Annie Constance Tocker was one of twin daughters born to Annie Smith Baillie and her husband, John Tocker, a blacksmith, in Greytown on 6 May 1889. Little is known of her early life, but she referred in later years to having had ‘a hard childhood myself’, and, on one unguarded occasion, to having been sexually assaulted by a guest in the family home. This experience, which, she claimed, ‘put her off men for life’, seems to have played a major part in shaping her life’s work.
Tocker's varied career began as Greytown librarian in 1909. She gradually took on other municipal duties until, by 1914, she was working as assistant to the town clerk. Having what she termed ‘a leaning for social work’, she resigned in 1914 to take one of the few forms of training then open to aspiring social workers in New Zealand. She entered the Methodist Church's Deaconess House in Christchurch, which combined practical experience in visiting the poor with an intensive spiritual training. Tocker was later to describe the training as ‘too holy for me!’, but when dedicated as a deaconess in February 1917 she testified in graphic evangelical terms to her earlier restoration to God, and her decision to dedicate her talents to Him. She was to retain a strong sense of mission throughout her life.
‘Sister Annie’ worked as a deaconess in Christchurch East in close co-operation with local welfare agencies. She came to feel that her deaconess course had left her inadequately prepared to deal with wartime social problems, and consequently sought more secular forms of training. In 1918 she began a general nursing course at Christchurch Hospital, gaining state registration in January 1922. This was followed by midwifery training at the Essex Maternity Home, which was traditionally used by poor and unmarried mothers. Her nursing duties also took her into the Jubilee Memorial Home for the elderly and Christchurch's venereal disease clinic. Subsequent nursing experience included appointments as a sister at St Helens Hospital, Wellington, until 1924, and a short period as a sister at Wellington Hospital. In early 1925 Tocker returned to Christchurch where she undertook a survey into social problems with the intention of setting up a mission centre there. The centre was not established, but Tocker spent some months as acting lady superintendent of Deaconess House and then as president of the New Zealand Methodist Young Women’s Bible Class Union. During 1925 she also gained a diploma of sanitary science (London), which she later found invaluable when inspecting child welfare institutions.
In 1926 Tocker commenced the work for which she was to be best known, as one of the first child welfare officers appointed under the 1925 Child Welfare Act. She noted that she could have earned twice the salary as a nurse, but her identification with troubled children led her to accept the position. Over the next 23 years until her retirement, Tocker was mostly based in Wellington, with shorter terms in Invercargill, Napier and Hawera. Her work involved her in adoptions, the selection of foster homes, inspection of institutions, court reports, assistance to single mothers and investigation of truancy. She learned, she said, the value of preventive work and the importance of keeping parents and children together wherever possible. Tocker's leadership qualities, already finely honed, were recognised when she was appointed senior child welfare officer in 1940. From this time she played a major role in the development of staff in-service training at the Child Welfare Branch’s head office. Between 1940 and 1945 she also acted as liaison officer for the police anti-vice squad, an activity she later described as the ‘hardest test’ of her career.
On top of her official job, Tocker served on the Wellington Metropolitan Relief Committee (1940–49), on the Wellington branch of the National Council of Women of New Zealand (1940–48), on the Public Health Committee of the New Zealand Trained (later Registered) Nurses’ Association (1928–49), and as a member of the Women’s Borstal Association of New Zealand (1951–55). In 1949 she retired prematurely from her child welfare position because of a heart condition. However, she was to live for another 31 years. She died on 13 October 1980, aged 91, at Lower Hutt.
Throughout her career as a state social worker Annie Tocker retained the status of deaconess and a strong but controlled sense of religious mission. At the same time, she was one of New Zealand’s pioneers in professional social work. She recognised the need for training, and through her senior position in the women’s section of the Child Welfare Branch influenced a whole generation of state social workers. It was said that the women officers of the branch 'virtually idolised her’. While Tocker's superiors lamented her resistance to male authority and tendency to make public statements without permission, they acknowledged her good humour, intelligence, energy and practical commitment to the welfare of New Zealand children.