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Image: Cowdell. (1901) The Ngapuhi nursing sisters, Whangarei. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira neg. C42329. (Although no known copyright exists for this item, we ask that you treat it with respect. Please contact us to seek permission to reproduce this image).
This striking photograph is an unusual image that challenges typical depictions of women at the turn of the Century. Five women of a range of ages are presented in military dress, complete with bandoliers and troopers plumed felt hats. We are given little more than a glimpse into their story, however from this image alone we get the impression that these were determined women, who challenged traditional gender roles and restrictions placed on them in their own time.
Self-styled as the Ngāpuhi Nursing Sisters of Mercy, this group of Ngāpuhi women organised themselves using the military ranks and traditions of the New Zealand Army to contribute to New Zealand's War effort during the South African War of 1899 - 1902.
The Ngāpuhi Sisters of Mercy were Captain Louisa Kingi, Sergeant A. Calkin, Major C. Calkin, Lieutenant Kohu Gertrude Waetford (granddaughter of Louisa Kingi), and Bugler M. Kaire.
As a British colony, the New Zealand government had committed to sending a contingent of men to South Africa to enforce the ambitions of the British Empire. There was general approval of the war in New Zealand, and large numbers signed up to serve as soldiers or fill auxiliary roles.
As Wāhine Māori the Nursing Sisters were British subjects by law but were denied any chance of serving with the army officially. To be accepted into the New Zealand Army at this time applicants were required to be able to ride and shoot, and to fit the physical requirements of the role. These requirements included being male, and Pākeha.
However, there were some New Zealand women who were sincere in their desire to fight. A letter to the editor of the Evening Star in March 1902 entreats the Prime Minister John Ballance to let the young women of New Zealand take part in the War. The letter writer signs off as Delores, a young woman who confidently states that
"I think we girls should start and practise shooting and riding at once, and show Rudyard Kipling that the women of the younger nation can shoot and ride as well as the men."
Nursing and teaching, rather than shooting and riding, were the options for women at the time. However, these roles were generally limited to Pākeha women. Again the conditions for employment were strict. Nursing staff were required to be between age 25 and 35, in good health, and to have completed 3 years of nursing service combined with training, along with a certificate in civil hospital and a certificate of efficiency.
Image: GIRLS AS "OUR BOYS." Evening Star, Issue 11709, 18 March 1902 Creative Commons New Zealand BY-NC-SA licence.
These types of qualifications were not readily available to Māori women. Despite leaders such as Hamiora Hei and Apirana Ngata advocating for Wāhine Māori to be trained in nursing and even special scholarships being set up for young Māori secondary students to train, there was resistance and hospitals refused to accept enough Māori women for training.
The Ngāpuhi Sisters were not discouraged. These were women descended from the Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika, led by Captain Louisa Kingi, a matriarch and grandmother, who had experience in nursing and caring for the sick and wounded. They expressed their support of the British Empire by forming their own ‘contingent’ of volunteers complete with uniform, ranks and military drills. They attended lectures and training on first aid to prepare themselves for nursing in active service if the need arose and involved themselves in fundraising and supporting the health of their communities.
The papers described them as well mounted, good horse women and ready to attend to the sick and wounded, both on the battlefield and in their own communities. We would love to know more about the Ngāpuhi Sisters and their impact on the community. If you know anything more please contribute to their stories on Online Cenotaph.
Image: Photographic portait of Sir Apirana Ngata. Unknown photographer, early 1900s. PH-RES-4922. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. (Although no known copyright exists for this item, we ask that you treat it with respect. Please contact us to seek permission to reproduce this image).
To view records of the Ngāpuhi Nursing Sisters, as well as other men and women who served New Zealand in times of conflict, discover your own connection or lay a poppy, visit Online Cenotaph.
You can also visit the Pou Maumahara Gallery, our military discovery centre. Our friendly staff and volunteers are here to help you 7 days a week, located up on Level 2 of the Auckland War Memorial Museum.
A NEW IDEA. (22 April 1901). Wairarapa Daily Times, Volume XXVI, (Issue 6834). Retrieved from Papers Past
Coney, S., & Mackenzie, R. (1993). Standing in the sunshine : a history of New Zealand women since they won the vote. Auckland, New Zealand: Viking.
GIRLS AS "OUR BOYS.", (18 March 1902). Evening Star, (Issue 11709). Retrieved from Papers Past.
McNabb, S. (2015). 100 years New Zealand military nursing : New Zealand Army nursing service : Royal New Zealand Nursing Corps, 1915-2015. Hawke's Bay, New Zealand: Author.
'New Zealand's response', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/south-african-boer-war/new-zealands-response, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 6-Mar-2018
Stowers, R. (2009). Rough riders at war : history of New Zealand's involvement in the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902. Hamilton, New Zealand: Author.
Cite this article
Johnson, Ella, and Warren, Geraldine. 'The Ngāpuhi Nursing Sisters', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 30 08 2018.