Mabel Rose Newton was born at Southbridge, near Lake Ellesmere, Canterbury, on 26 February 1883, the daughter of Annie Donald and her husband, Frank Newton, a tanner. She was the eldest of six children and helped her mother raise the others. In 1908 she became one of the first students to enter the Methodist church’s Deaconess House in Christchurch, although she was never ordained. Later that year she began domestic work for Joseph Wilson, a widower with eight children aged between two and sixteen. Her efficiency and dedication in this role were much appreciated, but 18 months later she left to take up a new position in Palmerston North. After several years of correspondence, Wilson, a printer and businessman, proposed; they were married in Christchurch on 28 March 1912.
After the birth of their first child, a son, Mabel and Joseph Wilson moved to Sydney with four children from his previous marriage. Another son was born there just after the First World War broke out. The Wilsons then returned to New Zealand and in 1917 settled in Hastings, where Joseph established a successful stationery business. After the death of her first son that year, Mabel began to become more involved in the community. Her efforts had a clear focus: supporting the lives of women.
In Hastings Mabel Wilson joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union of New Zealand (WCTU), and was soon nominated to chair the committee which inaugurated the Mothers’ Rest in 1919. The first of its kind in New Zealand, this was a safe place for women in the centre of the town where they could attend to their children and share each other’s company. Both the concept and the building were later taken over by the borough council. Her work with the WCTU, both in Hastings and the wider district, was to span over 30 years and include two terms as district president.
After the birth of her third child, a daughter, in 1920, Wilson’s involvement in the community expanded. In 1926 she helped establish the Hastings District Nursing Association, and served as its first chairperson. She was a founder member of the Hastings Free Kindergarten Association in 1929 and chaired its committee for many years. The kindergarten operated from various church halls until 1951 when, after years of fund-raising and lobbying, a modern building was opened in Hastings Street. She also chaired a committee set up by the New Zealand Free Kindergarten Union to inaugurate the ‘kindergarten of the air’ radio service.
Wilson’s involvement with the Methodist church, which included scripture teaching in primary schools, continued throughout these years. In 1930 she became the first local secretary and organiser for the Bible in State Schools League of New Zealand, and she was later secretary of the Hastings branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society. From 1942 to 1951 she was secretary of the Hastings branch of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand and frequently attended national conferences in Wellington. She was also a member of the temperance organisation New Zealand Alliance for over 40 years, holding office in its Hawke’s Bay district branch and attending a number of annual conferences.
Mabel’s husband, Joseph, died in November 1947. The following year she was appointed a justice of the peace. She was by this time well known in Hastings for her organising ability and tireless determination. On 6 January 1951, in Christchurch, she married William Christie Forrester, a wood carrier. They moved to Westshore, Napier, where her community work continued through the Bible in State Schools League and the kindergarten association. Mabel Forrester died in Hastings on 6 March 1962, survived by William and two children of her first marriage.