Doris Adelaide Canham was born in Auckland on 21 August 1898, the eldest of five children of Lillian Henrietta Cornish and her husband, Ernest Edward (Ted) Canham, an English-born carter who worked on the Auckland waterfront. The children regularly attended the Pitt Street Methodist Sunday school and socialist soapbox meetings in Quay Street.
Doris attended Richmond Road School and won a junior free place at Seddon Memorial Technical College, but her parents could not afford to keep her in class. Instead, she found work as a junior clerk and cashier on a weekly wage of five shillings. Ted Canham became president of the Auckland Waterside Trade Union of Workers and was a member of the Auckland strike committee during the waterfront and general strikes of 1913. When her father was on strike Doris’s wages were the family’s only income. Afterwards, Ted joined his friend, Peter Fraser, in Wellington, and the family followed in February 1915.
Fraser set up a job for 16-year-old Doris Canham as typist and general assistant to the Maoriland Worker’ s manager, John Glover. She typed the New Zealand Labour Party’s first constitution in 1916 and promptly joined the party herself. She attended night school to learn shorthand and typing, and passed the public service shorthand-typist examination. After three years on a low salary, and wanting to ‘save up to get [her] trousseau together’, she left the Maoriland Worker and in February 1918 joined the public service.
The following year Doris Canham left paid employment to marry Henry (Harry) James Palmer, whom she had met in 1917 at a Labour Party dance. They were engaged before he left for the western front, and married soon after his return, in Wellington on 13 May 1919. They lived with Doris’s parents before buying a house at Eastbourne around 1920, where they brought up a family of four sons. Harry worked at the Printing and Stationery Department for many years and studied business subjects part time. Doris became active in the Eastbourne branches of the Plunket Society, the League of Mothers and the Red Cross. All the family were involved in the scouting movement: Doris was secretary and camp mother, Harry was cubmaster and all four boys were scouts.
Above all Doris Palmer became a grass-roots Labour Party activist. She held various positions in its Eastbourne branch from 1935 until 1952 and was a long-standing delegate on the Hutt Labour Representation Committee. She was the dominant figure in the Eastbourne women’s branch of the Labour Party and in 1936 was involved in the Elizabeth McCombs Club, formed to promote women’s participation in the party. Two years later she presided over a gathering of 60 women delegates at the Elizabeth McCombs clubrooms and presented a report (which was not acted upon) to the party conference.
In 1938 Doris and Harry established a stationery and fancy goods shop. During the Second World War she joined the Women’s War Service Auxiliary and became a clerical worker for the Home Guard. After the war she rejoined the public service as a shorthand-typist in the Police Department. Doris Palmer’s friendship with her old family friend Peter Fraser resulted in her successful nomination as a justice of the peace in 1939. In September 1949, again on Fraser’s nomination, she was appointed to the Price Control Division; she served as an associate member until the end of 1950.
The Palmer family shifted to Reporoa early in 1952 when two of her sons, who were partners in a construction company, won a contract to build rehabilitation houses. By 1957 they were living in Rotorua. That year Doris presided over the equal pay sub-committee of the Bay of Plenty section of the New Zealand Public Service Association. She was also active in the local Women’s Division Federated Farmers of New Zealand. Her love of gardening led to her involvement in the local horticultural society and the Rotorua and Districts Rose Society.
In the mid 1950s Palmer was founding president of the Rotorua branch of the National Council of Women of New Zealand and Household Budgeting Services. She discovered that those most often in need of budget advice were families of men in prison. A visitor at Waikeria prison, she helped to assist young offenders released into the community, and in 1960 helped found the Rotorua Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Society, serving as its secretary for many years.
Doris Palmer continued to be a Labour Party activist, working closely with an informal group of women including Flo Broom, Ellen Aitchison and Jan Walker. In 1973 she and her husband were honoured as gold badge holders and life members of the party. Harry died in 1979, and four years later Doris retired from the last of her community service offices. She died peacefully at her Rotorua home on 17 April 1993, survived by her sons.