Elma Turner MA MBE


Nelson City Councillor 1972 - 1989   

Elma Turner
Elma Turner 11 June 1983. Nelson Provincial Museum, Nelson Mail Collection: 4092

In 1972, aged 68, Elma (Tilly) Turner began a 17-year term on the Nelson City Council after a lengthy and successful career as a high school teacher.

An Otago University graduate with an M.A in History (1927), Elma was appointed to the staff of Nelson College for Girls in 1948 as a geography teacher. She remained at the school for 15 years and from 1952, until her retirement in 1963, was first assistant to the principal. Reflecting upon Elma's contribution to the life of the school, the Nelson Girls' Collegian observed proudly that she had helped transform the school's meagre book collection into one of the 'best-stocked school libraries in the country'.1 It was as an advocate of a free public library that Elma became involved in civic affairs. As vice-president (1952-1963) and president (1963-65) of the Nelson Institute committee she campaigned to end the institute's subscription-based library service and establish a free municipal library. This was a time when Nelson retained the rather dubious honour of being the only town of its size in New Zealand without a free rental public library and consequently denied membership of the National Library Service. It was a lengthy battle, achieved in stages and with the assistance of others, most notably Councillor Sonja Davies. In 1964 Nelson City Council agreed to assume responsibility for the Nelson Institute Library. Continuing opposition, however, to the establishment of a free rental library prompted Elma in 1972 to stand for election to the Nelson City Council. On 1 October 1973 the free library movement officially won the fight. From within the Library Committee Elma then moved on to campaign for a new, fit-for-purpose, municipal library building. The resulting Elma Turner Library in Halifax St. was officially opened by Elma and Mayor Peter Malone in 1990.

A woman of intimidating intellect and a sharp wit, Elma was, in her own words, 'interested in why and how things are done in the community and I like to be a part of it all.' As she entered her final term as a councillor, she recalled that when she was first elected male councillors were unsettled by her presence: 'What's an old schoolteacher doing here anyway?', they seemed to be asking. As 'a person wanting to do a job' she found it particularly irksome that responsibilities 'would automatically go to the men.'2 During her 17 years as a councillor she became a diligent member of more than a dozen committees including those for the Provincial Museum and the Suter Art Gallery. As president (1976-1984) of the Nelson Branch of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand), her energy also helped in the successful preservation of Fairfield House, an historically significant building with links to Nelson College for Girls.3 In 1983 she was awarded an MBE. She was 85 when she retired from the Council in 1989 and died two years later. (1904 - 1991)

This was published in: Women Decision-Makers Nelson and Tasman 1944 -2018, p. 42. Compiled by Dr Shelley Richardson, Elaine Henry, Gail Collingwood, Hilary Mitchell.

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Sources used in this story

  • The Nelson Girls (1963, June) Collegian, LXIV, p.46.
  • Cessford, Chris (1986, July 29)  Bringing a female perspective to local government, Nelson Evening Mail
  • Elma Turner, Retrieved from: theprow.org.nz/people/elma turner1.

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Further sources - Elma Turner MA MBE


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

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