The Very First Sister
During 1886 William Smith, later partner in the firm of Smith & Caughey and an active Methodist layman, paid a business visit to London.
He was impressed by the work of the new missions in East London, and when he returned to New Zealand, he opened the first of the Helping Hand Mission’s social work ventures, a temperance club and coffee room at Freeman’s Bay.
Freeman’s Bay was at that time, for the respectable people of Auckland, the poor part of the city. Those respectable people might bemoan the cycle of poverty and drunkenness to be found there but it was another thing altogether for those caught up in that cycle to accept the well-meaning attentions of outsiders.
If the latter held an open-air service in their street, they were ‘interrupted by clods of earth and other material, while the workers were pelted with rotten eggs and scoria.’ Those who came with such improving intentions tended to leave as soon as their work was done, not really expecting much change among people so destitute of hope, and so deprived of understanding.
William Smith had seen something of the work of the Sisters of the People, a movement inaugurated in 1885 in London by the Wesleyan leader Hugh Price Hughes. The term ‘sister’ had no ecclesiastical connotation. It was simply used in a human and democratic sense.
Their experience showed that a woman who lived and worked within the world of the very poor would be much more effective than well-intentioned evangelists conducting kerbside services accompanied by a brass band.
At the beginning of 1890 Jane Blakeley of Hepburn Street., at the edge of Freeman’s Bay, was appointed the Helping Hand Mission’s first sister. Born in 1866 in Whitechapel, London to Hugh Middleton Blakeley and Jane Breden, Jane had come to New Zealand with her family in 1887.
They may well have themselves been associated with East End mission work before they came here. Jane was probably the first woman set apart for such work in Auckland, if not in New Zealand, by any Protestant church, and it was under her direction that the social work of the Helping Hand Mission was developed.
She wore ‘a neat badge’ of office and called house to house. She also visited the hospital, the asylum, the refuges, and the gaol, and she worked closely with the Charitable Aid Board. In her first year alone she made 1400 visits and received 1000 calls.
Helping Hand Mission gave assistance to 50-60 families whose destitution Jane stressed was not ‘owing to sin.’ Two doctors, Kenderdine and Beale, backed up her work, and she praised the support she received from people of all denominations.
A year later Sister Blakeley had initiated plans for a non-denominational rescue home for prostitutes, and for this she had the support and commendation of Inspector Broham of the Police.
Jane Blakeley remained with the Mission for four years, but in 1894 she responded to a louder call, and went overseas to work with the China Inland Mission. For 10 years she laboured in Jiangxi (formerly Kiang Si) Province on the Yangtze River. When she returned to Auckland in mid-1904 she briefly worked again for the Helping Hand Mission before her marriage in November to Alfred Chadwick Brown.
AC Brown had been, with William Smith, one of the leaders of the Helping Hand Mission and had devoted his life to the social outreach of the Methodist Church in Auckland.
Jane died on June 14th 1956 shortly after turning 90. He husband had predeceased her by many years, dying in 1931. In every way she was a pioneer, and a very brave one at that.
Sister Jane Blakeley of the Helping Hand Mission
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