Headstones and hidden histories

Ellen Melville; lawyer, city councillor and advocate for women. Buried Waikumete Cemetery, Auckland. Image: Su Leslie 2021

Today is International Women’s Day, and since the theme of this year’s celebration is Choose to Challenge, it seems appropriate to write about a woman who spent her adult life challenging male dominated bastions of power – the law and politics.

Ellen Melville (1882-1946) was a lawyer, city councillor, aspiring Member of Parliament, and activist for women’s rights whose name was once widely recognised in Auckland, but is now largely forgotten. Indeed, despite many in the city being familiar with the Ellen Melville Centre in the CBD, no-one I asked seemed to know anything about the woman after whom it was named.

Born in the tiny Northland settlement of Tokatoka, Eliza Ellen Melville was the third of seven children. Her father, Alexander Melville, was a Scotsman from Glasgow whose family had emigrated to New Zealand in 1858. In 1877 he’d married Eliza Fogarty, who had been born in Melbourne, Australia but arrived in New Zealand as a child.

At the time of Ellen’s birth, the family had a farm and boat-building business on the Wairoa River at Tokatoka. Eliza Fogarty had worked as a teacher and governess, so the Melville children grew up understanding the value of education. Ellen attended the local school then in 1895 won a scholarship to Auckland Grammar School. Several of her siblings similarly won school or university scholarships.

In 1900 she passed the Junior Civil Service Examination and began working for the law firm Devore and Cooper. By 1904 she was studying for a Bachelor of Laws degree at Auckland University College, where she completed her studies two years later. On the 4th of December 1906, Ellen Melville became the third woman in New Zealand (1) (and the first in Auckland) to be admitted to the Bar.

Two years later, she set up her own practice.

Announcement in The Auckland Star. Source: Papers Past

Ellen Melville was to remain in sole practice as a solicitor for almost forty years; during which time she became increasingly active in politics and social reform.

Ellen Melville. Image: Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand

Between 1911 and 1919 she was one of the principal figures involved building or reviving:

The YWCA in Auckland

The National Council of the Women of New Zealand

The New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children

The Women’s Forum

The Auckland Unemployed Women’s Emergency Committee

In 1913, she was elected to the Auckland City Council – the first woman to achieve this in the twenty years that women had been eligible for election to local councils in this country. She held her seat on the council continuously until her death in 1946. Sandra Coney, writing in Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand notes:

Melville was initially viewed by her male colleagues as ‘rather an improper joke’, but she was ultimately respected for her ‘logical mind and abundant common sense…. The contributions she made to debates were always models of their kind, brief, completely thought-out and containing original ideas of real value.


…  Although she was a long-serving member of the key finance committee of the Auckland City Council, had invigorated Auckland’s library system, and usually came in near the top of the poll, she was several times passed over as deputy mayor. This led to protests from Auckland women’s groups who objected ‘to sex being regarded…as a disqualification for leadership.

Although women had been able to vote in all New Zealand elections since 1893, and could stand as candidates for councils, it wasn’t until 1919 that the Women’s Parliamentary Rights Act was passed allowing women candidates in general elections.

Ellen Melville had been one of the main advocates for this legislation and, unsurprisingly, stood as a Reform Party candidate in the 1919 general election. Despite polling strongly in what was a Labour-dominated electorate, she was not selected by her party to stand again in 1922.

Sandra Coney writes:

Melville said bitterly that ‘the only conclusion to be taken was that they did not want a woman in Parliament’. Instead, she stood as an independent candidate in Roskill in 1922 and, in 1926, in Eden where she split the vote, causing Reform to lose the seat. She continued to seek election in 1928, 1931, 1941 and 1943, standing a total of seven times, but although she polled strongly each time she was never successful. In 1944 she founded the Women to Wellington movement to encourage Auckland women to run for Parliament.

Ellen Melville. Image: Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

Ellen Melville didn’t marry, and lived much of her adult life with her parents and later a sister. She travelled widely, including extended visits to the UK and the United States.

She died on 27 July 1946 in Auckland, aged 64.

After her death, Auckland City Council approved construction of a community hall in central Auckland to commemorate New Zealand’s pioneer women. This was a project that Ellen Melville had championed as a councillor.

It took almost 20 years for the hall to be completed, funded by the city’s business association, Auckland City Council and donations from 64 women’s organisations around the country.

It opened in 1962 as the Pioneer Women and Ellen Melville Memorial Hall. Extensively refurbished in 2017, it is now generally known as the Ellen Melville Centre.

Ellen Melville Centre. Image: Su Leslie


  1. It is generally reported that Ellen Melville was the second woman lawyer in New Zealand, but an article in the New Zealand Law Journal (October 2018) notes that Matilda Jane Monteith was admitted in September 1906, two months before Ellen. New Zealand’s first woman lawyer, Ethel Benjamin, was admitted to the Bar in 1897. She practiced law here until 1908 when she and her husband emigrated to England.

31 thoughts on “Headstones and hidden histories

    • I wondered that too. The obits I found were silent on that — one said she died in a private hospital but no more. It looks like she was still quite active and busy earlier in the year, so perhaps (I hope) a relatively short illness.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Interesting that you wrote about the male-dominated area of law. Even today, women who are doing law, such as my niece Minh mentioned recently how most partners in law firms were men and why weren’t there any women in those roles. Still the same fight in a different era.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you for this interesting report on Ellen Melville, Su! We need more articles on those brave women who fought a valiant battle against prejudice and ignorance in the past and presence.


  3. Bravo on all your research! I want to be known for ‘abundant common sense’! It’s rather remarkable how many times she tried to make it in politics, lesser people would have given up. I wonder what drove her? It would be grand if we could find a diary or something like that!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. “Rather an improper joke”?! My ass! Those men! Grrr! 😬
    What an amazing woman! And what fabulous research, Su! I agree with Lani, a diary or something alike would be so awesome. To run for parliament so many times – she really had a fierce determination.
    I especially like the wonderful portrait photos you’ve included – it’s fascinating to search her face for clues to her personality! And the clothes! I couldn’t imagine doing such a tough job being hindered by so many layers of garments!
    Thank you for sharing this with us, it’s remarkable women like her who shine a light for the rest of us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed Ellen’s story. I totally agree with you — she must have been an amazing woman, and I would soooo love to find some personal communications from her to glimpse her personality.

      She had a reputation for being immaculately groomed, and apparently she made her own clothes. Can you imagine coming home after the sort of days she must have had, and running up a new frock or two???


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