Unsung Heroines

Alice Gapes

Alice Swindell was born in London, the last child of Elizabeth West and her husband, Joseph Swindell, a watchmaker and jeweller. In 1866, when Alice was 12, the family boarded the sailing ship John Temperley, their destination Lyttelton.

Some single women on the ship showed 'a blithe disregard for the conventions of deference and propriety'; interrupted divine service with a rendition of the popular song 'Slap, bang, here we go again'; and 'conducted themselves more like mad creatures than civilised human beings'. The Swindells tried to wipe from their minds the licentiousness which they witnessed. Perhaps significantly the first memory which Alice passed on to her children was how, in 1868, she saw a tidal wave, the result of a Chilean earthquake, take the waters from Lyttelton Harbour.

Joseph Swindell, back-room expert at the Christchurch firm of G Coates and Co, enjoyed a measure of status in the community, and smiled on his daughter's 1873 marriage to James Gapes. James' father, also James, had a painting and paperhanging business, was on the city council, and would twice serve as mayor. Alas, the son was an incipient alcoholic. An 1876 newspaper disclaimer from 'James Gapes, painter &c., Whately Road', read: 'In consequence of my name being uncommon in this province, I beg to state that I am not the James Gapes that was fined for drunkenness at the Resident Magistrate's court'. The identity of the culprit was obvious.

Alice's horizons remained limited. In her 36 years in Christchurch she never visited the museum. She bore 11 children, and was overtaken by poverty and lack of social standing as her husband slowly succumbed to drink and tuberculosis. Her children begged that she keep the peace when James came home, but defiantly, she would make the wounding statement: "Drunk again".

Alice was hostile to the honey-tongued religious charlatan A B Worthington. But domestic burdens scotched any nascent interest in public affairs. One son, Frank, had a hump-back. A second, Reg, lost a leg when he fell under the Sumner tram, and was ever after afflicted with epilepsy. In 1894 James died 'without any estate'. James Gapes senior was a prominent member of the Foresters' Lodge, and this body paid a small pension to the widow of the scapegrace son. In 1899 James senior himself died, and his executors arranged that part of the modest sum which was intended to be divided among his grandchildren should instead be utilised by their mother to 'maintain and educate the children who are minors'. Despite such assistance, Alice had to work to give her family a modicum of security. She was employed by Dr Orchard and Nurse Maude, and cleaned the Church of Christ building in Moorhouse Avenue.

The daughters complained about the extra portion of bread and dripping given their brothers, and were told the latter were 'growing boys'. For the girls education was rudimentary and their employment domestic. Conscious of her English birth, Alice scorned all her children as 'little colonials'. She was neither a liberal nor possessed of a wider view of Empire.

Her joy and bane was Reg - handsome, amusing, unstable, and sometimes violent. He would sit in the gutter with a long stick and splash the gentry when they went by in their finery. One hot day he, his siblings and their cousins went to Hagley Park. They failed to bring food, but Reg solved the problem by sitting on the footpath and pleading that he was a hungry penniliess cripple. Passers-by threw down coins whereupon Reg hopped up and led his band to the shops for a feed of cake and chocolates. In 1901 a mob stoned the premises of a Chinese storekeeper. Reg incited the rioters to resist arrest, and was himself brought before the Bench. He argued that 'there were no less than three one-legged men in the crowd, and he was not the one who had offended'. However, Constable McInnis 'was certain that he had watched his man carefully, and that there was no mistake. Reg was fined. Remonstrations from Alice about her son's anti-social behaviour brought the response: "Old Mother Gapes, you can be summonsed for hitting a cripple".

In 1914, at the age of 30, Reg was to be smothered during an epileptic fit.

Occasionally peace broke out in the Gapes household. Alice bought a family Bible, wrote out the genealogical details in the space allotted, and, in the evenings, read the children popular Scriptural stories.

Crippled with rheumatism, Alice saw one of her daughter's married at her bedside in January 1902. She lingered on till November and is buried in the Linwood Cemetery. Alice Gapes had no public persona. She is interesting as someone who coped as best she could with the burdens of Victorian womanhood.


  • Alpers, O T J, Cheerful yesterdays, 1928
  • Canterbury provincial government archives, Archives New Zealand, Christchurch
  • Church register transcripts, Christchurch City Libraries
  • James Gapes' will, Archives New Zealand, Christchurch
  • Linwood Cemetery burial book, microfilm, Christchurch City Libraries
  • List of assisted immigrants to Canterbury, Archives New Zealand, Christchurch
  • Lyttelton Times, 17 August 1868
  • Macdonald biographical dictionary, Canterbury Museum
  • Macdonald, Charlotte, Woman of good character, 1990
  • Press, 3 December 1901
  • Star, 5 August 1876 & 7 August 1876

Family information supplied by Daisy Greenaway, Christchurch

Other resources - Christchurch City Libraries