Page 1: Biography
Teacher, temperance worker, suffragist
This biography, written by Victoria Upton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Emily Knowles was born at Lye, Worcestershire, England, on 5 September 1847, the daughter of Charlotte Round and her husband, John Knowles, a shoemaker. Emily became a pupil-teacher at the Lye national school in 1863 and finished her training at St Mary's training college, Cheltenham, by mid 1870. During this time she struck up a close friendship with Henry Thomas Hill, a student teacher from St Mark's, the local men's training college. In July 1873 Henry accepted an offer of employment in Canterbury, New Zealand. Because it was a condition that he should be married, he telegraphed Emily, who was by now back teaching at Lye, and proposed. The couple were married soon after on 23 July 1873 at Halesowen, Worcestershire, and on 3 August departed for New Zealand on the Merope.
During the voyage Henry was the ship's schoolmaster and Emily the matron in return for a free passage and nominal payment. Her duty was 'to maintain order and propriety of conduct among the Single Women'. Unfortunately she was sick much of the time.
After their arrival in Canterbury Henry assisted with the organisation of public schools, and in 1875 became headmaster of the large primary school in east Christchurch. Emily was in charge of the infants' department from 1875 until 1878. The Hills employed a nanny to look after their young son and daughter so that Emily could continue to teach. Her work was highly regarded and in 1878 she was promoted to the first division of the second class of teaching. The same year, Henry was made inspector of schools for the Hawke's Bay district and the Hills moved to Napier. Emily gave up teaching to raise her family of four daughters and three sons.
In Napier Emily Hill led an active public life. She took a deep interest in all educational matters, viewing school as a training for the responsibilities of life. She particularly supported the domestic education of girls. In 1879 Henry organised a two-week training course for teachers at Napier District School, and Emily helped him by giving lectures and conducting model lessons.
Although her parents had been Primitive Methodists, Emily became an Anglican. She was a firm temperance supporter and, along with other Hawke's Bay women, including Fanny Troy, Bella Sidey and Katherine Browning, an energetic campaigner for women's suffrage. In her view the vote would enable women to purify politics and bring about change. She belonged to and eventually held office in the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union, and in March 1893 became president of the Napier Women's Franchise League. The league spearheaded the Hawke's Bay suffrage campaign, and despite the difficulties of reaching a large rural population nearly a third of the adult females of Hawke's Bay signed the 1893 franchise petition.
After New Zealand women won the right to vote in 1893 the Napier Women's League was set up, with Emily Hill as president. The league organised two public meetings in November 1893 to educate women voters, both chaired by Emily. Controversy flared when she told the large crowd of women at the first meeting that her recollection of the party in power when the women's franchise was won, and of those members who opposed it, would influence her future voting.
In March 1894 Emily Hill and Agnes Begg stood unsuccessfully as candidates for the Napier Licensing Committee. They appear to have been the first Hawke's Bay women to do so and were strongly supported by the league. The women had two aims: to further the cause of temperance and to assert their right to participate fully in politics. Both aims were reiterated at a temperance meeting, when Hill urged all women to exercise their franchise in the Licensing Committee elections.
Emily Hill held executive positions in various organisations promoting social welfare and the interests of women and children. She was on the committee of the Queen's Fund in 1894, which was set up to provide relief for 'deserving cases of distress that do not come within the ken of the Charitable Aid Board', and in 1896 was the secretary of the Home for Friendless Women. She served on the committee of the Hawke's Bay Children's Home from May 1893 until 1930. Hill played an active role in the National Council of Women of New Zealand and in 1903, on Kate Sheppard's recommendation, she became the treasurer. She encountered some opposition at this point: Margaret Sievwright considered that she was 'too fashionable and too content with charitable agencies', and insufficiently concerned with challenging injustices.
For recreation Emily played croquet and made fine lace and embroidery. She was a fluent writer and had a passion for reading. She was affectionately known as 'Little Mother' by her unmarried daughters, who kept house for her in her old age. Emily Hill died at Napier on 27 August 1930, three years before her husband.