Dame Hilda Ross (1883-1959)
‘Mother of NZ’, popular political pioneer who tackled the hard issues with gusto; she was forthright, unremitting and hands-on, ‘a doer’ initiating action wherever the need, passionately and particularly for the welfare of children as the essence of the future. She represented New Zealand on the world stage, at the United Nations and Commonwealth.
Hilda Ross left her mark locally and nationally on most aspects of NZ society and culture: as a teacher of music, conductor & performer, in community & church affairs, in local politics and Parliament. Hers was a lifetime of community service:
“Nothing in this life is better than giving service.”
She was accorded a state funeral. On the day thousands lined city streets, 5000 her gravesite.
Dame Hilda Ross is one of Hamilton’s and New Zealand’s most important characters from last century. With the loss of Waikato Hospital’s Dame Hilda Ross Centre, the Dame Hilda Ross arts collection at the public library and the uncertainty over the future of Founders Theatre’s Dame Hilda Ross memorial fountain TOTI are determined to restore Dame Hilda Ross’ exceptional legacy to the public mind.
TOTI have Council permission for a commemorative statue to be sited on the corner of Ward Street and Worley Place. Council are also in favour of naming this small meeting area Dame Hilda Ross Plaza.
TOTI called nationally for artist concepts for the sculpture and after significant public consultation narrowed the entries down to three finalists, Matt Gauldie, Brigitte Wuest and Tim Elliot.
It was Tim Elliot’s concept that came up tops, however.
Entitled ‘Where health joins hands with happiness’ Tim’s concept portrays Dame Hilda playing the piano for children at the Port Waikato Children’s Health Camp. She was a co-founder of these camps for children from impoverished backgrounds and every summer for 25 years was ‘Camp Mother’ at Port Waikato, organising nightly concerts. The camp motto ‘Where health joins hands with happiness’ is emblazoned on the front panel of the piano.
Dame Hilda’s significant political accomplishments and ‘hands-on’ attitude stemmed from her early days of social activism, particularly concerning the welfare of women and children. In 1941, her first political appointment was to the Waikato Hospital Board. By 1949 she had become Minister for the Welfare of Women and Children in the first National government. In 1957 she became Minister of Social Security.
Tim’s concept came up tops because of its contemporary feel which bridges the past to the present, and because it is interactive, and has particular appeal to children. Dame Hilda was a notable high-ranking politician but was always considered approachable. Cleverly portraying this important personable characteristic and other distinctive qualities, Dame Hilda is shown to be enthusiastic, cheerful and bright or to sum up in one word – “ebullient”. Dame Hilda dedicated her life to improving the lives of others and this statue will continue to give back to the community just as she did, for many generations to come. Tim says his art aims “to provide content that appeals to everybody. It is my belief that art ought to be read as no more than something inherently beautiful, accessible to all, understood and appreciated by everyday people”.
We are presently fundraising for the commemorative statue and are grateful to have recently received a grant from Trust Waikato.
The public unveiling is planned for 26 May 2018, the 73rd anniversary of her victory in the 1945 Hamilton by-election which began her Parliamentary career.
In 2017 TOTI asked the City Council to acknowledge Dame Hilda Ross by re-naming a central city street “where she can best be remembered”.
We consulted widely and the project attracted support from Parliamentarians, Mana Whenua, business people, community groups, and historians, along with Ross family descendants. In our proposal we suggested four options for consideration. Hamilton City Councillors voted unanimously to rename the east section of Ward Street (between Victoria Street and Worley Place) as Dame Hilda Ross Way. The section of Ward Street between Anglesea Street and Seddon Road is to retain its current name.
We have now submitted a Road and Open Space name/renaming application to Planning and Guidance. This application will start the notification process with affected property and business owners before a final decision is made.
TOTI have also asked the Waikato District Health Board to consider naming their new central city facility in the converted Farmers building, the Dame Hilda Ross Health Centre. Dame Hilda Ross was a co-founder of children’s health camps and her political career began as a hospital board member. She famously said, “I am far more interested in the welfare of the community than in any party political warfare as such …”
Dame Hilda Ross left her mark locally and nationally on most aspects of our society and culture, with her socially and culturally responsive leadership over more than half a century. In music, song and theatre as a passionate teacher, pianist and conductor; as an innovative hands-on social activist, tending the sick in the 1918 influenza epidemic and setting up relief committees during the Depression and the 1931 Napier earthquake, launching and leading the WWII Women’s Voluntary Auxiliary Corps in Hamilton 1939-1945 and the Garden Place Patriotic Hut; in Anglican Church affairs; and in local and central government 1941-1959. Finally as an influential Cabinet Minister, and leading cross-party initiatives. Her collaborative skills were widely recognised.
She tackled the ‘hard issues’ still of concern today.
Hilda Ross pioneered women’s political involvement in Hamilton and in Cabinet. She was part of the winning group elected to Hamilton Borough Council in 1944 and the first woman. A year later as city status came, she was elected to Parliament in a by-election. In 1949 she became Minister for the Welfare of Women and Children for the first National government, claiming additional departmental responsibilities including child welfare, pre-schools, juvenile courts and women’s borstals, and the health camps. In 1957 she became Minister of Social Security.
In her Parliamentary maiden speech she made her own priorities clear:
“I am far more interested in the welfare of the community than in any party political warfare as such…”
She would later reflect her early commitment to children’s health:
“I am one of the happiest people in this House to see that we are at least trying to help the children of this country as they have not been helped for a long time”
Many of the issues of her time and concern resonate today:
As an MP and Cabinet Minister, Hilda Ross’s efforts were hands-on and unremitting. She attacked transit housing and eventually lobbied successfully for a Minister of Housing. She sent a questionnaire to Magistrates to improve children’s courts, and acted on their advice. She was a leading figure in the battle against ‘juvenile delinquency’, crime and immorality, and the 1954 Mazengarb Report and subsequent legislative response by the government – including restrictions on contraception. This followed a widely publicised incident involving sexual activity among some 60 Hutt Valley teenagers (a number under 16 years).
Hilda Ross drew attention to children left alone at home or locked in cars while their parent attended functions. She called on parents to be stricter in supervising their children’s activities, and believed that parents’ attitude was the primary cause of delinquency:
“My experience has taught me that all children need careful and close attention…”
And that the Government had a welfare role:
“I think the State should come to the aid of those who are in distress and who are genuinely unable to help themselves, and I believe the help they are given should be the greatest degree possible.”
She accepted legislation could not make people ‘good’, but was confident Parliament could influence public opinion, suggesting messages in cinemas and broadcasts at race meetings.
She was selected by an American Mothers’ Committee as the 1951 NZ ‘Mother of the Year’:
“Gifted and distinguished in all other fields, always and pre-eminently they are the Mothers of Men.” (- the citation)
Dame Hilda became a popular public speaker, known for saying it the way she saw it.
She developed a close friendship with her Western Maori colleague Iriaka Ratana, and spoke at the Maori Women’s Welfare League’s first conference in 1951. She also spoke out in Parliament against press reports of court cases identifying offenders as Maori:
“Why not say ‘a boy’, ‘a girl’ or ‘a family’? It is not fair to the good Maoris. If either Maoris or Pakehas commit offences, they are equally guilty.” (ibid)
When first elected to the Hamilton Council in 1944:
“It was like a sacrilege for the men to allow a woman to be admitted to council and to sit with such an august person as the mayor. The men have a great conceit of themselves.”
In 1952, after attending in Geneva, a UN conference on the status of women, Hilda returned with sense that women in New Zealand were advantaged, both in education and in the political arena:
“But let the women have a good say. I do not think men pay half enough attention to women’s opinions in this country.”
“I have come to realize how difficult it is for women in this country to get themselves laced to positions of authority.”
Dame Hilda had vitality, compassion, foresight and a friendly affable manner; she knew how to communicate with all aspects of society. She increased her voting majority in 1946 and 1949, and again in the 1951 snap election – even after airing her uncompromising views on her government’s stand against the waterfront workers’ strike.
In 1954 although she was 70 and had announced her plans to retire, overwhelming public support persuaded her to stand for election again, and she did so twice more, dying in office in 1959. She had declined the invitation to stand for the Hamilton mayoralty (1953).
It’s thought she changed her name from Grace to Hilda Cuthberta to match her customary married name of Mrs H C Ross which included her husband’s initials. Her husband Harry C co-founded the furnishing firm of Barton & Ross in the Victoria Street heritage building. They had two sons.