Nellie Winifred Bernice Radford was born on 17 January 1903 in Plumstead, London, the daughter of John Thomas Radford, an engineer, and his wife, Ellen Maria Bowden. The family emigrated to New Zealand in December 1912 and settled in Nelson; her parents later ran the tearooms at Tahunanui beach. Nellie attended Nelson Girls’ Central School, then Nelson College for Girls.
In 1921–22 she was a student at the Teachers’ Training College, Wellington. She also attended lectures at Victoria University College, passing three subjects in 1922 and another by correspondence in 1923. After some relief teaching she decided to do her country service and in May 1923 was appointed to Carluke School in the Rai Valley. It was pouring with rain when she arrived in the valley and all she could see was mud, logs and stumps. She later claimed she would have gone back to Nelson on the return bus if there had been one. The valley was to be her home for nearly 70 years.
On 10 June 1925 at Tahunanui, Nellie married Arthur George (Sam) Schroder, a dairy farmer and returned serviceman, who had earlier been a saddler. Throughout their 28-year marriage Nellie worked alongside Sam on the farm at Rimu Gully. As a young wife, motivated by loneliness, she began helping in the milking shed and soon became indispensable. During the depression they endured extreme financial hardship and to make ends meet Nellie knitted for sixpence a skein and Sam mended horses’ collars and harnesses.
By this time Nellie was involved with the Women’s Division of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union. The organisation had been founded nationally in 1925, and when a branch opened in the Rai Valley in 1928 she joined immediately. The object of the organisation was to improve the lives of rural women and children, especially in the areas of education and health; from 1946 it was called the Women’s Division Federated Farmers of New Zealand.
Nellie Schroder had a long and distinguished association with the Women’s Division, holding almost every office at branch, provincial and dominion level. In 1954, the year her husband died, she was elected for a three-year term as dominion president, and in 1959 she became South Pacific vice president of the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW), a position she held until 1965. She went to London at the end of 1966 to spend three years editing the international magazine of the ACWW.
Always anxious to help overcome the isolation of country people, Schroder was involved in numerous community activities besides her work for the Women’s Division. In 1929 she was one of the founders of the Rai Valley agricultural and pastoral show, and she subsequently served as show secretary for 25 years. In the 1930s she was captain of the local Girl Guides. As a member of the Marlborough Hospital Board (1950–66 and 1971–77) she fought successfully to retain district nurses in the area. Her love of books and her commitment to education in the district was expressed through 40 years’ service to the Rai Valley library from 1948. She was also a member of the National Council of Adult Education (1957–66), the national executive of CORSO (1958–66), and the Standards Council (1959–66). Religion was important to her: she taught Sunday school and played the organ for both Anglican and Methodist church services.
Nellie Schroder was astute, practical and straight-talking. Her one aim in life, she said, was ‘to make things slightly better for women’. Although she admitted to having a reputation as ‘a bit of a bite’, her forthright nature also earned respect. In 1953 she was awarded the Coronation Medal and in 1964 she was made an MBE for services to the community. She was a dominion life member of the WDFF and was awarded the Royal Agricultural Society of New Zealand medal for her role in the Rai Valley agricultural and pastoral show.
Nellie Schroder died at home, aged 90, on her wedding anniversary, 10 June 1993, survived by two sons and a daughter. At her funeral WDFF members formed a guard of honour to farewell one of the ‘grand old ladies’ of their organisation.