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Elsie Locke

20 July 2023

Elsie Locke was an author and a campaigner for social justice, peace, and the environment. She was a founding member of the New Zealand Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and held executive positions locally and nationally. Learn more about this local hero.


Elsie Locke was an author, and a campaigner for social justice, peace, and the environment. For more than 60 years, she was a familiar figure around Christchurch, either on her push-bike or walking. She never owned a car.

For 57 years, Elsie lived in the same small cottage in the "Avon Loop" at 392 Oxford Terrace, a part of the central city once described as a "decaying area, ripe for urban renewal." That this neighbourhood was preserved and enhanced as a community was largely due to her initiative and dogged determination, often in the face of strong opposition. In 1972, she led a campaign against the extension of the Avon Motor Lodge, which involved a successful appeal to the High Court in Wellington and a landmark case entitled "Locke v. the Avon Motor Lodge". The campaign led to the formation of the Avon Loop Protection Association (ALPA), which later changed its name to the Avon Loop Planning Association.

An ALPA scheme to replace old houses with well-designed group housing failed through lack of funding, but other efforts to improve the standard of housing in the Loop, and to develop a feeling of community, succeeded. Elsie was involved in ALPA to the end of her life, nearly always in an executive position. Her small cottage housed all the paraphernalia connected with the Avon Loop Carnival, which was a summer highlight during the 1980s. Proceeds went towards the Avon Loop Community College, which commemorates both Elsie and Jack Locke.  

Other memorials to Elsie in Christchurch included the park named after her outside the Centennial Pool, where she swam regularly and which she saved from a commercial name change in 1997. This was one of many submissions she made to the Christchurch City Council, many of which related to better town planning and good public transport.

Elsie wrote books for children and adults and, for thirty years, frequently contributed articles and stories to the School Journal – nearly all focusing on New Zealand's history. Her best known children's novel, The Runaway Settlers, set in Governors Bay, was first published in 1965 and has rarely been out of print: in 1999, it won the Gaelyn Gordon Award for Much Loved Book. In 1987, Canterbury University recognised Elsie's contribution to historical and children's literature by awarding her an honorary doctorate. In 2002, Elsie's work as a writer was commemorated by a plaque, installed outside the Central Library in Gloucester Street as part of the Christchurch Writers' Trail. She also wrote many articles for journals and newspapers and was an inveterate letter-writer and broadcaster for both national and local radio.

Elsie was a fourth generation New Zealander, and proud of it. Her great-grandfather, William Morrison, came to New Zealand from Scotland in 1840. His daughter, Jenny, found her way to the West Coast where she met and married gold prospector George Farrelly. Their son William married Ellen Bryan, whose English immigrant father, a bushman in Oxford, was killed by a falling tree. This forced his widow to more to the West Coast to find work – enabling Elsie's parents to meet.

Elsie was the last of Will and Nell Farrelly's children. She was born in Hamilton in 1912 but grew up in Waiuku on the southern shores of the Manakau harbour, where Will was a builder. He added rooms to the local primary school to create a District High School, just in time for Elsie to benefit. In 1930, she was its first pupil to go to university in Auckland, graduation with a Bachelor of Arts three years later.

Elsie's experience at Auckland University College during the Depression raised her awareness of social injustice. She joined the Communist Party in 1933 and moved to Wellington. She was there for eight productive years, during which she started a Communist Party newsletter for women and then a magazine, both called Working Women. In 1973, the magazine was replaced by Women Today, which was run by a collective of women from diverse backgrounds. Elsie was also involved in the formation, in 1936, of what became the Family Planning Association, but was first called the Sex, Hygiene and Birth Regulation Society.

Elsie was married twice, first in 1935 to Fred Freeman, who fathered her first child, Donald, in 1938, and then to Jack Locke in 1941. Jack and Elsie had three children: Keith in 1944, Marie in 1945 and Alison in 1952. Alison was born four years after Elsie was discharged from Christchurch Hospital, where she spent 26 months recovering from spinal tuberculosis.

After Elsie left hospital, where she had plenty of time to ponder and read, she was increasingly critical of Community Party policies and practices. She resigned from the Party in 1956, following the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Two years later, Landfall published her essay "Looking for Answers", which examined what went wrong with Soviet-style communism. The essay won the Katherine Mansfield Essay Award in 1959.

In spite of Elsie's public rejection of the Communist Party, throughout the rest of her life – another 45 years – some people refused to believe that she was no longer a communist. For one thing, she continued to live with Jack, who remained a member of the party. Their love for each other and their family transcended their political differences.

From the mid-1950s, Elsie's involvements were diverse. She was a founding member of the New Zealand Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and held executive positions both locally and nationally. She campaigned against the raising of Lake Manapouri and the cutting down of West Coast beech forests. She broadened her cultural horizons through the William Morris Group, of which she was the first President in 1954 – she led its folk singing group, the Rouseabouts, which toured Westland in 1960 to celebrate Westland's centenary.

At school in Waiuku, one of Elsie's teachers dubbed her "Elsie Energy Farrelly" because she was always on the go. Christchurch is fortunate to have benefitted from such a dynamic, socially aware, creative, and productive person as Elsie Locke.

By Maureen Birchfield (Copywright © March 2009 Local Heroes Trust)

Maureen Birchfield, a teacher by profession, is the author of "She Dared to Speak: Connie Birchfield's Story", UOP, 1988 and "Looking for Answers: A Biography of Elsie Locke", UOP, 2009

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