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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 4, 2001

Connections: Perrine Moncrieff and Nelson: A summary of the Dr James Jenkins Memorial Lecture, 11 October 1999

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Connections: Perrine Moncrieff and Nelson: A summary of the Dr James Jenkins Memorial Lecture, 11 October 1999

In this lecture I examined the work of Perrine Moncrieff for the conservation of both nature and culture in Nelson in the 1920s and 1930s. In using the word 'conservation', I gave it the meaning that she herself did; that is, as permanent protection or preservation.

The fact that Perrine vigorously promoted the conservationist cause for nearly sixty years indicates that she was inspired and sustained by powerful influences. I argued that two of these were her Millais family and the current of thought, known as vitalism, that took root in European scientific and philosophical circles about the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Perrine's general interest in the natural world and particularly in birds, derived from her uncle, John Guile Millais, who was one of a group of nineteenth-century multi-faceted naturalists. Millais was interested in natural science, art, ornithology, big game hunting and, later, the conservation of large game animals. Perrine inherited aesthetic sensibilities from her grandfather, the painter John Everett Millais. She also possessed a feminist consciousness, perhaps emanating from her grandmother, Euphemia Millais.

Vitalism is a contemporary expression of the ancient belief that the natural world is organic; inhabited by a spirit of life that requires human beings to give intrinsic value to other living species. Perrine, seeing human beings as part of the natural world, consistently advocated holism and ecology. While these ideas are commonplace today, they were less so in the 1920s and 1930s, causing Perrine some ridicule from scientific ornithologists when she objected to experiments which she felt hurt or alarmed birds.

Perrine, her husband Malcolm, and their sons, Alexander and Colin, arrived in Nelson in 1921. From the moment of their arrival Perrine thought Nelson city a beautiful sight, with its dominating wooden cathedral and large gardens. As a bird watcher, she soon found a haven in the bird-page 4life of the forests, coasts, and river valleys of Nelson Province. Her firsthand knowledge of these environments led her to conservation, or as she described it, her 'mission in life to save New Zealand's wonderful forest and birds'.

Perrine pursued nature conservation in several ways. She was responsible for the conservation of nature reserves at Lake Rotoroa, Farewell Spit, Abel Tasman National Park, the Maruia Reserves on the road between Reefton and Lewis Pass, and the two Moncrieff Reserves on each side of Tasman Bay. This totals about 50,000 hectares.

Her campaign for the waters of Lake Rotoroa, which began in 1924, was explained in detail as a model for all her crusades. It described her battles with the Nelson Acclimatisation Society (now Fish and Game) who wanted to introduce trout into the lake waters. To protect the trout, Acclimatisation Society members shot shags, which nested at the lake, because black shags were known to predate trout. Perrine also campaigned against poachers. She drew support from the Native Bird Protection Society (now Forest and Bird) which she had joined shortly after its formation in 1923. She also drew support from senior public servants in the Lands Department, which was responsible for scenic reserves, and from the Department of Internal Affairs which administered animal protection legislation. Perrine's vision, energy and perseverance in procuring and maintaining the integrity of all the reserves allows us to enjoy them today. The areas also provide essential habitats for other species.

She wrote articles for the Nelson Evening Mail, as it then was called, and books about conservation. Her pocket guide book, New Zealand Birds And How To Identify Them, first published in 1925, became increasingly conservationist over its five editions. She formed groups, like the Nelson Bush and Bird Preservation Society, to foster a conservation ethic especially in children.

Perrine also participated in Nelson's cultural world. Amongst her many leadership roles were the formation of the Nelson Girl Guides in 1924, and as President of the Nelson Institute and Museum and of the Nelson Philosophical Society. The latter two were affiliated to the New Zealand Institute, which became the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1933. Perrine took part in such activities as painting, music, and wool craft.

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Perrine Moncrieff with Jill Blechynden at the ABC Bookshop, December 1976. (Geoffrey C Wood Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, 2708 Fr7).

Perrine Moncrieff with Jill Blechynden at the ABC Bookshop, December 1976. (Geoffrey C Wood Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum, 2708 Fr7).

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Apart from the conservation of the natural world, Perrine campaigned for the conservation of historic buildings in Nelson, like the Provincial Government Building and Isel House. Engendered by her first impressions of Nelson's beauty, she had a vision for Nelson city which she tried to promote on many occasions. She saw it as a city of gardens and buildings which would attract residents and tourists by its beauty, culture and heritage. Working with other people of similar beliefs, Perrine Moncrieff's view of Nelson has largely been realised.