One of New Zealand’s most significant heritage places is celebrating its third anniversary of being open to the public.
It was three years ago on December 15 that Prime Minister the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern formally opened Te Whare Waiutuutu Kate Sheppard House, the charming nine-roomed villa in the leafy Christchurch suburb of Ilam. Today the historic place is cared for by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.
“This was the place where Kate Sheppard and other suffragists wrote pamphlets, prepared speeches, collected petition signatures, and successfully worked towards New Zealand becoming the first self-governing country in the world to grant women the right to vote in 1893,” says Te Whare Waiutuutu Kate Sheppard House Property Lead, Helen Osborne.
“As such this place has international resonance as an important part of the global history of women achieving equality and social change.”
According to Helen, over 14,500 visitors have passed through the doors of Kate Sheppard House in the short time the house has been open – a reflection of its significance.
“Although tourism in Christchurch has generally been fairly quiet in recent times due to the impact of earthquakes and the Covid pandemic, we have had international visitors from around the world searching out the suffrage stories of Aotearoa – that’s how much this place resonates with many people all over the globe, with women’s rights in history a growing interest for travellers today,” says Helen.
“One of the priority areas we have identified more locally is a focus on our local community and schools in particular. An objective is to see all school students visiting here at some point during their education.”
The picture of Victorian gentility, Kate Sheppard House was the perfect mask for the social activism that was taking place behind its kauri villa walls – activism that would have been regarded as highly subversive by many conservative sectors of New Zealand society in the late 19th Century.
“It was here at this house that Kate collated the third and largest petition – which included the signatures of almost a quarter of all women in the country. The petition was pasted together by her and her supporters before being presented to Parliament,” says Helen.
“Unable to deliver the petition herself, local MP and suffrage supporter Sir John Hall presented it, famously kicking the 270m-long scroll down the aisle of Parliament’s debating chamber, allowing all present to see the signatures for themselves as the scroll unrolled.”
Sheppard’s leadership during the suffrage campaign and organising New Zealand women’s suffrage petitions to pressure Parliament is largely responsible for the nation becoming the first country in the world to grant women the right to vote in 1893.
After New Zealand granted universal suffrage, Kate Sheppard gave many other suffrage leaders the inspiration and determination to keep fighting for suffrage in other parts of the world.
“Our guides love to share these stories about our fore-mothers whose vision and perseverance changed the world,” she says.
Kate Sheppard House has come a long way in three years.
“We’ve built collaborative relationships and partnerships with a number of national and local institutions, and we are now a recognised exhibition space and community hub offering public programmes, including women’s events, heritage events and talks.”
Themed merchandise is also being developed for the onsite gift shop.
“Our visitors love experiencing this place, and have been really generous in both their praise and sharing their own personal reflections on the importance of Kate Sheppard House,” says Helen.
“It’s hard to believe that in three years we opened during a challenging time with Covid lockdowns and working around social distancing. We are now able to look back and begin to see an uptake in visitors who are wanting to learn more about this woman of progress. It’s a time to celebrate the beginning of a new chapter in the story of this extraordinary place.”