The Manutuke Women’s National Reserve – “Lest We Forget”

I wanted to investigate as much as I could to see if there was a possible reason why the Manutuke Memorial Hall Association decided to invite Molly Shannon to conduct the ANZAC service at Manutuke in 1926. At this time she had been appointed the acting Presbyterian Minister for the Matawhero Presbyterian Church, replacing her father, James Shannon who had died in early January 1926. Her appointment was very unusual; women rarely held leadership roles in the Presbyterian Church at this time. It was considered a ‘no no’ for women to lead any form of religious worship service. From what I have discovered Molly Shannon appears to be the first woman to have conducted an ANZAC service up to 1926.  

This research led me to the Manutuke Women’s National Reserve. So I thought I would share with you the bits and pieces I discovered, mainly from local newspapers, in recognition of their patriotic work during WW1 for this Anzac Memorial Day during a pandemic lockdown.

Manutuke district took pride in its patriotic support during the Great War, which was reflected through the efforts of an exceptional group of women, the Manutuke Women’s National Reserve and their volunteers. Formed in December 1915 under the leadership of Edith Preston, the Reserve women were untiring in their efforts, dedicating hours and hours of time “for the welfare of the boys”.[1] They never let up lovingly knitting scarves, vests, socks, writing letters, making gift cards, baking fruit loaves and other necessary items for the soldiers’ “comfort parcels” of support. Besides these practical efforts however, the National Reserve also focussed on the general welfare and well-being of women and girls, especially the wives and mothers of soldiers afflicted by the Great War. Through these means they too could “loyally serve their country in all emergencies where patriotic services can be rendered…”. The women began classes for ambulance and nursing work, sewing classes and working bees. They assisted in recruiting and settling returned soldiers, organised entertainment to raise patriotic funds and offered their services in assisting the Red Cross and support for the Māori Pioneer Battalion. They assisted in organising a reserve list of “woman-power” ensuring training for women who filled the occupations once held by soldiers. An important feature was to organise social gatherings to bring women together, such as the garden party held at the “Acton” residence of Mrs White in 1917. Over 400 women reportedly gathered intermingling, conversing, proudly sharing the photographs of their absent sons, wandering through “the beautiful gardens” and being entertained with musical items and participating in a magnificent spread of food.[2]

Photo representing the activities of Women’s Patriotic Societies – Otago Women’s Patriotic Society.

As the war came to an end their workload did not ease. In fact 1919 had been an “extremely strenuous” year. Imaginative fund raising efforts went from one to another with little breathing space between them, a Bazaar, Street Appeal, Sports programme, socials to raise fund for the Salvation Army Crippled Soldiers Hospital, the YMCA Red Triangle Fund and the Red Jersey Fund Appeal to assist in closing the debt of the Salvation Army’s overseas war-time work and many other projects.

These patriotic fund raising activities came to an end under the “War Fund Act” of December 1919 but support for soldiers and their families continued for the long term.[3] The 1919 Flu Epidemic added pressure on their work with a call for support, as homes were offered and nursing and medical supplies sought. Farewell socials for soldiers began to be replaced by welcome home socials and a large effort of support went into the very large welcome home Hui for the return of hundreds of men from the Māori Battalion who disembarked at Gisborne. [4]

Any patriotic funds no long required by Government were set-aside for a Roll of Honour Board for Manutuke Soldiers. In 1920 with sufficient funds a Roll of Honour of polished rimu was dedicated and unveiled and hung in the Te Airai School (Manutuke).[5] It was roughly two metres square with a scroll design that recorded sixty names of past students and on “an artistic pillars on each side” was recorded the names of ten soldiers “who paid the supreme sacrifice”. Those present at the unveiling honoured the young men that “saved the prestige of the country in times of dire peril” but also expressed their deep gratitude to the women for their ‘splendid’ and dedicated sacrificial commitment to the war effort.[6] The women’s ‘strenuous activity’ was a means for mothers in particular, but also wives, grandmothers and sisters, to present a stoic front at a time when they were weeping inside. “Every day had its anxieties and every tomorrow had its fears”. With united strength these women joined hands and walked side by side achieving great things on behalf of their absent boys.

However, as the focus of the public ANZAC commemorations slowly shifted from the ‘sacrifice of home and hearth’ to the sacrifice of the soldiers in battle alone, the distinctive sacrificial role of mothers moved to the margins of ANZAC remembrance. The Women’s National Reserve’s efforts to maintain women’s place continued to depend on their maternal and domesticated role. The National Committee in 1919, recommended that  Branches care for the soldiers’ graves and “make them beautiful places”.[7] The joint Gisborne Women’s National Reserve took up this challenge assisted by the Returned Soldiers’ Association. On the first Poppy Day in 1922, the Women’s Reserve were given permission for a one day sale of Poppies after ANZAC with the proceeds going towards the upkeep of the graves and kerbing of the plot.[8]

What became a regular feature in Gisborne from 1919 was the Service at the Taruheru Cemetery Soldiers Plot arranged by the Women’s National Reserve.[9] A local minister was called to give a brief address, a hymn was sung and a prayer offered with a suitable closing musical item. The mothers, wives, grandmothers and sisters created Laurel wreaths, a symbol of triumph, and other floral tributes, laid them on each gravestone as a united “Tribute of Remembrance” for the ‘sons of the district’.

They died together, like brothers, in a desperate hail of lead.
We are the war torn mothers; think; our blood too was shed![10]

In 1926, acknowledgement of the dedication and sacrifice of the “mothers of fallen soldiers” found no mention in the “brief but impressive” address given by Rev Davies, as reported.[11] Whether by reminder of the purpose for the special Remembrance Service, the following year Rev Davies offered a more direct message:

Mothers and widows, your loved ones are near. Christ felt the injustice of your bereavement just as He did when dying of the Cross, when before thoughts of physical suffering He murmured:  ‘\Son, behold thy mother; Mother behold they Son.’When Christ died He killed death, for Christ knew to died was to pass to a world to be with him. Therefore, though this was a day of remembrance, it is also a day of pride, of inspiration and a day of joy. [12]

In a previous blog I wrote about the 1926 ANZAC Service Molly Shannon conducted to a packed audience of 400 people. 


[1] Poverty Bay Herald, 18 December 1915. The women appointed to the Committee included: Vice-President, Mrs W. Batty,Secretary and Treasurer, Mr. R. Hepburn, members Mesdames C. Gibson, R. Preston, McDowell and Figg, Misses Peryer, Gibson and Preston. Also a number of Honorary members were appointed.

[2] “Mothers of Men: Yesterday’s Garden Party”, Poverty Bay Herald, 27 April, 1917.

[3] The combined group of the Gisborne Women’s National Reserve continued their support of the wives, daughters, sisters and the returned soldiers for many years. The care of injured and psychologically ill sons and husbands fell on the shoulders of many women. Calls for clothing, food, financial and medical support, and school materials for children resulted in an Advice Centre being established. The Women’s Reserve added their voice to other organisations that sought financial assistance for families from the Government and a small means-tested Family Allowance was introduced in 1926.

[4] “Women’s National Reserve – Manutuke Branch”, Poverty Bay Herald, 28 April 1919.

[5] The Honours Board was removed to the Manutuke Memorial Hall in 1925,.

[6] “The Te Arai Honors Board: The Unveiling”, Poverty Bay Herald 17 December 1920. The Honors Board was later transferred to the Manutuke Memorial Hall in 1925. A second roll of honour was added after World War 2.

[7] “Women’s National Reserve”, Gisborne Times, 26 March 1919.

[8] Gisborne Times, 22 April 1922

[9] “A Graceful Tribute”, Poverty Bay Herald, 25 April, 1919

[10] The ANZAC Mothers by Jim Morris. Otago Daily Times, 23 April 2015. Sighted April 2020.

[11] “Service at Soldiers’ Plot”, Poverty Bay Herald, 24 April 1926.

[12] Reported in the “Women’s World Column, Gisborne Times, 26 April, 1927.



I was in the Presbyterian Research Centre today looking at papers in another of Molly Whitelaw’s boxes. A paragraph from a talk she gave to the Glasgow Rotary Club in October 1947, caught my eye and I realised that ANZAC Day was almost upon us. It is another of those occasions when gems can be located in archives collections.

For many New Zealanders, 1942 marked a time of ‘national peril’. The surprise and devastating attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, by the Japanese new dive bombers sent ripples of fear through the Pacific. With Australia facing a possible  direct threat from the Japanese, New Zealand authorities feared that its shores could also be in jeopardy and prepared coastal residents for the worst outcome, many experiencing genuine fear.

Molly tells her story: “In 1942 we spent a holiday, down the Marlborough Sounds. As the children played on the beach the Japanese swarmed further and further south. Had they come to N.Z. those glorious deep Sounds would have made a wonderful anchorage for their ships. Fourteen miles inland the town of Blenheim, where lies the finest airfield in NZ and the sunlit plains of Wairau, from where a would-be attack could take place on Wellington, 70 miles away, we were told. Trenches were dug, all plans made in the event of an invasion. Mothers with children were to be evacuated to the hills. We had suitcases packed in readiness. I had been ill, [Molly had had whooping cough]. It was on my mind, going alone with young children, only two and three years old. For, of course, my husband would have stayed with his ‘people’. One day in March I went out on the verandah to think things out. As I looked up to the blue sky I suddenly, “out of the blue” got the assurance that the Japanese would never get to N.Z. I never had any fear again, although the news continued for some weeks to be precarious. Later we learned that about the very time I received this assurance that gave me such peace of mind the Japanese had unaccountably ceased their southern push. It was settled later by the Battle of the Coral Sea.”

When the American air force arrived in Blenheim towards the end of 1942, Molly and Alan Whitelaw  had a constant stream of young men through the manse. With a shortage of ministers in Blenheim and its surrounding areas, the arrival of the large numbers of soldiers at Woodbourne kept them and the Blenheim congregations on their toes.  It was an exhausting time dealing with every stress from homesickness to panic attacks. They resigned from the parish at the end of 1945, to return the two children they cared for to the London.  The Government could not guarantee them a return trip for two years, so they took the opportunity for a long sabbatical.

Woodbourne Air Base 1943

For me ANZAC becomes a day to reflect on our inability to reach our greatest ideal, that of peace. The horrors of war, and the tragic loss of thousands or should I say millions and millions of lives, the break up of families, the immense fear one sees in the eyes of children, the deep sadness in the body language of adults, the devastation of food and shelter and the breakdown of communities and countries, confront us daily through our channels of news. ‘Lest we Forget’ is what ANZAC suggests. Forget what? I ask. Reputedly, Rudyard Kipling was inspired by Deuteronomy 6,12: ‘Then beware lest you forget the Lord which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage’, in his poem ‘Recessional’, for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897.

“God of our fathers, known of old
Lord of our far flung battle line
Beneath Whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget!”