Mary Annabella Geddes was a pioneer of service to women. As a daughter of Ngāti Toro (Ngāpuhi) she remained proud of her Māori heritage, passing her values and identity to the following generations.
Mary and her twin brother, Alexander, were born in 1864 at the Mangungu Mission on Hokianga Harbour.
Their father, William Webster, pioneered timber work in the region. Their mother was Hanapara Gillies (Ngāpuhi). The entire family was bi-lingual. Scottish-born William worked as an interpreter and fought alongside Tāmati Wāka Nene in the Northern War. Mary’s Māori ancestry remained important to her throughout her life and was a point of pride for her descendants.
Move to Auckland and Marriage to a Wealthy Man
After completing her primary education at Hokianga, Mary traveled to Auckland to study at the women’s college on Greys Avenue.
In 1886, she met and married John McKail Geddes, an older man of considerable wealth. In all, they had seven children and lived very comfortably at Hazelbank, their mansion located on Wynyard Street.
Soon, Mary developed a strong interest in the welfare of woman and girls. As she maintained strong links with her hapū back in Hokianga, Mary developed and ran an informal training school for Māori girls in her home. Feminist pioneer, Lady Anna Stout, cited the project as exemplary.
When John McKail Geddes died in 1910, Mary was left a young widow of considerable means and influence.
Woman of Influence, Pioneer for Women’s Rights
Her social status, connections with business people, and personal qualities enabled her to take a leadership role among women in Auckland. She was a founding member of the Plunket Society. And during the First World War, she was a board member of the Auckland Provincial Patriotic and War Relief Association. Her service in the war included establishing community kitchens and nursing and medical relief services.
She was also on the board of the Auckland Young Women’s Christian Association from 1906 to 1925, serving as its president. Under her auspices, the organisation underwent its greatest expansion. Mary deserves considerable credit for the iconic YWCA building on Queen Street, designed by William Gummer.
Along with her YWCA colleagues, Mary revived the National Council of Women of New Zealand in Auckland, and in 1917 lobbied to allow women to stand for Parliament. She supported sex education lessons for girls and served on the Auckland committee of the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children for 13 years.
Mary died at her home in 1955 at the age of 91 years, survived by two daughters and two sons.
Following in Her Footsteps
As we remember Mary on this Matariki holiday we also honour the memory of her daughter Mary who continued her mother’s work with the YWCA, was a champion skier, and went on to be decorated as a Captain in the New Zealand Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
Grandson “Mac” – an All Black and War Hero
We also remember grandson William McKail Geddes. A graduate of Auckland Grammar, William played for the All Blacks in 1913 and then served in Egypt, France and Belgium during World War One.
Second lieutenant Geddes earned the Military Cross for his heroic actions at Messines where he “displayed the greatest courage…under heavy shell fire.” “His daring and resourcefulness contributed in a large degree to the success of the artillery,” notes is citation. By war’s end Mac rose to the rank of Major and again received high honours in 1935, when the Crown awarded him the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal – a rare honour indeed.
William died on the 21st of April, 1983, at the age of 57.
Visit the grave of Mary Annabella, Mary and William “Mac” Geddes at Purewa Cemetery. Block E Row 46 Plot 20