In 1960 the Wanganui Chronicle front page carried news of John F Kennedy's election to the US presidency, the rise of the Irish Republican Army, the war in Vietnam, the space race and a Whanganui farmer's wife becoming the first Mrs New Zealand.

Jill Sicely was a young mother living on her Parapapra farm with husband Ian and their five children when she entered the competition.

"It started as a joke," she says.

"I broke our bakelite radio when I knocked it off the shelf while vacuuming and Ian said I should enter the contest to win us a new one."

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One of the prizes was a state-of-the-art radiogram so Jill decided to enter "just to see what might happen" and after being voted Mrs Wanganui she went on to become the first ever national winner.

The main sponsor was the New Zealand Broadcasting Service (NZBS) and regional finalists dressed in smart suits, hats and gloves travelled to Wellington for the contest.

"By rail and air the 15 district finalists from all over the country converged on the capital city for a high powered weekend," wrote Dorothy Moses of the NZ Woman's Weekly .

It was front-page news when Mrs New Zealand gave birth to daughter Robyn Sicely.
It was front-page news when Mrs New Zealand gave birth to daughter Robyn Sicely.

"They were grilled and drilled, wined and dined, queried and wearied feted and sated..."

The contest was a test of character rather than a beauty contest says Jill, who was pregnant with her sixth child at the time.

"We didn't have to parade in swimsuits and gowns like the Miss New Zealand contestants.

"We wore our best clothes and used our best manners."

Assessing the contestants were Mrs Ina Allan, fashion expert, Mrs Nancye King, home science expert and a Mr Stock, whose credentials were not noted.

Judging from the "male point of view" he asked questions such as "Should a husband take his wife into complete confidence about his business affairs?" and "Should wives enjoy a separate allowance for clothes and personal expenditure?"

When asked what he thought of Mrs Sicely afterwards, Stock pronounced her to be "a sweetie".

Whanganui farmer's wife, Jill Sicely was the first Mrs New Zealand in 1960.

Jill can't recall now how she answered those questions.

"I hope I answered yes to both.

"We didn't have a lot of spare money in those days with five children to feed and we were still establishing the farm."

Ian, who was 11 years older than Jill, had been allocated the land as a rehab farm after his service in World War II and the couple had lived in army huts before they built their house.

"Ian was a wonderful father and ahead of his time in the way he looked after the children.

"He was always willing to help with night feeds and changing nappies."

He stayed home to look after the children while Jill was in Wellington for the Mrs New Zealand contest.

Although television began broadcasting in New Zealand in 1960, it was too early for the contest to be screened in people's homes.

Instead, the country listened in to the 2ZB radio broadcast from Kirkcaldies department store on Lambton Quay.

When Ian (listening to the broken bakelite radio) heard his wife had won his response was "Oh bloody hell!"

Ian and the children joined a welcoming crowd of around 1000 at Aramoho Railway Station which had been decorated and floodlit in Jill's honour before she was "whisked off to the Memorial Hall" where Selwyn Toogood was hosting an It's In the Bag show.

Jill was invited on stage as a celebrity contestant and wisely chose the money over the bag winning £70 to add to her Mrs New Zealand prizes.

As well as the new high fidelity record player with radio tuner, Jill was awarded £100 cash from NZBS, a tailored suit and coat, shoes, cosmetics, LP records, a portable sewing machine, a cake mixer, subscriptions to five magazines, travel rugs and a choice between a washing machine or dryer (she chose the dryer).

The most exciting prize was a trip for two to Sydney on a Teal Trans-Tasman (Now Air New Zealand) flight and a week in Melbourne where she was a guest of 3UZ Radio Station and the Victoria Travel Bureau.

It all sounds a bit overwhelming for someone used to the quiet life on a farm but Jill took it in her stride.

"I think I was quite overwhelmed but I managed to stay calm," she says.

She also made new friends amongst the other contestants and became firm friends with Wellington radio personality Doreen Kelso.

"Doreen was very kind - she would invite us to see shows in Wellington and put us up for weekends with our six children."

Born Jillian Tasker, Jill grew up on her family farm at Makirikiri and attended Upokangaro School and Wanganui Girls College before working at the Department of Maori Affairs until she married.

In 1960 she was 28 with children aged from 1 to 8 years old and one on the way.

"I used to have so many interests," she told The Listener after being named Mrs New Zealand.

"But now a growing family takes up all my time. Of course, I still have time for gardening."

She is still an avid gardener and her "small garden" outside her villa at Summerset Village is filled with lush plants and bird life.

She moved there with Ian when his health began failing in 2000 and loves the Puriri tree she planted when they arrived.

Ian died in 2004 and their son John and his family now run the Parapapra farm where Jill established two and a half acres of garden.

She is amused that a 1961 magazine article described her as "appealingly feminine and gay" as well as being a good cook.

Jill Sicely was the first winner of the Mrs New Zealand contest in 1960.
Jill Sicely was the first winner of the Mrs New Zealand contest in 1960.

It is true that cooking has been a life-long passion and she is a former Grand Hotel kitchen manager as well as one of the founders of catering courses at UCOL Whanganui.

When she is not gardening or walking her little dog Jasper, she does rather well in cooking contests held at Summerset.

The Mrs New Zealand contest still exists and the reigning title holder is Candi Sweetman, named in 2017.

The most famous person to hold the title was Lucy Lawless who won the 1989 contest before she became a well-known warrior princess .