The legacy of Yvonne Featherstone

Yvonne Featherstone’s 25 year career in New Zealand customs saw her make history as the country’s first uniformed female customs officer. In May, Yvonne passed away, leaving behind a legacy of service to others.

Les and Yvonne Featherstone were married for 63 years.

Les Featherstone lost the love of his life this year.

And New Zealand lost a pioneer for women in the workforce.

Yvonne Featherstone made history in 1973 as the first uniformed female customs officer, paving the way for women to make their mark in New Zealand customs.

When Yvonne first began working at Auckland Airport in 1973, a male customs officer could not search a female suspect so female police officers would do a search if available.

At the time, Yvonne was working as a customs clerk, and was asked if she would do the searches when required.

It wasn’t long before the customs department decided they needed full time female customs officers.

Yvonne was the first to accept the job, a historic appointment that would be the start of many firsts for the Pakuranga local.

She was joined by Noelene Chamberlain and Audrey Barnet.

Yvonne later processed the first passenger through the new international terminal and became the first female investigations officer in Customs.

“She was extraordinary. She loved her work and I am so proud of her,” says husband Les, who also worked at the airport. He was chief fire officer in the Crash Fire Department.

Les says the key to Yvonne’s success was that she always went the extra mile.

He said one day when she was working on a surveillance job for an investigation, she was in the car watching a house when the occupant came out.

Yvonne Featherstone in the 1970’s in her customs officer uniform.

“She had to embrace her work mate to make it look like a courting couple. Good thing I’m not the jealous type,” Les laughs.

Les was his wife’s greatest supporter. The pair met in Scotland in 1956.

“I offered her a ride. I was also giving another guy a ride so I decided to drop him off first so I would get a few minutes alone with her,” Les smiles.

Five weeks later Les proposed to Yvonne in a bright red Rolls Royce fire engine and the couple wed in an intimate ceremony on March 6, 1956.

It was the beginning of a love story that would span more than six decades.

They returned to England together to start their family. “I loved her from the minute I met her and I knew she was the one for me,” he says.

Eventually the pair moved to New Zealand for GBP 680.

Their rent at the time cost them around $6.80 a week for a home in Mangere.

This was when Yvonne went back to work.

She started out as a sales officer for the UEB before moving on to work for the airport because it was one of few places that offered her equal pay.

She remained at the airport for 25 years.

After she retired, Yvonne became a foundation member of the Blue Coats hospitality ambassadors alongside Les. She spent 11 years in that role.

She also manned the police office at Pakuranga and worked for three years at the Citizens Advice Bureau at Pakuranga.

But her greatest love, Les says, was her family.

The couple had two children –daughter Janet and a son Mark – who they adored.

Five years ago, Yvonne started to become forgetful, says Les, which was the beginning of “that terrible disease Parkinson’s and Dementia. I was devastated watching her deteriorate and knowing there was no getting better. I loved her and felt helpless. I know that she loved me right up until the end.

“I held her hand and kissed her and she smiled before passing away.”