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FishHead - Bennett and car - large copy

FishHead - Bennett and car - largeHere is Dr Agnes Ben­nett (1872–1960), pho­to­graphed with friends on a sum­mer driv­ing exped­i­tion in her new car. It was on the eve of World War I and they were off to climb Mt Tarana­ki. That is her on the right grin­ning at the camera.

Ben­nett was born in Aus­tralia and trained as a doc­tor in Edin­burgh. After sev­er­al frus­trat­ing years try­ing to find suit­able work in a very male-dom­in­ated pro­fes­sion, she bought a private med­ic­al prac­tice on Upper Wil­lis Street and moved to Wel­ling­ton. Soon she was also appoin­ted as med­ic­al officer at the newly formed St Helen’s mater­nity hos­pit­al, where she helped devel­op a mid­wife ser­vice run by women. She was a life-long advoc­ate for women in the health pro­fes­sions, and achieved much dur­ing a long career.

The exped­i­tion shown would have been a wel­come break in Bennett’s, busy life. Around this time she was cam­paign­ing, with some suc­cess, against lead­ers of the Med­ic­al Asso­ci­ation who saw no place for women in high­er edu­ca­tion. Women should con­cen­trate, they argued, on moth­er­hood alone. Such men, she later said, “were the greatest obstacles to women’s pro­gress and eman­cip­a­tion that New Zea­l­and has known”.

Soon after­wards, she was off to the war. After a year help­ing the New Zea­l­and Med­ic­al Corps tend to injured Anzacs in Cairo, she joined the Scot­tish Women’s Hos­pit­als for For­eign Ser­vice. It was an off­shoot of the Brit­ish women’s suf­frage move­ment, whose mem­bers had tem­por­ar­ily put pat­ri­ot­ism ahead of fight­ing for the vote. Ben­nett set up a women-run mil­it­ary hos­pit­al on the Ser­bi­an front, until severe mal­aria forced her back to Britain.

As the pho­to­graph sug­gests, Ben­nett was an enthu­si­ast­ic motor­ist. She got her first car in 1908. At that time, accord­ing to Cecil and Celia Man­son in their 1960 bio­graphy, she was then the first woman car own­er and driver in Wellington.

In the late 1950s, the Man­sons’ teen­age son Hugo some­times accom­pan­ied them on their research vis­its to Ben­nett at her Lowry Bay home. Young Hugo, him­self now one of our lead­ing oral his­tor­i­ans, remem­bers her as rather daunt­ing com­pany. He was impressed by her car though — the latest Mark I Zephyr, ivory, with a green con­vert­ible hood. She was in her 80s then, and still driv­ing in style.



Agnes Ben­nett (PAColl-6972–6‑23–1, Alex­an­der Turn­bull Library).