Woman’s Temperance Christian Union

As we recently celebrated the passing of the Bill that allowed women to vote in New Zealand, we come across numerous mentions of the organisation known as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, also known as the WCTU. Some people may wonder what connection, if any, this group had with women’s suffrage.

It’s easy to assume that those women, and men, who wanted voting rights for all were progressive and radical, whereas the WCTU, by their very name, were old fashioned traditionalists, kill joys who protested against the demon drink.

It is no stretch of the truth to say, however, that without the WCTU, there would be no suffrage celebrations. Kate Sheppard, for example, the ‘heroine’ of the suffrage movement was a foundation member of the WCTU organisation in New Zealand, in 1885.

Clara Lill, our local version of Kate, was also involved with both Temperance and Suffrage. Often the two causes went hand in hand, as women who wanted to rid society of such issues as drink (also other drugs including tobacco were also considered a threat) saw the only way they could achieve that goal was to ensure women could vote.

Alcohol was a widespread issue. In many places water supplies were quickly polluted and alcohol was drunk instead of ‘Adam’s ale’ or water. Alcohol was used as a cure-all for a number of illness and acted as pain relief. It also helped deaden the pain of a life once full of hope now reduced to subsistence and monotony. Drinking spouses meant for many New Zealand women, abuse, neglect and poverty. However, looking at early police gazettes, women were as likely to be imprisoned for habitual drunkenness as men.

But the WCTU was not solely concerned with prohibition. Unlike the political and militant suffragettes of England, in New Zealand the WCTU took on a moral guardianship role for both their families and society at large. Their motto was ‘For God and Home and Humanity’. As such they have involved themselves in a number of areas such as labour law reform and the 8 hour workday; education, including kindergartens; and marriage and divorce law reform. Previously men could easily obtain a divorce whereas women could not. The group strove for equality between sexes, but also acknowledged the role of women in the home and society.

Ashburton had a good number of WCTU members, many of whom were Methodists, so areas such as Willowby and Wakanui were strongholds. For many years the Temperance Band entertained the community and were active in parades and other events.

While the fight for votes ended with the passing of the Bill in 1893, for those involved in the WCTU the fight for women’s rights and protection continued, as it does today.

When we celebrate the passing of the momentous decision by men to allow women to vote, we should not think just of women with placards or being rowdy in the streets. We should remember too, the quite ladies wearing blue and white, or a small white ribbon pinned to their lapels. These ladies wrote letters, held meetings, sang songs and actively worked amongst their families and communities to change people’s minds and lives.

By Kathleen Stringer



  1.  temperance float
  2. Ashburton Temperance Band 1906                                                                                   Back row: U.Hosken Senior; U.Hosken; W.Hosken Junior; R Mathieson; R.Terris; Dave Terris; Chas Davidson                                                                                                Third Row: H.Addis; Ed. Silcock; R.J.Tucker; W.R.Tucker; L.McDonald’; W.Andrews; Philip Addis                                                                                                                                 Second Row: W.Marsden; Alf Hoskin; D.Leech; G.Hosken Senior; E.J.Tucker; Geo. Hoskin; G.Bowman                                                                                                            Front: U.B.Hosken Junior; R.Mathieson Senior; A.Pollock; Reg. Anthony; ….Terris.
  3. While it may sound like an oxymoron, a temperance hotel sold ‘soft’ drink not hard liquor. Sometimes they even sold coffee, although for a time that too was thought to be a little too racy. This hotel was on Havelock Street from 1878 – 1881, when it was replaced by a much larger building.
  4. For those committed enough, signing the pledge meant you promised to abstain for life. This card was presented to local man David Moore when he took the pledge.

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