In her tenth decade, Gwenyth Wright’s many achievements were celebrated. In 2019, aged 93, she was declared a Waikato Local Hero, one of 15 recognised in the 2020 Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards. The following year, she was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours, “for services to women and the community”. Because of Covid, the award could not be formally presented until April, 2021. In her 95th year, Gwenyth received her QSM from then Thames-Coromandel Mayor Sandra Goudie, along with a Community Service Medal reflecting her specific contribution to the region.
The accolades were borne with trademark humility and humour. Gwenyth had never been one for personal glory. She sought neither gratitude nor recognition. With practicality and intelligence and a clear understanding of commerce, bureaucracy and ecology, she took concrete steps to improve the lot of others. A journalist, a civil servant, an organic gardener, a financier to women of ambition and in need, in philosophy and deeds Gwenyth was a feminist groundbreaker long before such terms acquired popular usage. Never an overt activist or protester, she had the knack of identifying problems and working quietly but efficiently to solve them, always in collaboration with others, inspiring and instigating change. “You don’t have to have control”, she told Stuff’s Kelly Tantau in 2020, “you just have to work with people and things and circumstances…it sounds non-assertive…but that’s the most assertive thing you can do – not be assertive…”
Gwenyth Mary Morgan was born 22 June, 1926 in Leeston, outside Christchurch, the second of four children of Gordon Morgan and Mary Christabel Morgan (nee Volckman). Gordon was a marine engineer by profession who served with the Royal Navy in World War I, seeing action in the North Atlantic. After the war, as a returned serviceman he was eligible to enter a land ballot and was successful, acquiring a property at Mataikona, near Castlepoint, in the Wairarapa.
When asked once what the “highlight of her life” was, Gwenyth replied “the years on the farm”. The remote hill country of Mataikona had what she described as “a lasting effect on my psyche”, informing a lifelong interest in the environment and sustainable living.
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At the insistence of her grandfather, a Christchurch doctor, Gwenyth’s primary education was enjoyed in Leeston. She then attended three separate boarding schools. A certain rebelliousness, no doubt born of an inquiring mind and impatience with restrictions placed on late-1930s young ladies, saw her expelled from the first two, exhibiting “behaviour that did not suit the school’s values or rules”.
Gwenyth aspired to be a journalist. Father Gordon insisted that she continue her studies at tertiary level. The attendance of university during wartime was a privilege not granted to many of her gender. Gwenyth completed a Bachelor of Arts at Victoria University.
In 1951, living in Wellington, Gwenyth married David Wright, with whom she would adopt two children: William Gordon Wright in 1952 and Jane Kristina Wright in 1956. As the marriage was short-lived, Gwenyth largely raised William and Jane alone. She became active in the Playcentre movement, interested in improving the lot of women whose principal role in life was child-rearing.
Gwenyth took formal courses in organic gardening and agriculture. Together with her neighbours, she formed a residents’ association to save the stream in the Ngaio Gorge. The success of this collective saw it expand into an environmental group that became actively involved in the capital’s town planning and the preservation of heritage buildings.
When William and Jane attained a measure of independence, Gwenyth took up a position at the Department of Trade and Industry. She was directly involved in the New Zealand and Australia Free Trade Agreement and the subsequent Closer Economic Relations Agreement. Her responsibilities extended to the then rapidly growing wine industry, tourism and exploring the possibilities of a sugar beet industry in the South Island. She also had experience with the Overseas Investment Commission and trade policy and aid to Third World countries with the International Aid and Development Agency.
In 1978 Gwenyth realised her childhood dream, becoming a professional journalist and assistant editor of The Straight Furrow, a newspaper for Federated Farmers and the wider rural community. Four years later, she assumed the editorship of the Women in Agriculture newsletter, a position she held for a decade.
Journalism exposed Gwenyth to a wide variety of women and their circumstances. She formed an opinion as to what was impeding their progress. “Lots of women were wanting to start businesses and the banks were not sympathetic; they would not lend them money” she once explained, adding “women also wanted more education but they couldn’t afford it”.
In the early 1990s, together with like-minded friends, Gwenyth founded the Angel Bank, a micro-lending organisation designed to address such issues. It was followed by the Wellington Women’s Loan Fund, which provided community-led microcredit to women without charging interest. Gwenyth was a founding Trustee of the Wellington WLF in 1992 and served in that capacity until 2002.
The sums provided were often small but the banks’ impact was no less life changing. One woman wanted the train fare so that she could travel to a new job. Another, who in a weak moment had stolen $60 from her employer, was given the means to avoid dismissal and later justified the faith shown by repaying the loan.
Gwenyth met Colin Broadley, the noted radio DJ, actor and sometime movie star, on a Wellington bus one day and discovered a shared interest in sustainable living. They corresponded for some years before the relationship developed into romance around 1995.
Gwenyth and Colin aspired to build a cob house, and Thames – where Colin owned property and had been working the land with a goal of organic farming – was judged the best location. With the assistance of Colin’s family, the clay, sand and straw construction was erected in the hills above the town. The property was formally certified as organic and Gwenyth and Colin began supporting the Thames Organic Co-Operative.
Replicating the micro-banking structure that had proved so successful in the capital, Gwenyth established the Thames Women’s Loan Fund in 2003, serving as an inaugural trustee and continuing in that capacity until the end of her life. Again, the mutual microcredit scheme sought to provide assistance for women in small business and study or stability in their financial situation. In the same year Gwenyth also founded the Organic Strategy Group, facilitating greater understanding of organic horticulture in the community and organising earth building workshops. In 2009 she helped establish an organic farming internship for youth.
The Gwenyth Wright Study Grant, a sum of $1000 granted annually to female students 17 years or over from the Thames-Coromandel region, was founded in Gwenyth’s name in 2019.
Drawing on her journalistic experience, Gwenyth was a supporter and interviewer for the Thames Oral History Group, part of the Coromandel Heritage Trust.
Gwenyth’s last major project, dating from 2015, involved working with the Thames Coromandel District Council to arrange land for natural burials, an initiative resulting in a natural burial garden called Omahu, in Hikutaia. In 2020, a plot in the garden that had been reserved for Gwenyth was allotted to her good friend and fellow environmentalist, Jeanette Fitzsimons. At the time, Gwenyth remarked, “there could not be anyone nicer in my plot”.
Regarding death, Gwenyth’s personal philosophy reflected her ecological ideals. She once said, “we exist inside a life sustaining envelope around the plant…we change form and out of decomposition, new life springs eternal”.
Gwenyth Mary Wright died 5 October 2022 and was buried soon after in the garden that she had helped establish. She is survived by her brother David, her partner Colin, her children William and Jane and Colin’s children Kim, Mike and Stefan.