delegate on the national executive of the PSA, where she was a member of Jack Lewin’s leftist Korero grouping.
The revitalisation of the equal-pay campaign in 1955 saw Allen elected to the chair of a new, highly talented, but largely inexperienced women’s committee. Along with Cath Eichelbaum and secretary Margot Jenkins, she provided crucial continuity and tactical experience, and led the campaign into a vigorous new phase. The following year, with Margaret Brand now chairing, Allen played a central role in the intensive lobbying of MPs and addressed numerous meetings of public service women.
Lettie Allen utilised a range of other forums to promote feminist concerns. She was active at various times in the New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs and the Labour-aligned Wellington Housewives’ Union. She became the second woman to serve on a New Zealand jury (1946) and was involved in the formation of Birthright New Zealand (for one-parent families).
In the mid 1950s Allen began to direct her energies into penal reform. Already an active member of the Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Society, she was instrumental in revitalising the Wellington section of the New Zealand Howard League for Penal Reform in 1955, immediately becoming a committee member and vice president. The following year she co-founded the National Committee for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. She was an active executive member and in 1957 sought permission to witness an execution – a provocative strategy designed to win the abolitionist cause valuable publicity.
More conventionally, Lettie Allen pursued reform through local body politics. She was a member of the Wellington Hospital Board for five consecutive terms (1950–65), usually as one of the two top-polling Labour candidates. As chair of the board’s social welfare committee she was an early advocate of patient rights and worked to improve staff working conditions and the standard of geriatric care and accommodation. She also served two terms for Labour on the Wellington City Council (1956–59 and 1962–65).
A justice of the peace since 1949, Allen was a long-time secretary of the Ngaio School Committee and the Wellington School Committees’ Association. She helped establish the Intellectually Handicapped Children’s Parents’ Association in 1949, and was active in the local WEA and League of Mothers. Other political activities included involvement with the Society for Closer Relations with Russia during the 1940s; protests against the Holland government’s 1951 emergency regulations; and long-term membership of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the New Zealand Left Book Club and (as a lifelong atheist and humanist) the Rationalist Association. Above all, Allen was an egalitarian. Typically, she rejected nomination as an OBE in the late 1950s.
Lettie Allen was softly spoken, good humoured and personable, with a sharp intellect and wide general knowledge. She retired in 1965 to Tangimoana, Manawatu. Sidney had died in 1956, and on 3 October 1966, in Feilding, she married a retired local farmer, Phillip Ray Chandler; he died in 1976. Despite suffering a series of strokes in her final years, she remained active, founding and chairing the Tangimoana branch of the Labour Party in 1978. The following year she received a long-service award and life membership of the party. Lettie Chandler died at her Tangimoana home on 15 June 1980, survived by four daughters and two sons.