Born on 21 November 1890 in Wellington, Helen Macdonald Richmond was the daughter of Maurice Wilson Richmond, a solicitor, and his wife, Flora Hursthouse Macdonald, cousins and members of the redoubtable settler ‘mob’ of Richmond, Atkinson and Hursthouse families. She was educated at Esther Baber’s Fitzherbert Terrace School in Wellington, and attended Canterbury College from 1916, graduating BA in 1919, and MA with first-class honours in English and French the following year. Helen won a scholarship to the University of London and in 1923 became one of the first New Zealand women to gain an English PhD. Her thesis was on the work of the Scottish author Henry Mackenzie.
In 1916 and 1917 Helen had combined her academic study with teaching at Rangi-ruru school, Christchurch, and she worked there again on her return to New Zealand in 1924. For the next two years she was assistant lecturer in English and history at Christchurch Training College. On 29 January 1927 at Eastbourne, Wellington, she married Arthur Barrows Simpson, a schoolmaster. There were no children of the marriage. They spent a year in England and Europe before returning to Christchurch, where from 1930 Helen taught English language and literature at Canterbury College, as assistant to Arnold Wall, professor of English. She resigned in 1932 and she and Arthur spent further time in England, France and Germany.
Helen wrote literary and educational articles for the Christchurch Press , and for new cultural and intellectual periodicals such as Art in New Zealand and the left-wing publication Tomorrow , to which she contributed one piece. As a member (1939–51) of the Canterbury University College Council she expressed progressive views. During the Second World War she argued repeatedly that conscientious objectors should not be forced to go on leave without pay, and in 1944 was part of an attempt to have a pacifist appointed to the lecturing staff. Forceful, witty and sincere, she often backed lost causes and wrote sharp little observations and criticisms to the chairman, signing them with a drawing of a cat. Until her death she was one of the council’s delegates to the tutorial class committee of the WEA.
Helen Simpson is principally remembered for writing The women of New Zealand , published in 1940 as one of a series of government-sponsored centennial surveys. Covering a century of colonisation, the text gives details about the everyday life and material conditions of early missionaries’ wives, immigrants voyaging out and early homemakers. Social interaction and women’s occupations and organisations are also examined. A notable work of social history, it creates a past for Pakeha women separate from that of men and argues that women participated equally with them in the work of colonisation and settlement. Simpson was writing at a time when ‘women’s history’ as a discipline had not emerged, and the volume is remarkable for its depth and range of original research and readable and lively style.
Although learned in appearance, with a severe hairstyle and stern glasses, Helen Simpson reveals another side to her character in a series of lively letters about the travails of writing and delivering the manuscript within a year. Replying to E. H. McCormick, who was overseeing her work, she wrote: ‘Many thanks for your sympathetic letter. I am about to order a case of sherry, 10,000 cigarettes, and 1 cwt. of coffee’. Her husband’s ill health forced Helen Simpson to give up most outside activities in the 1950s. He died in October 1959, and Helen a year later on 6 November 1960, at Christchurch.