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Lena Matewai Ruru: Serving her Community during Wartime.

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Angela Wanhalla
01 October, 2021

Communities relied on women like Lena Ruru (1902-1977, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki) during the war. She wore many hats during her life - musician, welfare officer, girl guide leader, hockey player, golfer and community organiser extraordinaire – often juggling these roles at the same time.

Lena’s entry on Te Ara doesn’t say much about her life during the Second World War, but it became even more hectic under wartime conditions. She was a whirlwind of energy during that time as she balanced her career as a professional musician with her roles in numerous organisations.

Lena, also known as Rina, was used to responsibility. She took on the care, aged 18, of her father and two brothers after the death of her mother, Maata Parāone, in 1920. She was close to her father, Hēnare Ruru, a prominent public figure in Poverty Bay, acting from a young age as his secretary and interpreter. Under his guidance she became skilled in whakapapa and history, as well as politics. After Hēnare’s death in 1943 Lena and her brother Eru continued his work relating to land claims, and cared for their marae, Takipū at Te Karaka, about 30km inland from Gisborne.[1]

While looking after whānau she was also involved in the Women’s Institute and patriotic activities. In September 1939, on the outbreak of war, she was among the ‘substantial audience’ of Māori women who met one Friday evening in Gisborne. Those present agreed to form local branches of a Maori Ladies’ Patriotic Committee to raise funds for the war effort. Lena was a member of the Executive and led the Te Karaka branch. In 1941 her responsibilities increased when she was elected to the Poverty Bay Federation of Women’s Institutes Executive.[2]

Lena combined her community contributions with being a professional musician with her swingtime orchestra. Throughout the war years she performed at local dances, social events and patriotic fundraising drives almost every month, either solo or with her orchestra. In October 1940 she performed at the presentation of the Tatau Tatau Rose Bowl at Selvyn, and a sports queen dance at Motu; in November she appeared at the Puha Hall, and supplied the music for the annual Matawhero church fete and flower show dance in December as well as a sports evening at Patutahi. 

She also appeared at farewell events for local servicemen, and was regularly asked to perform at 21sts and weddings. In addition she played at events for a range of groups such as the Women’s War Service Auxiliary, local patriotic societies, a basketball club, the airforce cadets, the Gisborne Fire Brigade, farewell dances, school break-ups, the Gisborne Young Farmers’ Club, the Wainui Surf Life Saving Club, and the Makaraka branch of the New Zealand Labour Party.

In late April 1943 she turned her full attention to caring for her ailing father, announcing “she is unable to accept any town engagements for an indefinite period and takes this opportunity of thanking her friends for their past support.”[3] Her father, who she was primary carer for, passed away in early May. By September 1943 she had returned to the stage, performing solo, or with her 4-piece or 8-piece orchestra.

In addition to women’s organisations and patriotic fundraising, Lena lifted community spirits, helping form the Te Karaka Recreational Club in 1944. Its schedule included ‘American basketball’, corner ball, skittles and volleyball. Weekend hikes and tennis were summer activities. According to the Gisborne Herald, “an energetic committee, under the guidance of Miss Lena Ruru, [was] appointed to control the affairs of the club.”[4]

After the war she helped welcome home local servicemen while maintaining her professional career. By 1950, though, she had taken up formal welfare work. That year she replaced Maora Tamihana as Gisborne’s Lady Welfare Officer. Such was the respect for her in her local region, around 200 residents from across Waikohu County attended Lena’s farewell in March 1950. It was remarked that she “is probably the most widely-known person in the Te Karaka district, having spent all her life there and being connected with practically all public organisations, in addition to following her career as a professional musician.”[5]

Farewell speeches emphasised her “fine record of public-spirited work in all movements for the advancement of the district; her activities had been marked by a cheerful personality and unvarying goodwill.”

A woman of extraordinary energy and community spirit, Lena’s life was rich and varied. Her “fine record of public-spirited work” also contributed to maintaining her father’s political and community legacy for future generations. During the war, there was rarely a day or evening she was not busy contributing to her community and whānau, or engaging in patriotic activities, ranging from farewells and welcomes for local servicemen to fundraising and performing.  Lena Ruru is a fine example of the many Māori who worked within their communities to support the war effort while their young men were overseas.


Image: “Miss Lena Ruru, Palerston Road, who has retired as the Maori women’s welfare officer for the Gisborne & Wairoa districts after six years’ service.”  Gisborne Photo News, 20 November 1956.


[1] Gisborne Herald, 11 May 1943, p.2. Takipū’s wharenui , Te Poho o Pikihoro, was erected by Lena’s grandfather, Karaitiana Ruru, for Te Kooti and the Ringatū faith. In the mid-1940s a rebuilding project was planned, which included a memorial to Hēnare Ruru (GH, 4 September 1946). The wharenui was completed in 1958 and serves as a memorial to those who served overseas during World War II:

[2] GH, 5 April 1941

[3] GH, 29 April 1943.

[4] GH, 2 October 1944.

[5] GH, 6 April 1950.

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