Betsy Walter/Betsy Eyre MBE JP

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Nelson City Councillor 1956 - 1962 ; 1965 - 1976 Deputy Mayor 1959 - 1962, 1965 - 1971


In 1956, twelve years after Laura Ingram was elected to the Motueka Borough Council, Betsy Walter (later Eyre) became Nelson's first woman councillor. Born in Nelson in 1911, she was the eldest child of a Scottish immigrant, Jock Walter, and Mary Jane Mitchell. A tea-merchant in the city, Jock later became proprietor of the Metropolitan Private Hotel in Bridge Street. Betsy attended Brook Street School, Nelson Girls' Central School and Nelson College for Girls. Like Laura, she was attracted to teaching from a young age and was fortunate to enter Teachers' Training College in Wellington in 1930 before the economy measures of the depression years brought a temporary closure. She trained as a primary school teacher specializing in helping children with special needs. In 1934 she embarked on twenty- seven years of teaching in her home city at Nelson Central School and later Auckland Point School.

Betsy Ayre
Mrs Betsy Eyre, Deputy Mayor, 1965. Barry Simpson. Nelson Provincial Museum, Nelson Photo News Collection: 35mm 785_fr24

For Betsy, as for many other women, the outbreak of the Second World War closed some doors and opened others. She was president of the city's Business and Professional Women's Club which went into recess. The absence of men created spaces in civic life which women like Betsy readily filled. She joined the Women's War Service Auxiliary, became secretary of the Territorial Force Association and put her locally-renowned cooking expertise to good use in the YMCA canteen at the Tahunanui aerodrome serving thousands of meals to military personnel.

In the immediate post-war decade caring for her parents limited the possibility of further civic engagement. At the age of 45, she was able to begin a 17-year tenure on the Nelson City Council which included three terms as deputy mayor. Pressed by a journalist in December 1961 to comment on the novelty of being a woman on a male-dominated council, she responded: 'My first term, I felt that being a woman made no difference whatsoever. This second term I'm not so sure....l think there is still a feeling against women taking a senior position in a public body.'1 Undeterred, she stood for the mayoralty in 1962, coming third in a three-way contest. Her advocacy of women's rights was expressed through membership of the Nelson branch of the Pan- Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association, and was recognised by national life membership. She also served as president of the Nelson Women's Cricket Association and vice-president of the New Zealand Women's Cricket Association and was involved in the Girl Guides Association for some 23 years.

Her concern to increase women's participation in civic life was embedded in a set of social concerns. She was on the service committee of Nelson's Voluntary Home Aid Service, formed in the late 1950s, which provided care for the elderly, sick, and mentally impaired. From 1961 she was also a member of the Nelson Branch of Birthright New Zealand, established to provide support to single-parent families. Her many personal kindnesses included cooking Sunday lunches in her home for homesick boarders from Nelson College and Nelson College for Girls. In 1962, following her retirement from teaching, she married Richard John Eyre, a retired army officer. To the many children they welcomed to their home they were known simply as 'Aunty Betty' and 'Uncle John'. The award of an MBE in 1967 was warmly received within the community she served. After a period of ill-health she retired from the Nelson City Council in 1976 and died in 1983.2

This was published in: Women Decision-Makers Nelson and Tasman 1944 -2018, p.44. Compiled by Dr Shelley Richardson, Elaine Henry, Gail Collingwood, Hilary Mitchell.

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Sources used in this story

  1. 'Life of Sterling Service: Nelson's Deputy Mayor', Nelson Evening Mail ,23  December 1961, p.12
  2. Obit. 'Mrs Eyre - 'a life of service', Nelson Evening Mail, 18 January 1983, p.3

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Further sources - Betsy Walter/Betsy Eyre MBE JP

Books

  • Richardson, S., Henry, E., Collingwood, G. Mitchell, H. (2018). Women decision-makers Nelson and Tasman 1944-2018. Nelson, New Zealand