The writer of “Passing Notes” in the Otago Witness 13 November 1907, notes the women’s efforts in raising the tone of society resulted in some rather quaint activities and one of these was the Cradle Roll, ‘a mystic but motherly-sounding venture in connection with which birthday cards for infant members are a pleasing feature’. He was in fact reporting on the Women’s Christian Temperance Union who appear to have established a Cradle Roll Department at the beginning of the 20th Century, the purpose to encourage mothers to enroll their babies and then pledge to bring them up as abstainers.
Within the New Zealand Presbyterian Church the motivation to establish a Cradle Roll came from the local congregational level. Although the Rev. James McCaw, during the Sabbath School Debate at the 1905 General Assembly explained the purpose of a Cradle Roll and appealed for it to be established throughout the Church it never grabbed the imagination of the majority of “fathers and brethren” within the Church. At no time did the statistical Reports record the number of Cradle Roll babies and toddlers even though the local parish Annual Reports diligently told of the rise and fall of numbers. Judging by the parish collections, however, the majority of parishes enthusiastically took up the scheme and it continues to this day in a small number of congregations.
The main suppliers of printed Cradle Roll material appears to have been provided by the NZ Sunday School Union, who imported it from overseas. Most of the registers, cards, certificates and wall charts are designed and printed in the USA and England. The local Dunedin publisher A.H. Reed, a devout Christian, made an effort to introduce a New Zealand theme into the early Sunday School material he published but just how many congregations purchased this is difficult to know without further in-depth research.
Not until the 1960s did the Presbyterian Church provide any supporting publications related to the Cradle Roll until then parishes relied on the Church of Scotland Cradle Roll guide books sold through the NZ Presbyterian Book Shops.
What is the Cradle Roll you may ask? It was an outreach programme to make contact with families of young children under 5 years within the local community to arouse the parent’s interest in the local church and its Christian Education possibilities and eventual membership. The Cradle Roll Superintendent and helpers maintained contact with the children by occasional visits, praying for a child and its family when there was a crisis or illness and most importantly sending a birthday card on each child’s birthday. It was generally run under the auspices of the Sunday School but in some cases the responsibility lay with Women’s organisations or a Session member.
After a baby or child was baptized an invitation went to the mother or parents to enroll baby. The birth of a baby to adherent members and non-church attendees within the community also warranted an invitation. The names of the children were retained in a specifically designed register under their date of birth and a membership certificate provided. To ensure that the wider church community knew of these children a large wall chart of names was hung, generally in the Sunday School Rooms. Parish newsletters also included the names of new members and news of Cradle Roll activities such as Mother’s meetings. The annual birthday card was an apparent highlight judging by the number that have been donated to the Archives. As the children neared the age of 4 or 5 years they received an invitation to join the Sunday School in the form of a Promotion Certificate. The Cradle Roll system proved to be both popular and worthwhile and provided a steady number of new entrants into Sunday School. Parish Cradle Roll activity began to cease from around the 1970s as numbers reduced at the junior level and Sunday Schools became less popular.
Cradle Roll Records are a popular resource among family researchers who are seeking confirmation of family names and dates of birth and we have numerous registers from throughout NZ. The art work on the cards and certificates is quite fascinating reflecting the various art styles and what was considered an appropriate image for a Church group. There is an interesting shift in focus after WW2 with a move from the secular to more biblical imagery; a popular image being Jesus surrounded with small children, animals, birds and insects and the inscription “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”