Harriet Simeon's Story
What if no one believed you'd fought in the war?
Laws prevented women from serving on the front line of combat, but 550 or so New Zealand nurses served overseas during the First World War. They enlisted for the same reasons as the soldiers – duty, patriotism and adventure. Other women served as nurses in camps back home while others became leading figures in various campaigns to support those serving overseas or to fund raise for the war effort.
Harriet Simeon is proof that women did much more than just knit socks during the war. Harriet initially served as a nurse, but after two and half years she enlisted in the brand new Women’s Royal Air Force in 1918. By 1919 Harriet had become the highest ranking New Zealand woman in the WRAF when she was promoted to Assistant Air Commandant, an amazing achievement that many people couldn't believe was true.
When she returned from the war she asked to be formally recognised as a returned soldier and petitioned to be paid the Imperial pay rate rather than the New Zealand pay rate, as she had served as part of the UK forces. People found it very hard to believe that she had served in the WRAF, let alone had such a high ranking, but Harriet's history is proof of the contribution women made in the war, often without any recognition.
"Ladies of the Rhine", Cologne, 1919
Harriet's service pay slip
Portrait of Harriet
Letter written to the deputy secretary of defence
You have been given the portrait of Harriet, taken of her in her flying uniform. You are now tasked with discovering more of the story behind Harriet Simeon. How much of his story can you piece together? The suggestions below will help you on your research journey. The How We Find It Fact Sheet will also be a helpful tool in helping you discover the pieces of Harriet's puzzle.
FIND Harriet'S RECORD OF SERVICE
You're in luck. While Harriet served in the Women's Royal Air Force, some of her records can be found online at the Auckland War Memorial Museum Cenotaph. This is your most important search. Collect as much information as you can. Once you've found Harriet's Serial Number move to Archway and search for her service documents there.
find evidence for each of harriet's career milestones
The NZ Government found it hard to believe that Harriet could have risen to Area Commandant of the WRAF. Download Harriet's Statement of Service and use it to trace her remarkable career. Play the role of the NZ Government and verify each of her statements by using your research skills to pinpoint sources that can confirm each claim (i.e was there a No 55 General Hospital in the First World War).
WHAT WAS THE WELLINGTON PATRIOTIC SOCIETY?
Before Harriet paid her own way to England she was a member of the Wellington Patriotic Society. Their focus was to raise funds for the War and they held a huge Queens' Carnival. Use Papers Past and search for 'Wellington Patriotic Society' to understand the breadth of their fundraising efforts. Use the Reserve Bank Inflation Calculator to understand how much they raised in New Zealand Dollars.
Discover more pieces of Harriet's story.
discover more about the women's royal airforce.
For something that involved so many women in the United Kingdom there is very little that can be discovered about the Women's Royal Airforce. Harriet describes her role in her statement of facts in her archway file and many of the things she references can be found in this gallery of photos. Unfortunately all records were destroyed in the WW2 bombing of London. What else can you use your research skills to discover about the activities and influence of the WRAF? Why do you think it is almost impossible to find out information about their operations?
WHAT WAS DOPING AN AIRCRAFT AND WHY DID HARRIET KNOW HOW TO DO IT?
In 1920 Harriet speaks with the Woman's World Editor of the Dominion newspaper about her experience of 'doping aeroplanes.' Use Google to discover what this practice involved for aeroplanes built between 1914 and 1916.
Why did no one believe Harriet?
Use Papers Past to search for 'Major Mrs Simeon' and the article 'Woman and the War'. Despite articles in the newspaper such as this one Harriet spent years fighting the NZ Government for recognition of her War Service. Even modern day posts such as this one seem to doubt whether or not a New Zealand born women would be capable of such an achievement. Use Harriet's Archway records to trace her fight and to discover whether or not she ever got the acknowledgement she was seeking.
Solve the Unsolvable Mystery
confirm for us what DUNEDIN schools harriet attended?
Despite much searching and multiple enquiries we have been unable to confirm which school Harriet attended. To our team she is a bit of an inspiration. Where did she get so much chutzpah from? We know from her father's funeral notice that she grew up on St Andrew's Road, Dunedin, where it crosses with Filleul Street. We can use Births Deaths and Marriages to see that her and her four sisters were born in New Zealand. We know also that from Papers Past that she was married at 22 years old in Dunedin.
But where did she attend school? The Union Street School was close to her home and it seems hard to believe that a woman with such spirit could not have attended Otago Girls High School - the first girls school in the Southern Hemisphere. Perhaps one of you investigating Harriet's story will be able to help us solve this mystery?
Harriet's portrait is connected with the story of Harriet Simeon (nee Sandland). The original photo is held by Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira #PH-1987-2-1.It is this project's understanding that Harriet has no surviving relatives.