Florence Ann Dunlop was born at Netherton, near Paeroa, on 9 November 1915, the daughter of Charlotte Mary Dunlop and James Close, a farmer. Eighteen months later in Eltham, Charlotte married John Francis, a farmer. Flo, as she was usually known, lived on the family’s farm in Taranaki until the early 1920s, when an economic downturn forced them off the land. They later lived in Manawatu, then Wellington, where she attended Thorndon School.
Flo began work in low-paid, unskilled jobs, which included stints as a milk-bar maid and shirt machinist. As a young woman she spent three years in hospital with rheumatic fever. She was married in Wellington as Florence Anna Close to James Brackenridge Mudgway, a ‘shoe artist’, on 13 December 1930. Although Flo claimed to be 18 at the time, she was in fact just 15. The couple were to have a daughter before they were divorced in August 1938.
With a young child to support, Flo found employment as a housemaid in a Wellington hotel, and soon rose to become the manager of a private hotel. She and her daughter later moved to Auckland, where Flo took up a position as a supervisor in a large, down-town tearoom, and again was promoted to manager. Under the surname Francis, she married George Isaac Humphries, in Auckland, on 5 April 1944. George, a divorced seaman, was also known as Bill. The following year Flo gave birth to another daughter. She continued to work, this time as a housemaid and manager of a Hobson Street boarding house.
In 1951, as she witnessed the effects of the waterfront dispute, Flo Humphries was spurred into action. While George, who by then was working on the wharf, fought against the strike-breakers, she became a member of the Auckland Women’s Auxiliary of the deregistered New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union. Her involvement in union politics continued over the next 30 years. In 1954 she became the secretary of the Auckland Drug Factories’ Employees’ Union. Her first challenge was to persuade the workers in the drug and chemical factories, who were mainly women, to become involved with the union. She later claimed that in the 1950s many of the women hid in the lavatories when the union official visited because they were reluctant to pay their union subscription. In an industry plagued by health problems, Humphries worked hard to get employers to agree to fund regular health checks for all workers – something she had not achieved by the time she retired in 1978.
While secretary of the union, Flo Humphries was a delegate to the Auckland Trades Council and at New Zealand Federation of Labour conferences; she was the first woman to represent the FOL overseas. In 1971 she spent three weeks in Tokyo attending the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions’ regional seminar for Asian women trade unionists. Humphries had long been concerned about the role of women in the union movement and on her return advocated the establishment of women’s sections in New Zealand trade unions. She argued that New Zealand women were being ‘victimised for being mothers’ and that the only way unions would achieve better maternity leave and child-care centres was for women to be involved in decision making.
Flo Humphries knew from first-hand experience how hard it was to be a working mother, and how important affordable, quality child care was. In the late 1950s, as well as being a union secretary, a wife and mother, and a part-time cook at an old people’s home, she began to raise funds for a neighbourhood kindergarten in Glen Innes. In March 1963 the Sunbeam Free Kindergarten was opened, over a quarter of the building costs having been met by the fund-raising committee Humphries organised.
During the 1950s and 1960s Flo Humphries was an active member of the Freeman’s Bay Residents’ Welfare Association, fighting the Auckland City Council’s ‘total demolition’ policy in this working-class area. When she moved to Glen Innes she served on the Glen Innes Community Council for many years. She was also active in church groups and was involved in the campaign for equal pay. But it was as a consumer advocate that she came to national prominence.
Perhaps influenced by media reports of housewife consumer groups in North America, Flo Humphries was instrumental in launching the Campaign Against Rising Prices (CARP). In November 1966, along with five other women, she placed an advertisement in the Auckland Star , asking ‘Who wants to do something about high prices?’ A public meeting of housewives was called, Humphries was elected president of the new organisation, and war was declared on the rising cost of living. CARP aimed to protect consumers and achieve price stability. Its members believed that high prices were disrupting family life, with husbands working long hours to make ends meet, and mothers having to take on paid work. CARP’s initial response was a letter-writing campaign to politicians, and a boycott of over-priced cakes, biscuits and sweets. Within a couple of months it was claiming success: prices for some cakes had come down and the manufacturers agreed to keep them down.
Humphries remained active in CARP until her death. It was an appropriate organisation for her to have founded and presided over, given her lifelong campaigns for the working class, and for working-class women in particular. It was not a political organisation per se , but, as she said, ‘everything we do is political’. It was also a non-hierarchical organisation. All over the country, and in Australia, groups of disaffected housewives held meetings, formed branches of CARP, but did not have to answer to a central committee.
George Humphries died in 1975. Flo suffered a stroke late in 1977. She died in her Glen Innes home on 12 January 1981, survived by her daughters. The socialist press called her ‘a true daughter of the working class’. It was a fitting tribute.