A remarkable life in letters

In 1956, when Barbara Francis first met Victoria alumna Agnes (Nessie) Moncrieff, she was deeply impressed by this remarkable woman and they soon became lifelong friends.

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon
You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon by Barbara Francis

More than 60 years later, Barbara has published a selection of Nessie’s letters, written while she was the New Zealand YWCA’s foreign secretary in China from 1930 until 1945. The letters describe living through extremely difficult and dramatic years in China, as Nessie’s arrival there coincided with Japan’s invasion, which escalated into the Sino–Japanese War and then World War II.

Typical of Nessie’s letters is this detail from July 1938, when a raid alarm sounded while she waited for a train: “We dashed along a piece of half-submerged railway right down at the edge of the river and I have never leapt so nimbly from sleeper to sleeper … We sheltered under a mat roof that would have knocked us silly if it had come down, but was not strong enough to protect us if anything heavy landed in our direction. It had housed horses and was not very clean, but I lay with my face in the mud and was quite happy.”

Barbara says that Nessie’s effort to create opportunties for women was a lifelong mission. “Right from her early years as a student at Victoria University (1917–1921), she was elected to the Student Association Executive as treasurer and later women’s vicepresident, the highest office a woman could then hold. When she returned from China she was on the Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity.”

In 2011, having heard Barbara had compiled the letters, Victoria University Press publisher Fergus Barrowman contacted her. “Fergus asked for a synopsis and a proposal, and then I was off. It’s a dream come true getting Nessie’s story out into the world.”

You Do Not Travel in China at the Full Moon: Agnes Moncrieff’s letters from China, 1930–1945, edited by Barbara Francis, published by Victoria University Press, HB, $60.