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Brenda Bell, QSM
Radio pioneer Margaret Brenda Bell was born in 1891 on 'Shag Valley' – a remote sheep station in Otago, inland from Moeraki. She and her brother Frank inherited their father's interest in science and early telecommunications and spent their childhood tinkering with homemade crystal sets and picking up Morse Code signals.
After serving overseas during World War One (Brenda was a cook in a military hospital) they both returned to the farm. In 1923, Frank had success making the first overseas amateur radio connection from New Zealand, connecting with an operator in Australia. Then in October 1924, Shag Valley made international headlines when they established the first-ever connection between New Zealand and Britain – a world record in distance – and communicated with a London school teacher, Cecil Goyder. You can hear Brenda recalling the excitement of that moment when they bridged the gap, in this excerpt from a radio programme from 1964.
After Frank began managing the family farm full-time, Brenda took over the radio – becoming the first woman wireless operator in New Zealand. She made the first radio connection between New Zealand and South Africa in 1927. She was also an active member of the Country Women's Institute (CWI) and became a member of the Dominion executive. Just before the outbreak of World War Two she led a CWI group to London to attend a world conference of country women's organisations. Brenda again took up work as a military hospital cook in England during the war.
After returning home, she began working for Dunedin radio station 4YA, which she continued until the 1950s – writing scripts and presenting programmes, often about Otago history. She remained at Shag Valley most of her life, active in many Otago community organisations, and passed away in 1979 at the age of 87.
Listen to one of Brenda Bell's 4YA radio programmes from 1950.
Read more about Brenda and Frank's pioneering radio work on NZHistory.net.
Image: Brenda Bell in Voluntary Aid Detachment uniform. New Zealand Free Lance Ref: PAColl-6203-54. Alexander Turnbull Library.
Catalogue Reference 236440