Unsung Heroines - Biographies of Christchurch Women written to commemorate Women's Suffrage Year, 1993

May Furey

May Edith Evelyn Edwards was born in London on 2 May 1891, the daughter of Isabella Rose and her husband, James Edwards, a foreman printer. Well educated and blessed with a retentive memory, she could support an argument with a fund of information. In later years, when she heard education undervalued, she would state emphatically: "Education is no burden to carry around".

In her youth May befriended the Italian community, and thus heard Caruso sing, his voice being so strong that it reverberated off the walls. She supported striking wharfies and, with slogans written on her shoes, joined suffragette rallies. In middle age she would regale the members of the Canterbury Housewives' Union with the tale of how she 'marched with the Pankhursts'.

In 1914 May married Harry Ernest Finnemore, a piano maker. A daughter, Betty, was born in 1917, and the following year Finnemore succumbed to tuberculosis. In the early '20s May left her child with its grandparents, travelled to outback Australia and cooked in hotels. She asked a maid: "Have you got an oven cloth?" and was asked in turn: "What's wrong with a bloody bit of brown paper?" A pianist in silent picture theatres, she had to suit the tempo of the music to the content of the scene on the screen.

In an outback hotel May met John Furey, a level-headed quietly-spoken farmer. In 1924 they married at Inglewood, Victoria, and lived in a tent until accommodation was available. A son, Bill, was born in 1926. The Englishwoman considered these days among the bush and birds as the happiest in her life. Grasshoppers, drought and depression brought the idyll to an end and the couple moved to New South Wales. In searing heat, John undertook lowly jobs such as plucking wool off dead sheep. In 1939 he gained employment in Christchurch, doing steel work on the Hereford Street post office.

In New Zealand May's public life blossomed. She joined the New Zealand China Society, New Zealand - U.S.S.R Society, Christchurch Peace Council, and later the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She was a frequent guest speaker in a discussion group called the Christchurch Round Table. She did not join a political party, her strong temperament being such that she could not function well within the restraints imposed by these organisations. In 1941 she helped found the Canterbury Housewives' Union and as president, secretary, or committee member, nurtured this, her special baby, for the rest of her life.

The union was interested in the great issues of the day. In 1949 it claimed that the introduction of peacetime conscription was 'an economic wastage of valuable manpower' and a hindrance to the establishment of world peace. Later the organisation argued that there had to be an alternative to a war in Korea.

May and her friends accepted but tested the belief that a woman's primary role was domestic. They demanded that even their reluctant sisters accept the civic duty of jury service, and sponsored an essay competition entitled: 'Can a woman be a worthwhile citizen if her interests lie solely within the four walls of her home?' While other groups were apathetic, the union embraced the philosophy that people should have equal pay for equal work irrespective of sex. However, the union was concerned primarily with practical, close-to-home issues. It strove to make it easier for women to come into the city, persuading the tramway board to place pram hooks on the front of trams, and campaigning successfully for the building of women's toilets. When a councillor protested: "Mrs Furey, we don't talk about such things", May responded: "Don't men function the same as women?"

Union deputations constantly fronted up to manufacturers about their unwillingness to standardise clothing sizes so that people would know that they were buying the appropriate garments. Another problem, inflated prices, provoked such warnings as: 'Unless the Minister takes the necessary steps to bring the price of fish within the means of the average housewife, the Canterbury Housewives' Union will take drastic action'. When all else failed, May wrote to Truth, marshalled her foot soldiers and boycotted goods and services.

Of a kindly disposition, May took in schoolboy friends of her son who came from a broken home, and treated them as her own. She had a warm sense of humour and enjoyed convivial get-togethers. She was seldom so happy as when, at a party, she could play on the piano, cigarette in mouth and glass of beer perched atop the musical instrument, until the early hours of the morning. Her daughter eventually came to New Zealand, whereupon the links with 'Home' were broken. However, contact with Australia was maintained. May outlived her husband by five years, dying in 1962. Her obituary said she was 'sympathetic and deeply sincere, could not abide injustice, and never spared herself to have a wrong put right'.


  • Births, deaths and marriages, Christchurch
  • Canterbury Housewives' Union archives, Christchurch City Libraries
  • Press, 31 December 1962
  • Women together, 1993

Richard Greenaway: Interview with Bill Furey and Elsie Locke, July 1993

Other resources - Christchurch City Libraries