Plaque set to honour women's rights campaigner

RIGHTS Margaret Scott Hawthorne was a leader in the trade union movement in New Zealand

A trailblazing Cavan campaigner who made "an outstanding contribution" to women's rights in New Zealand will be recognised with a 'Blue Plaque' this weekend.

The plaque honouring Margaret Scott Hawthorne (1869-1958) has been organised by the Ulster History Circle and will be unveiled on Saturday, March 26 at 2pm at Killeshandra Church of Ireland on the town's Main Street.

The New Zealand Ambassador to Ireland, Brad Burgess will attend while Minister Heather Humphreys will have the honour of unveiling the plaque.

Born on January 17, 1869 to parents Henry Scott and Anne Maria Kenny, Margaret Jane was the second daughter, and one of six children born in Cornafean. Her maternal grandparents William and Maria Kenny had farmed the 33 acres since the 1820s. The farm, the largest in the townland was well stocked and Margaret and her siblings enjoyed the benefits of a spacious two storey slated house.

In recent years the old Kenny farmhouse and buildings were replaced with a new dwelling, but the tree lined entrance to the land still remain to this day.

On January 28, 1880 Margaret’s father, Henry Scott advertised the house and farm for sale and described the location as being one mile and half from the Crossdoney Railway Station. The landlord, Robert F. Ellis, Esq had given permission to sell without any restriction.

Social unrest caused many families to move away and to seek a new life in the so-called New World or in Oceania. It was from Crossdoney Railway Junction that Henry Scott, his wife and six children (the youngest just one year old) travelled to London to board the ‘Halcione’. The ship sailed on May 30 and arrived some 90 days later on August 29, 1880 at Lyttleton, near Christchurch. The ship carried only 25 passengers and a large general cargo, and although a long and tedious journey, the ship’s log shows that Captain Parker made his passengers most comfortable whilst at sea.

At the age of 11 and living outside Christchurch, Margaret Scott began a new life by continuing her education. Upon completion, she trained as a tailoress and soon found that the conditions in the clothing industry were poor and very unhealthy. She became involved in the Trade Union Movement and soon made herself known and heard. At the age of 23 in 1892, she was the first female secretary of the Christchurch Tailoresses’ and Pressers’ Union. Only men had previously held this position. Her objective was to improve the working conditions for women and for the proper remuneration to be paid for working long hours. She came to national prominence when elected as vice president in 1894 to the Canterbury Trades and Labour Council.

Other women joined her as her pioneering work continued to be fruitful, and because she had vast experience with women workers, Margaret was appointed to manage the Women’s Branch of the Department of Labour in Wellington. From this appointment came the establishment of a Women’s Employment Bureau, and her promotion to the position of Inspector of Factories, enabled her to investigate the working conditions throughout New Zealand where women and girls were employed, thus ensuring that the accommodation, ventilation etc., under the Factories Act 1894 were adhered to.

Her work was relentless and by 1900, Margaret Scott had made a difference.

"Without organisation workers can have very little power to better their economic or social conditions," she insisted.

She drew attention to the fact that nurses and waitresses were not represented by a union and worked long hours and had a very poor standard of accommodation. Once again, Margaret embraced the challenge and with her tenacity, she won through. She was known to be abrupt and direct. Many employers with whom she negotiated for better working conditions for women did not like her style. She was there to achieve her aim and this she did.

Margaret Scott married Henry Hawthorne, a boot and shoe importer, in 1898. Some years later the marriage ended in divorce. It was said that her work was more important than her marriage, and as her workload considerably increased, her marriage crumbled.

She withdrew from public life in 1910 being one of the highest paid female public servants. For over 20 years, she spearheaded the campaign to improve conditions for woman workers, and she was the first woman to achieve a position of status in public service in New Zealand. She died in Auckland on May 1, 1958.

Chris Spurr, Chairman of the Ulster History Circle comments: "Margaret Scott Hawthorne was a campaigner who made an outstanding contribution towards the advancement of women’s issues in New Zealand in the late Victoria era.

"The Ulster History Circle is delighted to commemorate this Cavan-born pioneer for women’s rights with a blue plaque at the church where she was baptised. The Circle would like to thank the Rector and Vestry of Killeshandra Church of Ireland for their assistance and the Ulster-Scots Agency for their financial support towards this plaque."