Betsy Walter/Betsy Eyre MBE JP
Nelson City Councillor 1956 - 1962 ; 1965 - 1976 Deputy Mayor 1959 - 1962, 1965 - 1971
In 1956, twelve years after Laura Ingram was elected to the Motueka Borough Council, Betsy Walter (later Eyre) became Nelson's first woman councillor. Born in Nelson in 1911, she was the eldest child of a Scottish immigrant, Jock Walter, and Mary Jane Mitchell. A tea-merchant in the city, Jock later became proprietor of the Metropolitan Private Hotel in Bridge Street. Betsy attended Brook Street School, Nelson Girls' Central School and Nelson College for Girls. Like Laura, she was attracted to teaching from a young age and was fortunate to enter Teachers' Training College in Wellington in 1930 before the economy measures of the depression years brought a temporary closure. She trained as a primary school teacher specialising in helping children with special needs. In 1934 she embarked on twenty-seven years of teaching in her home city at Nelson Central School and later Auckland Point School.
For Betsy, as for many other women, the outbreak of the Second World War closed some doors and opened others. She was president of the city's Business and Professional Women's Club which went into recess. The absence of men created spaces in civic life which women like Betsy readily filled. She joined the Women's War Service Auxiliary, became secretary of the Territorial Force Association and put her locally-renowned cooking expertise to good use in the YMCA canteen at the Tahunanui aerodrome serving thousands of meals to military personnel.
In the immediate post-war decade caring for her parents limited the possibility of further civic engagement. At the age of 45, she was able to begin a 17-year tenure on the Nelson City Council which included three terms as deputy mayor. Pressed by a journalist in December 1961 to comment on the novelty of being a woman on a male-dominated council, she responded: 'My first term, I felt that being a woman made no difference whatsoever. This second term I'm not so sure....l think there is still a feeling against women taking a senior position in a public body.'1 Undeterred, she stood for the mayoralty in 1962, coming third in a three-way contest. Her advocacy of women's rights was expressed through membership of the Nelson branch of the Pan- Pacific and South-East Asia Women's Association, and was recognised by national life membership. She also served as president of the Nelson Women's Cricket Association and vice-president of the New Zealand Women's Cricket Association and was involved in the Girl Guides Association for some 23 years.
Her concern to increase women's participation in civic life was embedded in a set of social concerns. She was on the service committee of Nelson's Voluntary Home Aid Service, formed in the late 1950's, which provided care for the elderly, sick, and mentally impaired. From 1961 she was also a member of the Nelson Branch of Birthright New Zealand, established to provide support to single-parent families. Her many personal kindnesses included cooking Sunday lunches in her home for homesick boarders from Nelson College and Nelson College for Girls. In 1962, following her retirement from teaching, she married Richard John Eyre, a retired army officer. The couple had no children, but to the many children they welcomed to their home they were known simply as 'Aunty Betty' and 'Uncle John'. The award of an MBE in 1967 was warmly received within the community she served. After a period of ill-health she retired from the Nelson City Council in 1976 and died in 1983.2
This was published in: Women Decision-Makers Nelson and Tasman 1944 -2018, p.44. Compiled by Dr Shelley Richardson, Elaine Henry, Gail Collingwood, Hilary Mitchell (2018)
Betsy Eyre Park
Betsy Eyre Park lies on the triangular section of land bordered by Brook Street, Westbrook Terrace and Blick Terrace. The land was once beside the Dun Mountain Railway yards, which extended northwards beside the Brook Stream. It was earmarked for housing, but for decades was used as an infrastructure storage area, for projects such as the 1950's Maitai waterworks pipeline and the 1970's flood channel protection works, and local children used it as an adventure playground to jump their bikes and play in the pipes.
In 1976 the residents of Blick and Westbrook Terraces decided to approach council to have the site cleaned up and made into a park. A committee, headed by Ron Arthur, was formed. As a former Brook Street School pupil, and in her former councillor role as chairperson of the Parks & Recreation Committee, Betsy Eyre became involved. She supported both the community and the council to present submissions to the Department of Lands and Survey to have the land gazetted as recreation reserve. This was approved in September 1976, with an agreement that the community would do most of the work itself. Contractor Bill Gibbons loaned machinery and Graham Mayers, Alf Nordstrom and Neil Kennedy carried out the bulk of the heavy work.
As the new park neared completion, residents petitioned council to have it named after Betsy Eyre. It was not common practice to have someone honoured in this way, within their lifetime, but the petition was signed by Mayor Roy McClennan and every councillor. Betsy opened the park on 17 September 1977 alongside a crowd of proud Brook Valley residents.
The land was formally gazetted as Recreation Reserve in 1979, with the Nelson City Council appointed by the Department of Lands and Survey to control and manage it. Over the years trees were planted within the grassed triangle. In 2013, when pressure mounted from the increasing number of mountain bikers using Codgers Tracks, council discussed turning the park into a car park. Community spirit once again came to the fore and residents asked that the land remain a park, to respect all those who had put their heart and sole into creating it, including Betsy Eyre.
(Information sourced from the Betsy Eyre Information panel, placed at Betsy Eyre Park July 2020)
Sources used in this story
- 'Life of Sterling Service: Nelson's Deputy Mayor', Nelson Evening Mail ,23 December 1961, p.12
- Obit. 'Mrs Eyre - 'a life of service', Nelson Evening Mail, 18 January 1983, p.3
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Further sources - Betsy Walter/Betsy Eyre MBE JP
- Richardson, S., Henry, E., Collingwood, G. Mitchell, H. (2018). Women decision-makers Nelson and Tasman 1944-2018. Nelson, New Zealand