The Ilam house where pioneering suffragist Kate Sheppard lived and worked during her years of activism has been officially opened by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern today.
The white, wooden villa, which borders the University of Canterbury’s (UC) main campus, will be a public museum promoting and celebrating Sheppard’s life and achievements, and featuring interactive displays.
In a partnership between UC and Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, it will also be used a base for collaboration, teaching and academic research.
Now named Te Whare Waiutuutu Kate Sheppard House, in the late 19th century the domestic setting became the hub of a political campaign to secure the right for New Zealand women to vote.
The Category 1-listed house was purchased by the Government last year after being in private ownership.
Ms Ardern said many New Zealanders would have a connection to the house through relatives who were among the tens of thousands of people who signed the 1893 petition for women’s suffrage that was pasted together in its front room.
The Prime Minister hoped it would be an ongoing source of inspiration into the future and a place for “scheming and plotting”.
“It’s exciting to know that this place won’t just be a time capsule of sorts, but it will have its own ongoing life as a space for thought and debate.”
If the house could help people – especially young women – feel closer to history and make them feel that anything was possible, that would be “a legacy worth celebrating,” she said.
UC Chancellor Sue McCormack said Christchurch had always been a place filled with “agitators and activists for change” and strong Canterbury women.
She revealed a record had been found in the university’s archives showing Kate Sheppard was enrolled as a student at the Canterbury College School of Arts in 1882 and UC had always supported its students and academics to drive social change.
“Today we remember a great woman. It is appropriate that we have a number of great women leaders here today.”
Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Manager Heritage Assets Southern, Dr Christine Whybrew, a UC Arts graduate herself, said an internationally significant movement had been led by a wife and mother at her own expense and from her own home.
“This was the place where Kate Sheppard and other suffragists wrote pamphlets, prepared speeches, collected petition signatures, and worked towards New Zealand becoming the first self-governing country in the world where women won the right to vote in 1893.
“It was here that the petition – which included thousands of signatures from supporters all over the country – was pasted together before being presented to Parliament.”
Unable to deliver the petition herself, MP Sir John Hall did it in Sheppard’s place, famously kicking the 270m-long scroll across the floor of Parliament’s debating chamber, allowing all present to see the signatures for themselves as the scroll unrolled.
Today’s opening ceremony marked the completion of the first stage of renovating the house to create a visitor experience which tells the story of the achievements of Kate Sheppard and other women who worked tirelessly to achieve women’s suffrage.
“Because New Zealand was the first country to give women the right to vote, this place is also internationally significant in the wider story of universal suffrage,” Dr Whybrew said.
“We are honoured to have the responsibility of caring for this place, and sharing its stories with visitors from New Zealand and the rest of the world.”
As well as being open to the public to visit, Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga plans to make Te Whare Waiutuutu Kate Sheppard House available for a range of future use options – including school visits and special activities – highlighting the legacy of Kate Sheppard and the suffrage movement, and its relevance today.