Page 1: Biography
Oldbury, Edith Lucy
Domestic servant, storekeeper, community leader
This biography, written by Corban Ward, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
Edith Lucy Morfett was born at Kamo, Whangarei, on 26 May 1888, the fourth daughter of Mary Puttenham, a seamstress from Kent, and her husband, George Morfett, a farm manager. The Morfetts had emigrated to New Zealand in 1886 with their family of four; four more children were born in New Zealand. All were educated at Purua School near Whangarei. Under her mother's expert guidance Ede, as she was known, became talented in homecraft and domestic duties. At the age of 18 she became lady-help to Constable Frederick Wade and his wife of Whangarei, and went with them when they were transferred to Kawhia in 1909.
Ede Morfett quickly settled into life in the small township. She became a popular participant in local activities and was always on hand to assist or – even at her young age – offer constructive help or guidance to others. On 12 January 1911 at Christ Church, Whangarei, she married Martin Ward Oldbury, a tailor who had recently moved his business of Oldbury and Company to Kawhia from Otorohanga; they were to have one daughter.
The couple opened a general store under the name of Oldbury and Company in the early 1920s. With the township offering its small population four general stores, astute management would decide the survival or failure of their business. Oldbury and Company not only survived but also set up a second general store across the harbour at Hauturu. Ede managed their continually increasing trade. She proved to be an excellent manageress and was her own accountant, using caution and prudence in her financial transactions. She kept close contact with the firm's customers both in business and socially. The couple eventually owned two men's outfitters and a drapery.
With her business affairs running smoothly, Ede Oldbury began to play a more prominent part in the social life of the district. She showed talent in the township's stage shows. Martin Oldbury also displayed a natural gift with his acting and singing of English comedy. Ede was a regular attendant at the Anglican church. She was a good listener, always quick to react when she saw that help was needed, and her benevolence was widely appreciated. She gave assistance to others in the form of gifts of food, sound advice and help with debt repayments; a promise to repay when possible was sufficient. During the depression of the 1920s and 1930s Ede Oldbury saw to it that those in need, both Maori and Pakeha, were provided with warm clothing. Auntie Ede, as she was sometimes known, promoted activities for the youth of Kawhia and donated several silver cups for competition among various sports clubs.
Ede Oldbury enhanced her status in the community by performing official duties at Kawhia. She set up a temporary hospital during the influenza epidemic of 1918 and provided accommodation for visiting officials: school inspectors, Native Land Court officials and even cabinet ministers. She was appointed a justice of the peace in 1932 and was the local agent for the Social Security Department. Maori in outlying districts used Ede to collect their social security payments, pay their bills and order farm supplies. They took her advice on family and business matters. When evacuation plans were prepared for Kawhia because of the fear of a Japanese invasion in the 1940s, Ede Oldbury volunteered to stay behind to look after the carrier pigeons, which would be needed if the attack came. In 1959 she was invited to cut the ribbon at the ceremony to open the new Te Awamutu–Kawhia highway. From 1963 to 1965 she was a member of the Tainui Trust Committee which, after negotiation with the government, arranged the planting of the first pine trees in the newly formed Afforestation Plantation on the Kawhia peninsula.
Following Martin's death in 1960, Ede continued to manage Oldbury and Company with the assistance of her widowed daughter, Audrey Culley. She was awarded the British Empire Medal (civil division) in 1972. The citation made particular mention of her association with the cottage hospital and the building of the local hall and meeting house. Her photograph commands a prominent place in Auau-ki-te-rangi, the meeting house on Maketu marae at Kawhia.
Ede Oldbury continued working into her 80s, saying that she wished to keep 'in touch with everyone'. Her general store had long been the social centre of Kawhia, appropriately for one so dedicated to the service of the district and its people. She died on 13 September 1977 having spent her final years in Matariki Geriatric Hospital, Te Awamutu, and was buried beside her husband in the Kawhia cemetery.