Elizabeth (Bessie) Turnbull was born at Mosgiel, Otago, New Zealand, on 2 May 1885, the youngest of 11 children of Sydney Turnbull, a baker, and his wife, Catherine Armstrong. Both parents were of Scots birth and sailed from Glasgow on the Aboukir, arriving in New Zealand in 1864. Bessie recalled that her father was 'the laird…the head of the house and he had to be waited on'. Her mother worked long hours in the shop, cooked for the men delivering bread, kept the books, and raised a family. Bessie was expected to work hard in the bakery and help at home, but none the less she had a happy childhood. She attended East Taieri primary school, did well and wanted to be a teacher, but the family could not afford to keep her at school. Her father was ill from 'flour on the lung' and her mother, who had been a milliner before her marriage, had to take in sewing to make ends meet. Sydney Turnbull was to die in 1903.
Bessie began work aged 14, as a domestic servant at three shillings a week. In 1900 she started work making socks in the hosiery department of the Mosgiel woollen mill. The Mosgiel Woollen Factory Company, established in 1873, was the major local employer of girls and women, who could do the same work as men for much lower wages. Bessie Turnbull's experience was representative of that of a woman employee. She worked a 5½-day week, starting at 7.45 a.m. and finishing at 5.30 p.m. with an hour off for lunch. There was no morning or afternoon tea but the staff would go outside one by one to have their cup of tea surreptitiously while someone kept watch. Workers were paid according to the work they produced and were not reimbursed for training time, holidays or sick leave. They were also expected to clean the factory on Saturday morning without payment. Bessie made about 12 shillings in her first fortnight while she was still learning, but worked hard and made 24 shillings the following fortnight. A high standard was expected; work not done correctly was sent back to be done again.
As the woollen mill workers' union gained strength, conditions at the factory improved. Although Bessie was assertive, speaking out for herself and other workers when she observed an injustice, she disliked unions and was determined not to join. Faced with the ultimatum of losing her job or paying union fees she capitulated. In spite of the union's power, the Mosgiel woollen mill was unaffected by industrial action or indeed any other disruptive event. The textiles industry was protected by tariffs and had a large domestic and overseas market, so Bessie had secure employment through two world wars and the depression of the 1930s. She eventually became head of her section in the hosiery department. In 1957, aged 72, she was compulsorily retired from the mill.
Bessie Turnbull never married. She felt it a duty to look after her mother and had a close relationship with her. After Catherine Turnbull died in 1927 Bessie moved to her own house in Gordon Road, Mosgiel, where she continued to lead a busy and independent life. Her values were those of a generation brought up to work hard and avoid self-indulgence and waste. Even when elderly she kept hens and grew her own vegetables, and she spurned modern appliances such as washing machines and telephones. In the mid 1980s she was still using a coal range.
As she approached her 100th birthday Bessie Turnbull became something of a local celebrity. As the oldest former pupil, she was guest of honour at the 130th anniversary of the East Taieri School, and took a prominent part in Mosgiel borough's centenary in 1985. She lived to be 103 years old, dying at the Ross Home, Dunedin, on 4 June 1988.
A woman of great humour, courage and endurance, Bessie Turnbull accepted and made the best of her limited opportunities. As she said: 'I was in the working class and I'm not sorry to say I enjoyed it and I've had a lot of pleasure working with my workmates and I'm not thinking of looking for a higher place in heaven than anybody else.'