Elsie Locke was a writer, environmentalist, historian, peace activist, one-time communist, and a battler for women’s rights. She is best known as a writer for children, though her writing encompassed adult non-fiction, journalism, pamphlets and poetry. Her writing and campaigning made a major contribution to New Zealand’s social, cultural and political life over many decades.
Elsie Violet Farrelly was born in Hamilton on 17 August 1912, the youngest of carpenter William (Will) John Allerton Farrelly and Ellen (Nell) Electa Bryan’s six children. In 1914 the family moved to Waiuku, where Elsie and her siblings had a carefree childhood. She attended Waiuku District High School, which had both primary and secondary classes. Elsie loved school, and later acknowledged the positive influence of her history teacher, Lincoln Garfield, who challenged her view of the world and caused her to question what she read in textbooks and was told at Girl Guides.
In 1930 she commenced a BA degree at Auckland University College with the help of a scholarship, becoming the only member of her immediate family to attend university. The unemployment she saw around her during the Depression brought about a political awakening, and she grew interested in socialism. Her involvement with the Friends of the Soviet Union group brought her to the attention of the Police Special Branch; the Branch and its successors – the Security Intelligence Bureau, later the Security Intelligence Service – tracked her activities for five decades. She also decided she wanted to write, and was involved with the circle which produced the pioneering literary magazine Phoenix.
Elsie graduated in 1933 at the height of the Depression, and with no job or prospects in Auckland she hitchhiked to Wellington, where she was to live for the next eight years. Her experience of unemployment and the plight of others led her to join the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ), which actively supported the unemployed, and in which she found ‘true fellowship’ and an ‘extended family’.1 Elsie was an activist from the beginning, and she launched into her work with tremendous energy and confidence.
Elsie became the party’s voice for women, for whom there was little government assistance during the Depression. She ran the party’s Wellington office, and in 1934 launched the magazine Working Woman, which was financially supported by women’s committees throughout New Zealand. She also organised the National Conference of Working Women, the first of its kind in New Zealand. Elsie hitchhiked around the country to promote the magazine, set up local Working Women’s Movement committees, and report on the state of CPNZ branches. Her confidence and drive was not always appreciated by her party comrades, and she was warned of the dangers of feminism. The final issue of Working Woman appeared in 1936, and from 1937 until its demise in 1939 she edited Woman To-Day, which targeted a broader readership. She later reflected that the 1920s and 1930s saw the real (but later forgotten) second wave of feminism.
Elsie also worked increasingly with women outside the party, and in 1936 was one of the founding members of the Sex, Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society (renamed the Family Planning Association in 1939), which aimed to educate people about birth control.
In Wellington Elsie met Frederick Engels (Fred) Freeman, the CPNZ leader, who had recently returned to New Zealand after four years in the Soviet Union. They married in Wellington on 4 November 1935 after living together for two years. The couple’s only child, Donald (Don) Freeman (later Locke), was born in March 1938. Their marriage, always turbulent and tied up with the party, dissolved during her pregnancy. Elsie took full responsibility for the baby and the pair divorced three years later. Despite the burdens of solo parenthood, she maintained her feminist and Communist Party activities, including writing for the newspaper People’s Voice and giving public lectures. She was to stand as a CPNZ candidate in the 1941 general election, but it was postponed for two years due to the war.
Elsie married John Gibson (Jack) Locke on 7 November 1941, and the couple settled in Christchurch. Jack, a fellow party member, had emigrated from the United Kingdom in 1926 and met Elsie when he contributed an article about the exploitation of female farmworkers to Working Woman. After they married, Jack worked part-time as a labourer for the Christchurch Star, had unpaid roles for the CPNZ, and worked for many years as a freezing worker. The couple purchased a small house on Oxford Terrace in the central city area of Christchurch known as the Avon Loop. This was to be their home for 50 years.
Elsie and Jack’s son Keith was born in Christchurch in 1944, and their first daughter, Maire, was born 18 months later. In 1946, when Maire was only three months old, Elsie was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis. She spent two years in hospital, for most of that time lying flat on her back on a ‘Bradford frame’ laced with strong canvas. This was a very difficult time for her young family, who were not allowed to visit her. In spite of her immobility, Elsie was very productive in hospital. She contributed articles to the Listener, recorded talks for radio and completed her first novel (it was never published). Her focus after her release was to repair her family life. Her last child, Alison, was born in 1952.
Elsie began questioning Communist Party theory and practice in the 1950s, and her political world was shattered in 1956 when the atrocities committed in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist era were revealed and the Red Army occupied Hungary. She broke with the party, but Jack rationalised the need for the Hungarian invasion and remained a member. They agreed to disagree, and Elsie later wrote that they ‘slowly came to a workable balance’ – although some topics were never discussed.2 Elsie’s 1958 essay about her split from the party, ‘Looking for Answers’, shared first prize in the first biennial Katherine Mansfield Memorial Award.
Elsie remained an activist without a specific political affiliation, and her tiny cottage became the headquarters for a wide range of intellectual, political, creative and domestic endeavours. She spoke out about many of the political, women’s rights and environmental issues of her day. In 1958 she was a founding member of the Christchurch branch of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, though she initially chose not to play a public role as she did not want it to be seen as a communist group. She did a lot of work behind the scenes, and eventually served as national president. In 1960 she wrote an article opposing the raising of Lake Manapouri for a power scheme which was republished as a pamphlet.
Her enthusiasm for environmental conservation led to an interest in urban planning and efforts to protect her local neighbourhood from unwanted development. From the 1970s Elsie and Jack were prominent in the Avon Loop Planning (later Protection) Association, which successfully opposed the expansion of a motel in the area, and then worked to enhance the Loop’s physical environment and special characteristics. The campaign was something the couple could agree on when wider politics were difficult to discuss.
After her time in hospital, Elsie dedicated much of her time to writing – poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction, particularly for children. For the last four decades of her life she described herself as a writer.
Her children’s literature began with small pieces for the School Journal. Her first published children’s book, The runaway settlers (1965), was a great success and has rarely been out of print. Three other notable historical novels followed: The end of the harbour (1968), Journey under warning (1983) and A canoe in the mist (1984). Other novels focused on the New Zealand environment, such as The boy with the snowgrass hair (1976). She also wrote many non-fiction works for children. Some were first published in the School Journal and then republished in book form, including The kauri and the willow (1984) and Two peoples: one land: a history of Aotearoa (1988), which dealt with Māori–Pākehā relations. Her writing was backed by primary research, and showed sensitivity to bicultural issues and Māori history. Nature also features prominently in books such as Look under the leaves (1975) and Moko’s hideout (1976).
Elsie’s non-fiction works for adults included histories such as The shepherd and the scullery maid (1950) and The gaoler (1978), and edited books about activists Gordon Watson and Margaret Thorn. Student at the gates (1981) was an autobiographical work about her time at university, while Peace people: a history of peace activities in New Zealand (1992) was a history of New Zealand pacifism. She amassed a large archive relating to her public activities and was generous in sharing her research findings.
Elsie also found creative expression through the William Morris Group, which she co-founded in 1954, serving as its first president. The group promoted entertainment and the creative arts among working people, and produced music and drama performances. Performing with the group gave Elsie great pleasure.
Elsie’s reputation as a writer was well-established by the late 1960s, and from the 1980s she received recognition for her children’s writing in particular. In 1987, the University of Canterbury awarded her an Honorary Doctorate of Literature. In 1992, when she turned 80, the Children’s Literature Association presented her with the Award for Distinguished Services to New Zealand’s Children’s Literature. She received the Nada Beardsley Award for Services to the Promotion of Literacy in the same year, and, in 1995, the Margaret Mahy Award for Distinguished Services to Children’s Literature. In 1996, the University of Auckland honoured Elsie with a Distinguished Alumni Award, and in 1999 she received the inaugural Gaelyn Gordon Award for Much Loved Book for The runaway settlers.
Jack was disabled by a series of strokes in the early 1990s, and the burden of caring for him and running a home occupied most of Elsie’s time. His death in 1996 enabled her to return to writing and peace campaigning. Elsie Locke died in Christchurch on 8 April 2001, aged 88. A bronze bust of Elsie was placed outside the Christchurch Arts Centre in 2009. The description on the plinth was well-chosen: ‘Political, social and local community activist, well-loved historian and writer, determined and doughty fighter for the rights of the under-dog, active to the end.’