The Mothers’ Union was a group of mothers who worked through the church to promote Christianity in marriage, home and children. What is now an international charity with 4 million members stretching over 80 countries was established in the United Kingdom in 1876 (when Old St Paul’s was only 10 years old) by Mary Sumner, the wife of the vicar of Alresford, England. She was inspired to start a group to support mothers when she became a grandmother and remembered the difficulties of motherhood.
The organisation focused on the spiritual well being of children. Women who joined made the following promises with regard to their upbringing of their children:
1. To make them obedient, pure and gentle.
2. To watch their words, and prevent evil speaking, slander and rough words.
3. To guard them from bad or doubtful companions, and immoral, irreligious reading.
4. To teach them habits of self-control, and to avoid giving them beer, wine or spirits, unless under doctor’s orders.
5. To pray for them daily, and to teach them to pray and to observe the Lord’s Day.
6. To learn whatever may best fit me to fulfil my part as a loving wife and mother.
7. To remember the sacredness of marriage; and that on the holy associations of home, much of my children’s spiritual wellbeing in afterlife will depend.
The Mothers’ Union was hugely successful in England and only 10 years later it was started in New Zealand. The first New Zealand Mothers’ Union meeting was organised by Alice Pascoe, the wife of the vicar of Avonside, Christchurch. It really took after 1893 when it was promoted by Dorothea Boyle, Countess of Glasgow, the wife of the Earl of Glasgow, New Zealand Governor from 1892 to 1897. Before she left for New Zealand she had been asked by the movement to try and invigorate the movement here. Dorothea travelled the country, speaking about the Mothers’ Union. It was Lady Glasgow’s vision that there was a ‘union for all mothers, of every class, united in its objects.’ By 1894 they had a constitution and in 1897, when Dorothea left, every Anglican diocese in New Zealand had a branch. The Mothers’ Union may have took hold here quickly because its focus of faith and its role in life fitted in well with widely held beliefs in New Zealand society about woman’s moral role.
Wellington Mothers’ Union
The establishment of the Wellington Mothers’ Union was directly inspired by Dorothea when she spoke there in 1893. She influenced Edith Sprott, the wife of the vicar of St Paul’s, and she formed a large branch in Wellington; the early Mother’s Union in Wellington was not necessarily just Anglican, branches were formed in other churches, and involved a large number of working class as well as middle class women. It was soon organising events such a series of ‘medical talks’ by different doctors. Edith Sprott, whose husband later became the Bishop of Wellington, remained involved all her life. She was in England during World War One and when she returned to New Zealand she was even more convinced of the power of united prayer and the supreme importance of mothers. She began a vigorous campaign and many new branches opened. She remained involved in the union until 1935 and at her death in 1945 she was honoured as ‘The Mother Union’s Mother’.
Mrs Sprott, Evening Post, 5 March 1943
St Paul’s branch
The St Paul’s church had its own branch on the Mothers’ Union which held regular meetings and events, which started in 1893. They had numerous speakers, including many of the most impressive New Zealand women of the day. Many were on medical topics and on raising children. One in 1932 on ‘The Health of the Child’ was by Dr Ada Patterson, a leader in the provision of medicine in schools in New Zealand. She talked about the improved health of children compared to 100 years ago, and the recent improvements in physical health in New Zealand children. The moral lesson was that ‘the health of the child depended on maternal efficiency’: a good mother kept her children fit. Like the Plunket Society at the same time, the rhetoric in the time between the wars seems to have been heavily influenced by the ideas of bringing up strong children for the good of the race. On another occassion Mrs Sprott herself talked of the difficulties and mistakes that arise in the bringing up children, and a Miss Tocker of the Child Welfare Department spoke on how important a ‘stable emotional background’ was to children.
Other speakers focussed on other topics of the day, such as Mrs Mary Smith (nee Galway), one of the co-founders of the Fitzherbert Terrace School, who spoke to the branch about the necessity for female police to help care for young people, and Florence Porter, who had been involved in the war effort in New Zealand in World War One, who spoke about the ‘fine results of the work done by women in institutions where they have command’. Mary McLean, the inspiring leader of Wellington Girls’ College, who talked of her travels during her journey to receive her CBE at Buckingham Palace in the 1920s.
The Union also supported other events that involved children or family. In March 1932 the Evening Post reported them supporting a missionary exhibition created by children held in the Sydney St Schoolroom. They also supplied clothing to charities working with struggling women and children, particularly during the Great Depression.
Mothers’ Union Banners
A lasting evidence of the involvement of Mothers’ Union in Old St Paul’s and the wider Wellington diocese are two beautiful Mother’s Union banners. Such banners are often hung in churches. During special Mothers’ Union church ceremonies at St Paul’s, the banners from the branches throughout the Wellington region would be brought and paraded into the church. At one such ceremony during World War Two, there were 300-400 women present.
The first banner is a beautiful blue banner for the St Paul’s branch of the Mothers’ Union, which shows the Virgin Mary teaching a young Jesus to read. It was made in 1928 and like a number of other textiles in the church, it was made by Miss Emily Steele of Johnsonville (see another story on her work at Old St Paul’s here). It hung in the church for 40 years.
The blue banner when it hung at Old St Paul’s; image from 1955. Note other banners hanging in the church, including that of the St Paul’s branch of the St John’s movement.
The banner in its new home at the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul’s
The second banner is a white one, showing the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, surrounded by white lilies. To her left is the arms of the Anglican Diocese of Wellington, as this banner was made for the wider collection of branches in the Wellington diocese, rather than just for the St Paul’s branch.
Mother’s Union banner at Wellington Cathedral of St Pauls
We know the story of this banner: it was designed by Terrance Randall, FRSA and made by experienced ecclesiastical embroiderers in England. It cost the Mother’s Union £250. When it arrived in New Zealand in 1953, it was met at the customs shed on Pipitea Wharf by Mr and Mrs Irving and their daughter Margaret. Margaret wrote to her fiancé Dudley Mander of tying the heavy, difficult package to the top of their car and drove it to the president of the Mother’s Union at the time, Mrs Jermyn, in Petone.
Many flags and banners were removed from St Paul’s in the 1960s when the church was closed for worship, including the blue banner shown above; these two banners now hang in the Lady Chapel at Wellington Cathedral of St Paul in Molesworth Street.
Sources: Evening Post articles; A History of the Mother’s Union and the Association of Anglican Women in NZ, 1983; Women Together, Wellington, 1993; Wellington Cathedral of St Paul information on white banner. Images: Mrs Sprott, Evening Post, 5 March 1943; Wellington Cathedral of St Paul’s images from eHive, https://ehive.com/collections/4366/objects/154536 and https://ehive.com/collections/4366/objects/154534. Historic photo from 1955: E Woolett, National Publicity Photo, AAQT 6539 A40769, Archives New Zealand.