Perrine Moncrieff

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Pérrine Moncrieff, 1893-1968, was an important figure in New Zealand’s early conservation movement: a small, dynamic woman who achieved much in her lifetime.

perrine moncrieff

Perrine Moncrieff. Nelson Provincial Museum Reference: Kingsford Collection, 124247/6

She was born in London on 8 February 1893 as Pérrine Millais – the daughter of Mary St Lawrence Hope-Vere and her husband, Everett Millais. Her paternal grandparents were the British painter Sir John Millais and his wife, Euphemia Gray, who had been married to John Ruskin.

Educated in London and Brussels, she became interested in conservation and ornithology at an early age, and was encouraged by her uncle, the naturalist John Guille Millais.

While holidaying in Switzerland, Pérrine met Malcolm Matthew Moncrieff, a retired British Army officer. The couple were married in London on 3 June 1914 and went on to have two sons. After the First World War the family lived in Scotland, but in 1921 they left Britain to settle in Canada, but first visited New Zealand and decided to stay.

They settled in Nelson, attracted by its climate and wildlife. Pérrine was soon travelling and tramping throughout the region observing the native birds. In 1923 she became a foundation member of the New Zealand Native Bird Protection Society and joined the Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union (RAOU).

In 1925 Pérrine wrote New Zealand birds and how to identify them, as there was no good pocket field guide available, with the help of R. A. Falla, W. R. B. Oliver and other ornithologists, but largely from her own observations and ornithological texts.  The guide was intended for amateur bird watchers, but was also well regarded by scientists and it ran to five editions.

Perrine Moncrieff 3

Moncrieff, Perrine Millais, 1893-1979. [Moncrieff, Perrine Millais] 1893-1979 :[Woman sitting on beach, drawing. ca 1920]. Ref: A-001-054. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23187961

Moncrieff went on to contribute papers to RAOU's journal, the Emu, and articles to Birds and the Nelson Evening Mail and other newspapers. She also gave public lectures and papers to the Nelson Philosophical Society. For at least 25 years in the Nelson Evening Mail, she summarised the best entries in the annual children's nature diary competition, which she initiated in 1928. One of her most influential papers, 'The destruction of an avian paradise' in the Journal of the Society for the Preservation of the Fauna of the Empire in 1944, publicised overseas the diminishing habitat of New Zealand native birds. The paper embodied the values she encouraged: an ecological attitude to and love of nature, a wish to preserve the past for the future, and an appreciation of Romantic literature about the natural world.

After the death of their elder son, Alexander, in 1925, the Moncrieffs donated part of Haulashore Island to the people of Nelson. They later purchased a large area of coastal bush at Okiwi Bay and presented it to the Crown. Pérrine was involved in many campaigns to save native bush and bird species, especially as a member of the Nelson Bush and Bird Society, which she established in 1928. Among its achievements, the group helped make Lake Rotoroa a scenic reserve and Farewell Spit a sanctuary.

Pérrine's most notable success was the establishment of the Abel Tasman National Park in 1942. She served on the park board from 1943 to 1974 and published a book on the history of the area, People came later, in 1965. In doing this, she was careful to secure and maintain the support of influential politicians and public servants.

Pérrine became a vice president of the New Zealand Native Bird Protection Society in 1927 and was president of the RAOU in 1932–33: the first woman to hold this office. Her presidential address, 'Birds in relation to women', included a condemnation of the practice of killing native birds to adorn women's dress, advocating instead the use of feathers from birds killed for human consumption. She wore a cap of white hens' feathers dyed sapphire blue to illustrate her point.

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Perrine Moncrieff with Jill Blechynden at the ABC Bookshop, December 1976. (Geoffrey C Wood Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, 2708 Fr7). Nelson Historical Society Journal on NZETC

Pérrine deplored the killing of birds for private or museum collections. She also believed that sufficient habitat should be reserved to allow birds to breed successfully in the wild, rather than in captivity. Convinced that the aims of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand were inconsistent with these beliefs, she resigned her membership in 1942, two years after helping to establish the society. Pérrine was known locally as the 'bird woman', helping anyone who referred sick or injured birds to her.

She was president of the Nelson Institute and of the Nelson Philosophical Society. As well as starting the Girl Guides movement in Nelson, she was a justice of the peace and an honorary ranger for the departments of Internal Affairs and Lands and Survey. She formed the Nelson Spinners' and Weavers' Guild during the Second World War and was a working member of the local arts society. A member of many nature-centred organisations, Pérrine remained an enthusiastic and persistent advocate for conservation. In her 80s she was involved in the campaigns of the Native Forests Action Council and the Friends of Nelson Haven and Tasman Bay.

Pérrine was awarded the Loder Cup in 1953, appointed an officer of the Dutch Order of Orange-Nassau in 1974 and was made a CBE in 1975. In the following year, she published The rise and fall of David Riccio, a historical novel set in Scotland.  Pérrine Moncrieff died at Wakapuaka, near Nelson, on 16 December 1979, nine years after her husband Malcolm Moncrieff.

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  • I really enjoyed this, and the other entires on notable Nelsonians, but note an inconsistency regarding the year of Perrine's death. The first line of the entry says she died in 1968, but the last line gives the date as December 1979.
    Thank you. I will check the dates and correct. Ed

    Posted by michael pearson, 25/07/2017 11:39am (3 months ago)

  • In early 1960 I entered a diary on native birds in a competition I understood was organised by this great lady. Winning a nice book as a prize. Would of been 10 or 11 years old at the time. Run through our local primary school at Mangarakau.

    Posted by John Pooley, 04/05/2016 10:26am (1 year ago)

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