Signing up to Change

In a life of firsts one woman’s journey to connect New Zealanders to the suffragists of the past.

Many of us paused last year to reflect on the 125th anniversary of New Zealand women gaining the vote. Through the tenacious endeavours of a former pupil in creating an index to the signatories on the 1893 petition, there will always remain a connection between St Matthew’s and this historic document.

In 1953 Heather Ethel Cameron, a red-haired five-year-old, joined St Matthew’s Collegiate School as a pupil, graduating in 1964. A prefect in her Sixth Form year (Year 12 today) she resolved, after attaining her University Entrance, to forgo her seventh form year in favour of attending Victoria University to study law. When she informed Miss Hoy, the principal, of her aspirations she was essentially told “Women don’t practice Law!”

Starting as a seventeen-year-old, reportedly the youngest in her class, Heather spent the next few years at university, obtaining a B.A. majoring in History in 1969 and graduating with an LLB in 1971. Given that between 1969 and 1971 only two to six women are listed each year among the 70-odd LLB graduates lends credence to Miss Hoy’s assessment of the legal profession at that time. Armed with her double degree, the first pupil from St Matthew’s to achieve this feat, Heather turned her attention to travel. After around two and a half years overseas she returned and in 1974 obtained her certificate to practice law.

Her first position as a practicing lawyer was at the Carterton law firm of Taverner Keys & Pitchforth. With this appointment Heather became the first qualified female solicitor to be employed in the Wairarapa. In 1975, designated by the United Nations as International Women’s Year, another historical first was attained. Accompanied by her husband Tony Bayliss, the recently married Heather became the first woman to attend the annual Wairarapa Bar Law Dinner.

1975 was also the inaugural year for the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) and Heather became a founding member of the Wairarapa Branch. No doubt mindful of the aspirations of WEL, Heather agreed to stand as a candidate for the Wairarapa South County Council at the 1977 election. At this juncture, and after the birth of their daughter Sophie in 1976, Heather no longer worked at Taverner Keys and Pitchforth. She was elected unopposed, the first woman councillor on the South Wairarapa District Council and completed three terms with the Council from 1977 to 1986. Not one to take a breath, she then accepted an appointment to the Wairarapa Regional Development Council in 1987, taking the role of chair in 1991 to the freshly named Wairarapa Business Development Board.

During the remainder of the seventies and early eighties Heather assisted Tony on their farm at Ngahere and their children Daniel and Caroline were born. Heather also found time to not only conduct the occasional adult night class and work part-time as a lawyer for the Public Trust, but to undertake research on both the Cameron and Bayliss families. During her research, Heather found little information on the women other than a birth, marriage or death record. Aware of the 1893 suffrage petition Heather surmised that an index listing the name of each woman who had signed might be of some benefit to those researching New Zealand women from around that time period. Identifying a relative on the list might indicate she was politically minded, or a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, or a Wesleyan.

In what she later could only explain as a rush of blood to the headHeather wrote to the Clerk of the House to voice her intention to transcribe the petition and asked if they could send it to her for this purpose. In due course the letter received attention and the petition was located. Unbeknown to Heather, it was found to be in such poor condition that it was then sent directly to the conservators at National Archives. Eventually, after some follow-up on Heather’s part, she was informed of what had ensued and although they were, understandably, not willing to surrender the document to her care they agreed to furnish her with a microfiche of the petition and cartons of index cards. Heather set to work with the goal of completing the transcription of the approximately 24,000 signatures in time for the 1993 centenary. In her 1993 address to the Wairarapa Branch of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists (NZSG) Heather recalls that after working away for many years “1993 suddenly seemed to come up with a rush” and with the task half completed was running “out of puff”. Heather sought help and three members of the Wairarapa Branch of the NZSG, Peggy Searancke, Myra Schofield and Shirley Scadden signed up for the task, enabling the completion of the project in time for the centenary. Given the resources available, what they achieved was remarkable. Using an inferior quality microfiche, they spent innumerable hours labouring over the signatures, some of which were faint through using coloured ink, crayon and pencil and particularly taxing on their eyes.

As the last decade of the twentieth century dawned Heather resolved to return to law full time and joined the Masterton law firm of Logan Blathwayt & Co, initially as a lawyer and later as a partner in the firm.

Throughout all this activity Heather did not neglect her Alma Mater. For a short period between 1982 and 1983 she served on the Old Girls’ committee and then returned in 1988, taking on the specific duty of Archivist. From 1990-1991 she was President of the Old Girls’ Association, remaining as Vice-President 1991-1996. This period of activity coincided with the attendance of her daughters at St Matthew’s, Sophie from 1988-1991 and Caroline from 1993-1999. Heather took a keen interest in their education and the development of the Senior College site for the St Matthew’s attendees. At her untimely death on 13 December 1999, at 52 years of age, Heather was still very active on the Old Girls’ Committee and in her specific role as archivist.

Confronting the wave of changing social dynamics of the seventies and eighties, Heather broke down barriers within the professional and political arenas. She may not have pursued her original preference for Air Law as expressed in the 1970 Old Girls’ magazine, but she did soar to new heights. Heather’s legacy continues to live on in the Women’s Suffrage Petition Database available on the website, where perhaps today’s future leaders might learn of their connection to one of the proudest moments in New Zealand’s past.

Heather Ethel Bayliss (née Cameron)

26 November 1947--13 December 1999

St Matthew’s 1953--1964 (Pupil #937)

I would like to acknowledge the many people who so kindly and generously helped with the research for this article. A particular thanks to Tony Bayliss, and to Greg Fowler with the Wairarapa Branch of the New Zealand Society of Genealogy. The photograph of Heather in the Red Cross Rooms, Masterton, is courtesy of The Society’s records as are the direct, italicised quotes that come from their recording of an address by Heather to The Society 15 March 1995 entitled “Suffrage Movement & the 1893 Petition.”


Elsje Neal, SMS Archivist

Heather at work at Logan Blathwayt & Co (courtesy of Tony Bayliss).

An address on the Suffrage Movement & 1893 Petition that Heather made to The Branch at the Red Cross Rooms 15 March 1993.Address mentioned in the article (permission from the Wairarapa Branch of the NZSG).

Prefect’s photo 1964 with Miss Hoy. Heather is in the back row, 5th from the left. 

St Matthews School Dance 1954: Left: Diana Bendall, Middle: Kaye Mills, Right: Barbara McAnulty