Locke, Elsie

Locke, Elsie

In Brief

A writer, historian and leader in peace movements and women’s affairs, Elsie Locke made a remarkable contribution to New Zealand society. She edited the 1930s feminist journal Woman Today and later served on the national executive of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. In 1959 she received the Katherine Mansfield Award for Non-Fiction and in 1992 published her major study, Peace People: Peace Activities in New Zealand. Locke is best known as a children’s writer, and her major contribution to children’s literature was acknowledged with the 1995 Margaret Mahy Medal.


LOCKE, Elsie (1912– 2001), has made a remarkable contribution to New Zealand society as a writer, historian and leader in peace movements and women’s affairs, for which she received an honorary DLitt from the University of Canterbury in 1987. Born in Hamilton, she has described the hardships and delights of her early life in Waiuku and at Auckland University, where she was known by her surname as ‘little Farrelly’ and where she graduated in 1933, in Student at the Gates (1981). This autobiography details life in the 1920s–30s, illuminating both some dominant political and literary personalities of the time and also the influences which shaped her idealistic socialist philosophies. In the 1930s she edited the early feminist journal Woman Today. In 1941 she married Jack Locke, both having been members of the New Zealand Communist Party. They moved from Wellington to Christchurch, where they raised four children. Elsie Locke served on the national executive of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (1957–70). She also continued writing for adults: The Shepherd and the Scullery Maid (1950), The Human Conveyer Belt (1968), The Gaoler (1978) on early Otago, and two privately printed family histories. She edited Gordon Watson, New Zealander, 1912–1945 (1949). In 1959, she received the Katherine Mansfield Award for Non-Fiction for her essay in Landfall 48, and in 1992 published her major study, Peace People: Peace Activities in New Zealand.

However, she is probably more widely known as a writer for children. Drawing her topics and themes from her interests and commitments, she carries out diligent research, often historical or relating to outdoor exercise. Her preparation has included learning Māori to understand the Māori point of view, which she expresses with sympathy and insight in novels that in this respect were in advance of general perceptions and political correctness. Inevitably, her first novel is based on a true story. The Runaway Settlers (1965), illustrated by Anthony Maitland, and reissued with illustrations by Gary Hebley (1993), portrays a remarkable historical-fiction mother in the character of Mrs Small, who changes her family’s name to Phipps and flees with her children from her violent husband in Sydney to a hard but successful family life in Governor’s Bay. Her experiences include driving a herd of cattle over the Southern Alps and down the Teremakau River (Taramakau or ‘Terrible Cow’) to the West Coast. This novel has been in continuous print for longer than any other New Zealand children’s book.

Other historical novels include The End of the Harbour (1969), illustrated by Katarina Mataira, a compassionate exploration of land issues from Māori and Pakeha perspectives; Journey under Warning (1983) illustrated by Margaret Chapman, an exploration of political posturing in the Wairau Affray through the historical character of Locke’s own ancestor; and A Canoe in the Mist (1984), illustrated by John Shelley, a dramatic portrayal of the famous Tarawera eruption of 1886. Explorer Zach (1978), illustrated by David Waddington, is about Canterbury farming life in the 1920s for younger readers, while The Boy with the Snowgrass Hair (1976), with co-author Ken Dawson, illustrated by Jean Oates, extols mountaineering in a contemporary boy’s search for self-confidence. Other contemporary stories show Locke’s concern for wildlife: Moko’s Hideout (1976), a collection of four good stories, illustrated by Beatrice Foster-Barnham and Elizabeth Plumridge, but poorly produced; and Look Under the Leaves (1975), illustrated by David Waddington and Trevor Lithgow, in verse and prose to extend ecological awareness.

In the field of children’s non-fiction, Locke has made many contributions to the Department of Education historical bulletins and to the School Journal. She also published Māori King and British Queen (1974); The Kauri and the Willow (1984), containing various contemporary extracts to illuminate historical circumstances; and Two Peoples, One Land: A History of Aotearoa (1988).

Locke’s long and varied career in children’s literature was honoured by the Margaret Mahy Lecture Award in March 1995, and extended by Joe’s Ruby (1995), illustrated by Gary Hebley, the remarkable story of a man who raised an intelligent pet rook from an egg. DH


Elsie Locke died in Christchurch on the 8th of April 2001. In an obituary, her daughter wrote that the Gaelyn Gordon Award for a Much-Loved Book, which Elsie Locke received in 1999 for The Runaway Settlers, was one of her mother's most treasured awards.

Her other awards include the 1961 Bank of New Zealand Katherine Mansfield Short Story Award, the 1992 Children's Literature Association Award, and the 1995 Margaret Mahy Medal and Lecture.

A new edition of The Runaway Settlers was released by HarperCollins in 2009. The full-length biography Looking for Answers: A Life of Elsie Locke, by Maureen Birchfield, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2009.


Updated January 2017.