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The remarkable life of Jerome Spencer

February 15, 2021

“Lifting Horizons: Anne Elizabeth Jerome Spencer, a biography” is a book about the remarkable life of the founder of New Zealand Women’s Institutes, written by EIT Research Professor Kay Morris Matthews.

The book chronicles the life of the founder of the New Zealand Women’s Institutes, Jerome Spencer, known as Bessie to her friends and family.

The book, which took three years to research and write, touches on all aspects of a woman ahead of her time.

Born into privilege in 1872, Bessie was the daughter of Dr William Spencer, the original doctor and surgeon of Napier, who also served as the city’s mayor. She was a foundation year pupil at Napier Girls’ High School. The first local woman to gain a university degree, she taught at the school and was 29 years of age when she became headmistress, leading Napier Girls’ from 1901 to 1909.

She was also an orchardist and apiarist at Rissington, spiritualist and member of The Havelock Work, photographer and explorer, spinner and weaver, editor, and in World War One was a nurse and women’s street patroller in London.

From 1911 to 1952, she lived mainly at the Omatua homestead at Rissington with her friends, Amy and Frank Hutchinson.  From there, she founded and led the New Zealand Women’s Institutes. 

Prof Morris Matthews, who is Research Professor, Education, Humanities and Health Sciences, had for some time wanted to write a biography on a woman who she describes as inspirational and ahead of her time when it came to encouraging young women into science and medicine in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

With no living relatives to interview, relied on a vast treasure trove of Bessie’s letters and diaries, which she was given access to at the MTG Archives.

Bessie Spencer died in Napier in 1955, but her legacy was celebrated at the Centennial of the New Zealand Women’s Institutes in Napier in February 2021.

The book was officially launched by EIT CEO Chris Collins at the Century Theatre in Napier in February 2021.

The launch, which was attended by invited guests including members of the WI and EIT, coincided with the centennial celebrations. A statue to Jerome Spencer was also unveiled on the corner of Shakespeare Road and Browning Street in Napier.

Professor Morris Matthews acknowledged the support of EIT and the MTG in the production of the book.

An exhibition “For Home and Country: Women’s Institutes in Hawke’s Bay”, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of the first meeting of a Women’s Institute in Rissington, will also be on display at the MTG in Napier. A date for the exhibition will be announced once remedial work on the MTG building is completed.

The book can be ordered (for delivery) from info@mtghawkesbay.com. The cost is $40.95 including post and packaging within New Zealand. (Rural delivery add $3.95)