On 20th January 1915, the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) was formed in Christchurch, based on the educational model being used in Australia. Very soon after, this form of community teaching was being used all over New Zealand. The WEA had first begun in England in 1903.
Eveline Willett Cunningham was born to very wealthy parents in Wales in 1849. After she finished her main schooling, she was not allowed to seek employment as stated by her father. So she traveled around Europe, continuing her own studies at her leisure, experiencing the world of the rich and privileged.
In 1876, she moved to Australia when she got married. It was during this time when Cunningham experienced poverty and her eyes were opened to how the poor were treated and how few opportunities were available to the lower working classes. When her husband passed away, leaving her alone with two small children to raise, Cunningham moved to Christchurch as she already had a cousin living here.
She soon remarried and began to make quite a life for herself in Christchurch. She was a founding member of the National Council of Women (with Kate Sheppard), the Canterbury’s Fabian Society and worked in the Canterbury Female Refuge. After experiencing a spell of very bad health, she recovered with a passion to educate girls and women. She began her work with street prostitutes, and was one of two women in New Zealand who were allowed to make prison visits. She pushed for more female doctors, police, prison guards and lawyers for New Zealand’s workforce.
In 1913, Cunningham held a meeting in her house with L.G. Whitehead (Chch Boys High) and Ted Howard (the father of New Zealand early female politician Mabel Bowden Howard) about establishing an association where university level teaching would be available to anybody, no matter their class or situation. It would be place to ‘…advance, encourage and provide…’ to anyone wanting to learn. With her connections in the Canterbury College (Canterbury University), a committee was formed in early 1915. Sadly, Cunningham would not live long enough to see the Association up and running as she died in her Sumner home on 30th June 1916.
Today, the NZWEA caters to around 12,000 students of all ages every year. The non-profit, voluntary based, non-exam programmes are not only aimed to educate but also inspire, and promote personal growth and fulfillment.
*Image courtesy of WEA – http://www.cwea.org.nz*