18 September 2013

In honour of our women pioneers

Today, 19 September 2013, is the 120th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, the first country in the world to give women the vote. It seems appropriate on such a day to pay homage to some of my pioneering women ancestors who lived through those exciting times in our nation’s history, though I doubt many, if any of them found this internationally significant event impacted on them very much, if at all. 

I imagine most were far too busy milking the house cow and churning the butter, tending the garden and baking the bread, handsewing new clothes and handwashing dirty old ones, and caring for their numerous children to even notice the dizzy heights which they and their fellow female New Zealanders had reached. The situation imagined by the cartoonist in the N. Z. Observer and Free Lance of 23 September 1893, that women would be out galavanting till the wee hours while men stayed home and minded the babies, certainly never came to pass for my hard-working female ancestors!

My great-grandmother Jessie Louisa Arthur (nee Bust), known as Louie, was born in 1871 at Blueskin Cove in North Otago, and married John Harold Arthur in 1889 at the All Saints Church in Ponsonby. By the time this photo was taken in 1904, she had already given birth to 9 children, was pregnant with her 10th and was to have 14 children in total. She may also have miscarried several children, as there is a six year gap between child number ten and child number eleven. She fell pregnant almost immediately after her marriage and had her final child in 1915, 25 years later. Amazingly, she lived to be 78, dying of chronic myocarditia and a cerebral haemorrhage in 1946. Her hard life did affect her towards the end of her life: the family had to tie the front gate closed as Granny Arthur would otherwise wander the streets of Ellerslie in her nightie, only to be delivered home with the morning milk by the milkman!


Another of my great-grandmother’s Jane Allen Welsh, nee Gunn, was born in 1875 in Christchurch and was married there in 1899 to Matthew Roger Welsh, a carpenter. I believe this photo is from around that date. Around 1916, Jane and Matthew and their nine children moved to Te Hoe in the Waikato, where they took up a grant of approximately 300 acres of uncleared land. With their children’s help, they struggled to clear enough land to create a viable farm. Life was harsh and they were very poor. My grandmother, one of their children, told me how all the children were dressed in clothes made from one bolt of material.

Jane was another woman who bred well, having 12 children in total. And, though one wee girl died at 6 months and another was born blind and dumb and died at 12 months, seven of the other ten kids lived into their eighties. Sadly, Granny Welsh was not so lucky: she died at the age of 68. The immediate cause of death was acute heart failure with toxaemia but she had suffered from diabetes mellitus for 20 years and had lost a few toes to gangrene caused by the diabetes.

Great-great-grandmother Eliza Rae nee Griffin (below left) was born in Wellington in 1857, and married James Rae in 1875 in Geraldine. Theirs was another large family: Eliza had 13 children between 1876 and 1898. James and Eliza spent most of their married life at Peel Forest, in South Canterbury, where husband James, a Scotsman, was a bushman. Eliza died aged 68, from a bout of pneumonia but she had also been suffering from senile debility for some time.

Eliza’s mother, my great-great-great-grandmother Mary Griffin nee Harris (above right) was born in 1835 in England, and married husband Martin Griffin at Aston, in Warwickshire, in 1856. The following year they emigrated to New Zealand and lived in various places around the Canterbury region, where Martin owned farms and worked as a farm manager. Mary lived to the good age of 84, then died of heart failure, but she too had suffered from senility, for 14 years.

Granny Griffin, with her daughter Eliza Rae and a great-grandson, at the Rae homestead at Peel Forest


My great-great-grandmother Mary Miller Johnstone, nee Little, was born in Castleton in Roxburghshire, Scotland in 1836, married James Johnstone in 1852, and emigrated to New Zealand in 1863. Mary’s is a true pioneering story, which has been told in the book Coal Range and Candlelight:

Among the earliest settlers in the Ashburton Gorge were Scottish immigrants Mary and James Johnstone. Mary Miller (nee Little) was born in New Castleton, Roxburghshire, Scotland in 1836. She married James Scott Johnstone at the Ashkirk Manse, on 9 December 1853. Shielswood Farm, where James was employed as a shepherd, became their home. Their journey to New Zealand began in July 1863, along with just over 300 other assisted immigrants. As they left, an epidemic of sickness was sweeping Britain. Passengers aboard the Brothers' Pride soon fell ill with scarlatina, typhoid and smallpox. The death toll reached 44, including 29 children, one of whom was little John Johnstone aged 15 months.
At the time the trip must have seemed almost endless. The logbook and passengers' diaries reveal that the ship was becalmed for three weeks and unrest flared among the crew. The already cramped conditions became most unpleasant with so many ill.  
On 7 December, after almost four months at sea, they sailed into Lyttelton Harbour. A yellow flag fluttered from the mast, signifying to those on shore that sickness was aboard. Mary, her husband and their three surviving children joined the other passengers in quarantine at Camp Bay. There they spent three weeks in primitive conditions living in tents, before being allowed to move to the Lyttelton Immigration Barracks.  
Their second eldest daughter Mary, later wrote in her memoirs of climbing the Bridle Path. A keepsake of hers was a dressed oak box bearing the inscription 'Brothers' Pride'. It reminded her of the voyage and was with her belongings for many years.  
The Johnstones set out by bullock wagon from Christchurch for Lake Heron, where James had a job as shepherd. They turned inland at Rakaia and followed Thompson's Track across a tussock-covered plain dotted with cabbage trees and matagouri bushes. A night was spent at Thompson's Accommodation House that had been built not far from the boundary of the Winchmore and Springfield Stations. The remaining nights were spent under the stars in the shelter of the wagon.  
At Lake Heron, Mary was kept busy with her young family while her husband was away shepherding. Within two years James was appointed head shepherd on the nearby Clent Hills Station. Mary's new home was a two-roomed cottage, one of a cluster of buildings erected at the foot of a small hill.  
A third daughter, Isabel, was born on 30 October 1864; her birth was registered in Christchurch. Isabel was to become Mrs William Morgan of Methven. Two feet six inches of snow covered the ground at Clent Hills on the July morning in 1868, when Mary gave birth to another son - Christopher John. The name John held a special significance for Mary and James. A son born in Scotland in 1856 had been named John, but he drowned at the age of six. In 1862, another son also named John was born, but died the following year on the voyage to New Zealand.  
The Johnstone family spent 13 years at Clent Hills. The children received lessons from a station employee, except for eldest son Tom, who was educated in Ashburton. By then the family had grown to 10. With children to care for and men to feed, Mary found there was little time for idle hands. At shearing time a cook was hired to feed the extra men. The 'stores', as James called them, arrived by horse-drawn wagon from Mt Somers. Mary had to find a safe place for the flour and sugar away from the mice which sought refuge in the cottage during the cold winter months.  
The children looked forward to family picnics and jaunts out to Lake Emily on the property. Another pastime was to go fossicking in a nearby creekbed for dark grey stones imprinted with tiny ferns. Their visits to the Lambie family at Mount Possession Station resulted in the marriage of Thomas Johnstone to Margaret Lambie.  
Mary's eldest daughter, Margaret, wrote of her mother riding to church on horseback carrying her baby in front of her. In those days services were held in the Mt Somers boarding house. When Clent Hills was sold the Johnstones moved to Springburn where they bought a property on the south bank of Taylors Stream, close to Alford Station. They called their land Roxburgh Farm after their homeland Roxburghshire. Their son Francis Finlay Johnstone was born in 1879 and his brother Norman in 1881. It would appear that 14 children were born to Mary.  
In their later years Mary and James lived in a house built for them near Springburn. They called their home Shielswood after the farm in Scotland where they began their married life. Mary lovingly tended her garden and looked forward to visits from her family, many of whom lived nearby. Mary Johnstone was buried in the family plot in the Mt Somers Cemetery on 3 May 1901. Her age was given as 65.