Heritage: New Zealand woman who confronted safe sex taboo in Hornchurch

The New Zealand soldiers' convalescent hospital at Grey Towers, Hornchurch. Photographed by Frank Lu

The New Zealand soldiers' convalescent hospital at Grey Towers, Hornchurch. Photographed by Frank Luff. [Picture: Havering Libraries - Local Studies] - Credit: Archant

Ettie Rout was a woman ahead of her time, as Prof Ged Martin finds out

Respectable Hornchurch pretended that Ettie Rout never existed.

During the First World War, villagers were proud hosts to Empire soldiers from distant New Zealand, at their Grey Towers camp west of Billet Lane.

But a wall of silence blocked the controversial woman who’d followed them from Christchurch.

Born in 1887, Ettie Rout was an early feminist (she defied convention by refusing to wear corsets), who became interested in social issues.

When war broke out, New Zealand sent an army to Egypt. The Kiwis fought in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign.

Ettie Rout formed a Volunteer Sisterhood, women who travelled to Egypt to run canteens for soldiers and help in hospitals.

Most Read

Every army faced a stark problem. Away from home, young men engaged in risky sex. Hundreds of New Zealand soldiers contracted sexually transmitted infections – venereal disease, or VD.

The French Army even established official brothels, where sex workers could be medically supervised.

Ettie Rout campaigned for New Zealand soldiers to be issued with condoms (pompously called “prophylactics”).

When Allied troops were withdrawn from Gallipoli, wounded New Zealanders were sent to the Grey Towers convalescent hospital.

Hornchurch was less exotic than Cairo, but soldiers on leave headed for London, where sleazy sex was on sale.

In Hornchurch, Ettie Rout set up her New Zealand Medical Soldiers Club. She supplied soldiers with kits containing condoms and lotions.

So massive was local disapproval that we don’t know the exact location of her clinic.

Hornchurch ladies established a comfortable club in Butts Green Road, called “Te Whare Puni” (Maori for “the meeting house”), to create a rival place of relaxation.

Ettie Rout was badly treated by her own country.

The New Zealand Army quietly adopted her kits, supplying them to soldiers as a safe-sex precaution. But wartime censorship laws made it illegal to mention her name in a Kiwi newspaper.

There was one exception. Back in 1893, a formidable political organisation, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) had forced male politicians to grant votes for women, making New Zealand a world leader in gender equality.

But the 1918 WCTU conference denounced “the effrontery of Ettie Rout in implying that New Zealand boys must be supplied with remedies to make wrong-doing safe and sin easy.” Optimistically insisting that their sons were fighting “for purity and righteousness”, the WCTU expressed “emphatic rejection of prophylactics and the woman who advocates them.”

The splendidly named Lady Stout, wife of a former prime minister of New Zealand, lobbied for Ettie to be driven out of Hornchurch.

The result of Stout v Rout was that Ettie left for Paris.

There she welcomed New Zealand soldiers as they arrived on troop trains, recommending them to patronise Madame Yvonne’s brothel, where sex workers were hygienically supervised.

Ettie Rout settled in Europe after the War. In 1922, she published a family planning manual, Safe Marriage. The New Zealand government banned it as “indecent literature”.

“It’s a mixed blessing to be born too soon,” she wrote to her friend, novelist H.G. Wells (who called her a “heroine”).

However, attitudes slowly changed. In 1919, the Archbishop of Canterbury had denounced Ettie in the House of Lords. In 1930 the Anglican Church lifted its ban on artificial contraception.

And the easy-going French even gave Ettie a medal for her war work.

She died in 1936. An Auckland newspaper enigmatically referred to her wartime campaign: “Her work was criticised in various quarters but finally it was recognised by the New Zealand Army authorities.” No details were given.

Modern feminists may feel that Ettie Rout was wrong to accept the degrading exploitation of women through prostitution, but her views on safe sex are now generally accepted.

In 1988, Christchurch named its Aids clinic after Ettie Rout.

Hornchurch too can be proud of is association with this brave and forward-looking woman.