Violet Augusta Roche was born on 17 June 1885 in Te Awamutu, the daughter of Constance Gertrude Malcolm and her husband, Robert Warren Roche. Robert Roche had a varied career as a journalist, accountant, settler, agricultural expert, commercial traveller and seedsman. This seems to have brought a slow increase in the family’s prosperity. When Violet was about six they moved from Te Awamutu to Devonport. They later lived in Mount Eden and Remuera.
Violet Roche moved to Sydney, possibly with her family, about 1920. She worked as Sydney hostess for the Australian National Travel Association, and then press correspondent of the Hotel Australia. Her ability to charm the well-to-do and the well connected later stood her in good stead. She undertook a world tour during 1934 and 1935, and returned to New Zealand for a visit in 1939–40, when she was described as having ‘an exceptional range of acquaintance with distinguished people’.
Roche returned to New Zealand in 1943 as secretary to the local branch of Dr Barnardo’s Homes, a charity for destitute children in Britain. New Zealanders had been sending money, clothes, toys and food to Dr Barnardo’s Homes for 76 years. Until 1914 they had done so without a local presence to inspire them, although there had been tours by concert parties of Barnardo’s boys in 1891 and 1909. From 1914 there were always two to four representatives travelling the country, from 1916 supported by a New Zealand-based secretary. Violet Roche was the fifth appointment to the post.
When she arrived at her Wellington headquarters, Dr Barnardo’s in New Zealand had been in slow decline for some years. However, it still had an extensive network of school-based fund-raising groups, called Young Helpers Leagues, and a scattering of small groups of adult supporters. Under her guidance there was a resurgence of interest in the organisation. By 1945 there were league branches in 860 schools, with a total of 22,000 Young Helpers. In 1947 Roche reported nearly 1,000 branches and 35,000 Helpers.
This growth was achieved through appealing to adults as much as to children. The organisation had a structured system for children to give, raise funds and be rewarded, but the efforts of adults either fitted into this structure or were left to chance. Violet Roche used her journalistic skills to reach adults from the moment she arrived in the country, organising media interviews nationwide. She also gave herself credibility among the influential by setting up a New Zealand advisory committee of men ‘outstanding in the Church, the Law, in business and philanthropy’.
Roche understood that people are motivated to give as much by the desire to achieve community status as by a cause. She ensured that every Barnardo’s function was covered by the local media and she created opportunities for additional activities. The most successful of these were the decorated table display competitions, begun in 1949. All the women’s groups in a community were invited to compete and the competition was always opened by an important public figure. The 33rd and last table display was held in Tokoroa in July 1962.
Violet Roche retired, at the age of 78, in 1963. She had never married, and moved from Wellington to Auckland to live with her sister. She was made an MBE in 1964. She continued to work for Dr Barnardo’s as a volunteer, supporting local fund-raising activities, encouraging emigrant ‘old boys’ to meet, and writing for its journal, the Open Door. In 1966 she returned to Sydney to cover the Queen Mother’s visit to the Barnardo Cottage Homes. Later that year she participated in the organisation’s centenary activities in Auckland and Wellington, which included a visit by its London-based general secretary.
It was during this visit that the proposal to open a Dr Barnardo’s service in New Zealand was seriously entertained for the first time. It was five years before the first service opened, but Barnardos New Zealand eventually became a thriving provider of child welfare and early childhood education services. Violet Roche’s success in maintaining Dr Barnardo’s Homes as a fashionable cause was a significant factor in the country’s acceptance of the British charity’s plans to open a service here. It was also a significant factor in the continuing support from people who donated to the work in New Zealand because, as children, they had put their pocket money in concertina Barnardo’s boxes to help orphans in England and earned a badge or a pocketknife for their efforts.
Violet Roche died at Auckland on 11 February 1967. In her career she had shown superb diplomacy and indefatigable energy and was an excellent public speaker, a brilliant organiser and a wonderful publicist. These attributes enabled her to maintain New Zealand-wide support at an unprecedented level for 20 years for a charity based on the other side of the world.