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Catherine Bishop (photographed by Jesse Taylor).
Catherine Bishop (photographed by Jesse Taylor).

BooksOctober 2, 2019

Three women: stories of startups and sass in colonial Aotearoa

Catherine Bishop (photographed by Jesse Taylor).
Catherine Bishop (photographed by Jesse Taylor).

Catherine Bishop is embarking on the mother of all author tours for her significant new book, Women Mean Business. It’s a colourful history of women in business in 19th century New Zealand and it is busting with yarns and subtle zingers, beautiful old photos and a thoroughly-painted, confronting social context. Bishop writes about dozens of women, hundreds of them probably, all busting their guts in various ways – often because the men in their lives are abusive or absent, or just plain useless. Here are three of our favourites. 

Left: With such a display of wares there was no mistaking Ann Bird’s butcher’s shop, an institution in Trafalgar Street, Nelson. It was run by the indomitable Ann, probably shown here with her two younger sons, Charles and Reuben, and another man. Bird Butcher Shop, Nelson Provincial Museum, Bett Collection, 172. Right: Nelson butcher Ann Bird, looking a little weary of it all. She ran a 40-year business and brought up five children alone. Mrs Bird, Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio, 17353


The brutal business of butchery

Butchering, whether wholesale, carcase or retail, may not seem a particularly fem­inine business, but, as with other family businesses, women were involved. Across the Tasman in Sydney was the splendid Ritta Macnamara, witnessed by a young Randolph Bedford ‘doing six bodies a week’. ‘She handled the meat-axe and saw as if they were toys,’ he recalled. On this side of the ditch there were also female butch­ers. Jane Reese, for example, was a shipping and family butcher in Queen Street, Auckland, for ten years after her husband Robert died in 1852.

Ann Bird, often remembered as ‘the first white woman to step ashore’ in Nelson in 1842, wins the prize for business longevity. She inherited a six-year-old butch­ering business when her husband Reuben died in 1850, aged 32, although she may have been involved before his death. Her business became a Nelson landmark. Ini­tially, in 1851, fellow butcher Henry Hargreaves killed the beasts for her. Whether this was out of kindness or for a price, his support certainly helped. She did not advertise often but got free publicity from other businesses that stated they were ‘across the street from Mrs Bird’s butcher’s shop’. Her sons joined her in the business but Ann was in charge until her death in 1891 leaving an estate worth £950. Ann’s sons included Thomas, who hanged himself when he was 25 in 1868 after being told he had an incurable heart condition. He left behind his pregnant wife of two years, Harriet, and a one-year-old son. Rather than join the family business, Harriet more conventionally advertised a ‘day school for young children’ and then a boarding house at her home in the Washington Valley. Four years later she sold up and moved to Melbourne, where she married Edward Wilkinson in 1874.


Eliza Jenkins took advantage of the deserted wives legislation. She and her hus­band William had several children and were practised colonists, having lived in New South Wales and Victoria before ending up in New Zealand around 1861. Initially it seemed to be a good marriage. Entrepreneurial William had a partnership with Henry Pulford in a successful Dunedin upholstery business. Later, his store on the Dunstan and Lake Wakatipu goldfields flourished ‘beyond his most sanguine expec­tations’, according to a later newspaper report. But when William was employed as a gold buyer, in a situation where there was ‘little or no police protection, rowdyism was rampant and several robberies had been openly perpetrated in broad daylight’, his ‘intense anxiety and the fear of being attacked’ led to a breakdown. He ended up in the Dunedin lunatic asylum.

Crafty Eliza Jenkins ran hotels in Queenstown from 1866. She expanded in 1871, snapping up the British Lion Theatre for a mere £100. From 1875, family problems, a broken leg and eventually bankruptcy in 1882 spelled the end of her public business career. Lakes District Museum

Eliza and his business partner liquidated his property and Eliza bought the Melbourne Hotel in Queenstown in her son-in-law’s name, becoming a ‘respected’ hotelier. Upon William’s release in 1865, his wife kindly suggested he take a holi­day with their son, also William, to recover his health. For years the pair travelled around New Zealand and Australia, opening a furniture business in Brisbane along the way. When William returned to Queenstown in 1874, Eliza immediately applied for a deserted wives order. William sued Eliza and his son-in-law Josiah Mitchison for stealing his property, arguing the order was obtained fraudulently. Eliza won the court case – the only reason she is visible to history – but may not have deserved to. The convoluted evidence included information, prompting much spluttering from the court, that at one point Eliza had charged her husband board and lodging, presumably to demonstrate that they were not ‘cohabiting’ although living on the same premises. Outplayed, William’s lawyer George Elliot Barton deplored the way colonial magistrates dealt with such cases, which, ‘at home’ were heard in ‘the Supe­rior Court’. In New Zealand, however, he complained, it seemed ‘a woman could get almost anything from a Magistrate if she complained of ill usage by her husband’. ‘It was never intended for one moment that women should use the machinery of the Act for the purpose of getting rid of husbands they did not like,’ he concluded. Despite Eliza’s success, however, deserted women were generally vulnerable in a court case, and even with a protection order they were still legally tied to their hus­bands, unable to remarry.


Ink on a page

As with painting, middle-class girls were encouraged to scribble in diaries and jour­nals, but it was another thing entirely to publish novels, plays, poems and trave­logues. And actually getting paid for one’s writing, then, as now, was not always guaranteed; neither is it sometimes clear in the records. Some writers were clearly businesswomen, using their pen to make money, but others perhaps were not. Char­lotte Lees Evans wrote romantic novels in Oamaru in the 1860s and 1870s. Her first efforts were serialised in the local newspaper in 1865, but whether she was paid is not clear. Lady Mary Anne Barker was certainly paid. Her Station Life in New Zealand (1870) was enormously successful. Lady Barker was prolific, exploiting her well-travelled life and penning several further books in the early 1870s. Many of her works were part of a well-developed genre of female travel writing, although success was not guaranteed. Jane Hamilton Hope apparently published a Narrative Relating to New Zealand in 1857 in Dublin, but her book, if it existed, has left no trace. She probably hoped it would provide some financial relief. She had emigrated to Nelson four years earlier as a widow with three young sons, only to discover the land she thought she had bought did not exist. She persevered in New Zealand, including managing the Trafalgar Hotel, a position she held until she was 75 years old, but her literary ambitions went no further. Maria Thomson published her Twelve Years in Canterbury, New Zealand (1867) as one of several moneymaking ventures (see Chapter 5). She wrote, however, that she had been ‘induced to publish’ her ‘little work’ of ‘unadorned simplicity’. In reality a serious businesswoman, her self-deprecating words played to convention.

Napier’s Fanny Murdoch wrote the first ‘proper’ New Zealand cookbook in 1887, exploiting women’s supposed domestic expertise. The title, Dainties, or, How to please our lords & masters, raised eyebrows even then. Later, as domesticity became a science involving new technologies, Elizabeth Miller made a career combining cookbook writing with teaching.

Before women such as Louisa Baker were employed by newspapers as journal­ists they were considered ‘freelance’. Susan Nugent Wood was a contradiction. Although she earned money by contributing to newspapers and published literary collections, she held that ‘women’s work’ was in the home and involved self-sacrifice to family. Other women used journalism to espouse the cause of women’s rights. In 1869 Nelson’s Mary Ann Muller wrote An Appeal to the Men of New Zealand, a pamphlet in which she argued for the extension of the franchise to women. Pub­lished under the pseudonym ‘Femina’ in Nelson, it sold for a shilling. If Mary Ann herself was paid she had to hide her income, because her husband was apparently unaware of her feminist scribblings.

In Wellington Mary Taylor vented her spleen in private letters to Charlotte Brontë and Ellen Nussey but did not publish until after she left New Zealand. Then, already with property investments and shopkeeping profits, she turned to her pen for additional income. Her publications reflected her feminist views. In the Victoria Magazine in the 1860s she wrote that ‘the first duty … is for every woman to protect herself from the danger of being forced to marry’. She also published a novel, Miss Miles, which she had been writing in New Zealand.

Women Mean Business: Colonial businesswomen in New Zealand, by Catherine Bishop (Otago University Press, $45) is available at Unity Books.

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