One of the fascinating aspects of the Berry & Co photographs of World War I soldiers is that they were often photographed with family and friends. These family photographs bring to the fore the fact that women and children were affected by the war. Life on the home front was far from easy. People had to learn to live with the constant worry and fear that their loved one might be killed or injured. Food and other resources were severely limited and expensive. With so many men away, the work force was greatly reduced. Women often had to bring up young children on their own both during the war when their husbands were away and sometimes for the rest of their lives, if their loved one died.
In recognition of United Nations ‘International Day of the Girl Child’ I’d like to dedicate today’s blog to the women and children in the Berry & Co photographs. This annual event aims to raise public awareness about the equal rights of girls. It therefore seems appropriate and timely to highlight some of the girls featured in these photos and explore what their lives were like growing up in New Zealand.
Baby Zena situated in the centre of this photo was the first child of Marguerita and Herbert Freeman. She was about three months old when this photo was taken. Her father was granted leave for four months in December 1916 on grounds of ‘hardship’ and that his wife Marguerita was a ‘very delicate woman’, which was code for her being pregnant. When he eventually embarked for the Great War on the 1 August 1918, Zena already had a sister, Rita who was born in April 1918. The family was lucky because even though Herbert was away from home for about a year, he arrived in England just prior to the Armistice in November 1918.
Kathleen Gamon pictured here between her father Arthur and mother Amy was born on 20 June 1916. This photo was probably taken in about 1918 prior to Arthur leaving for the war.
Life in New Zealand when Zena and Kathleen were born and growing up, was very different from today. The 1877 Education Act meant that there was free compulsory education for children aged between five and 14 but although secondary schooling was available, most children left school when they turned 14.
Kathleen attended the Lyall Bay Primary School but it is not known where Zena went to school. It is highly likely that they shared their classroom with up to 40 other children. Children were crammed into rows and the rooms were often hot in summer and cold in winter. Fresh air was considered to be highly beneficial so teachers were encouraged to keep the windows open year-round.
Most children learned to write on slate boards and when good enough they moved on to paper and pencil, and then ink. Widespread use of the strap and the cane ensured children followed the rules, held their pencils correctly and did their homework!
The 1920s was a time when the educational and professional sectors expanded in New Zealand. Women seized new opportunities in employment. The School Dental Nurse service, established in the 1920s, provided an opportunity for women to train as Dental Nurses and the Plunket Society trained Plunket and Karitane nurses all considered good career choices for young women.
Like most women, both Zena and Kathleen married and had children. Kathleen died in 2003 but Zena is still alive. It’s amazing to think about the changes she would have seen in her life time. The opportunities for girls in New Zealand today are vast in comparison to when Zena and Kathleen were little girls and it’s hard to imagine a time when women weren’t allowed to take part in parliament or choose to have a career or university education. In many countries though, there are still huge levels of inequality for girls. ‘The International Day of the Girl Child’ is an important date and moment to think about girls’ rights and the recognition girls deserve as citizens and as powerful agents of social change.