Elma Turner


Elma Frances Turner, M.B.E, 1904-1991

Elma Turner, known as ‘Tilly’ to close friends and family, moved to Nelson from Palmerston North when she was appointed as a geography teacher at Nelson College for Girls in the second term of 1948. She had an M.A. degree and a vast amount of library experience, which the College regarded as ‘a most valuable asset.’1 As well as serving the school as librarian and P.P.T.A. Secretary for many years, Elma was appointed to the position of First Assistant to the principal, Miss Clarice I. Johnstone. When Miss Johnstone went abroad in 1953, Elma served as Acting Principal, President of the Science Club, Dramatic Club, Student Christian Movement, Barnardo Helpers’ League and the Navy League.2 Clarice Johnstone retired as principal in 1959, and Elma continued serving as First Assistant to the new principal, Miss Lois C. Voller.3

Elma Turner, Lois Voller and the College Head Girl, 1960. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Venner
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Elma was credited with ‘breath[ing] new life into the library project because she had experience in the wider world of libraries, and knew the importance of having a well stocked, well organised one at the heart of the school.’ 4 As well as being heavily involved with the College, Elma also served as vice-president of the Nelson Institute Committee from 1952-1963, and became President of that Committee for a further two years after she retired from her teaching position at the College in 1963.5 On her retirement, Lois Voller wrote the following tribute: ‘She has given herself unreservedly to the service of the School and her keen intelligence, her forthrightness, her strength and kindliness and her wisdom and understanding have endeared her to pupils and Staff alike and particularly to those who have come in close contact with her.’6

Elma Turner on her retirement, 1963. The Nelson Girls’ Collegian, Vol LXIV
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Elma Turner was elected to the Nelson City Council in 1972.  Her foremost goal remained the acquisition of a new municipal library, and when the new Elma Turner Library opened in 1990, it was regarded as ‘a fitting tribute to her vision and hard work.’7

Elma was also involved with the Nelson Provincial Museum, the Nelson Bays United Council, and the Nelson Branch of the Historic Places Trust. Serving as Chair of the Nelson Historic Places Trust Branch Committee from 1976-1984, Elma was involved with the organisation for over twenty years and played a role in saving Fairfield House, which remains an iconic heritage building in Nelson today.8 In 1983 she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.9  Former pupil and colleague, Rosemary Venner, recalls that Elma was very supportive and shared her love of music and art with her friends and colleagues, even though she may have seemed to be blunt and straight-forward. 10 Former colleague Muriel Woodhead also recalls that Elma ‘had a fierce and almost forensic and formidable intelligence, offset by a cackling laugh and ability to make an immediate sharp riposte, which defused at times what could be confrontational situations.’ Muriel ‘was always struck by her intense loyalty…to her country, town and work community.’11

Elma Turner being awarded an MBE by the Governor General, 1983. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Venner.
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Elma Turner passed away in August 1991, aged 87. Former librarian Marian Gunn remember Elma as ‘a most amazing woman’, and expressed the hope that Nelson’s new city library is always called the Elma Turner Library, ‘because she just struggled for so many years to get that place up and running.’


Updated May 5, 2020


Sources used in this story

  1. The Nelson Girls’ Collegian, Volume XLX, 1949; Interview with Rosemary Venner, 19 September 2011.
  2. The Nelson Girls’ Collegian, Volume LIV, 1953.
  3. The Nelson Girls’ Collegian, Volume LXI, 1960.
  4.  ‘Obituary: Elma Frances Turner M.A.’, The Nelson Girls’ Collegian, 1991.
  5. The Nelson Girls’ Collegian, 1983.
  6. The Nelson Girls’ Collegian, Volume LXIV, 1963.
  7.  ‘Obituary: Elma Frances Turner M.A.’, The Nelson Girls’ Collegian, 1991.
  8.  Nelson Historic Places Trust Records, research by Elizabeth MacCreadie.
  9.  The Nelson Girls’ Collegian, 1983.
  10.  Interview with Rosemary Venner, 19 September 2011.
  11.  Personal correspondence with Muriel Woodhead, September 2011.

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Further sources - Elma Turner



  •  The Nelson Girls’ Collegian:1949; 1953; 1960; 1963; 1983; 1991 [held Nelson Public Libraries]


  •  Interview with Rosemary Venner, 19 September 2011.
  •  Personal correspondence with Muriel Woodhead, September 2011

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