Ellenor Catherine Squires was born in Nelson on 22 April 1907, one of three children of dental surgeon William Westbrooke Squires and his wife, Mary Beatrice Moffett. She was educated at Nelson College for Girls, and worked for a time as a dental assistant in her father’s surgery. On 11 April 1928, in Nelson’s Christ Church Cathedral, she married Southland farmer Thomas Menzies (Sandy) Watson, son of Invercargill solicitor J. L. McG. Watson and his wife, Laetitia Frances Menzies. Laetitia was a daughter of Dr J. A. R. Menzies, runholder, politician and first provincial superintendent of Southland, and his wife, Laetitia Anne Featherston, daughter of the former provincial superintendent of Wellington, Isaac Featherston. Southland’s was a conservative, close-knit rural society, and Ellenor’s marriage gave her entrée into farming, professional and business circles which carried high social status and political influence.
In 1938 Ellenor and Sandy Watson, now with two daughters and two sons, moved from Morven, Ohai, to Merrivale, near Otautau, a fine property, its 82-year-old, 23-roomed homestead set in expansive grounds laid out in the style of an English country estate. Thirteen dilapidated rooms at the back of the house were burnt off where they stood, and a new bathroom and kitchen built, together with a big larder for each year’s 300 to 400 bottles of fruit, jam and pickles, and home-cured hams and bacon. Three bedrooms and a veranda were added. It was an appropriate setting for Ellenor Watson’s expansive personality, hospitable lifestyle and for her fine china, silver and antique furniture. Local girls were employed as housemaids, and there was a full-time cowman–gardener. A vibrant and energetic woman, Ellenor cooked, sewed, wrote, decorated and did carpentry at Merrivale and the family’s Lake Te Anau holiday home. The children attended the local primary school, and boarding school for their secondary education. During holidays Merrivale was crowded with visiting school friends, who called Ellenor ‘Fruit’.
Ellenor Watson’s public life began with patriotic committees. By 1943 she was president of the Orawia branch of the Women’s Division of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union, which in 1946 was renamed the Women’s Division Federated Farmers of New Zealand (WDFF). Between 1948 and 1950, as provincial president, she visited all Southland branches, sometimes demonstrating handcrafts and floral art. Women were being encouraged back into home-making after their wartime experience with truck-driving, farm work and animal husbandry, occupations which many had found stimulating and fulfilling. Others were ready to embrace the domestic certainties of marriage, family, home and garden, which had evaded them during years of war and depression. The provincial presidency involved thousands of miles of travel, mostly on gravel roads. Watson drove her own car, more than once spinning off into a ditch.
In 1948, with her secretary, Annie Ward, she visited Adam Hamilton, former New Zealand National Party leader and member of the War Cabinet, and his brother George at their Southland properties. The Hamilton brothers had established an afforestation programme, and donated land to the Southland WDFF for tree-planting. A forestry committee was formed, containing representatives from each of the five provincial area groups. Watson chaired this strong group of countrywomen with enthusiasm, and coped with the frustrations of rabbits destroying young trees, occasionally inefficient workers, and some timber sales that fell through. A lesser group would have given up, yet they developed a mighty asset, built on a shoestring. Another of her initiatives was a holiday homes committee, and as its chairman (1950–53) she organised a carnival which raised £13,000 for the establishment of cottages and a camping ground at Riverton, for use by country families.
In 1948 Ellenor Watson was elected to the Dominion Advisory Board (later Dominion Council) of the WDFF, and in 1951 she became a vice president. A fluent speaker, for eight months in 1954 she toured Britain on an Imperial Relations Trust Bursary, giving addresses several times each week. As dominion president from 1960 to 1963 she was often an official delegate to overseas conferences. She also chaired the National Co-ordinating Committee of Countrywomen, and became involved in New Zealand Wool Board promotions.
In speeches and the magazine NZ Countrywoman , Watson encouraged, inspired and sometimes reprimanded her members. ‘I charge you not to become so materially secure that you will be forgetful of all the virtues of moral security, and that … you will put the seal of sincerity on all you do and think’. She repeatedly urged honesty and courage, and applauded inspiration and a sense of fun. Watson also served as a member of the Southland Hospital Board and as a committee member of the Save the Children Fund and the Southland Tuberculosis Association.
At their home the Watsons hosted many dignitaries in the course of Ellenor’s public life, something she loved to do. A quiet, gentle man, Sandy was described by his younger daughter as long-suffering but charming. Ellenor was awarded a Coronation Medal (1953) and in 1963 was made an OBE for her services to the community. She died in Invercargill on 24 June 1966 after a long illness with cancer; she was survived by Sandy and their children.
Large in stature, impeccably tailored or gowned, Ellenor Watson was a woman of vitality, perception and courage. She had a strong social conscience, understood power structures and was skilled in using them to achieve the aims of the organisations through which she worked. While her social standing and financial security set her apart from most countrywomen of her time, she recognised their needs and worked tirelessly to better their conditions.