Unsung Heroines - Biographies of Christchurch Women written to commemorate Women's Suffrage Year, 1993

Ethel Clark

Ethel May Simmons was born at Timaru in 1878, the daughter of Mary Andrews and her husband, Henry Simmons, a tailor. In 1902 she married Ernest John Clark who was in partnership with his brother, Edward, as a woodturner. The business prospered. The couple lived at Bishop Street and later in the handsome two-storey stone-fenced house which yet stands at 16 Armagh Street. Two daughters, Myrtle and Gladys, were born. But Ethel sought more from life. When the Queen's Theatre building was opened in Hereford Street in 1912, it had within a sweets shop. Ethel was manager and employed boys to go into the cinema itself to sell. Ernest's interest in the business grew, and with Edward he designed an ornate soda fountain. Of grey marble, it had four sides and was shaped like a truncated pyramid. Ernest also made wooden moulds and Ethel whipped up icing Easter eggs which she and her daughters filled with sweets. When Ernest died of cancer at 50, in 1923, his will described him as a confectioner.

In 1929 McKenzie and Willis took over the Queen's Theatre building. Ethel, now married to George Christian Lang, moved round the corner to the tiny shop at 707 Colombo Street. To business associates and customers, she remained 'Mrs Clark', while the name Queen's Confectionery kept alive the memory of the defunct cinema. Many of the fittings of the theatre shop were transferred to the new establishment including a counter with a brightly polished brass rail along the top, tall glass bottles with elegantly shaped stoppers, and the Clark brothers' soda fountain.

Les Dew recalls that 'Central Christchurch had many one-person businesses', their owners becoming local 'characters' with 'no equivalent in today's chrome and plastic world'. Ethel was such a character. On entering her domain, one was struck by the delicious aroma of chocolate. There were 'chocolates under the glass cases on the counter and in boxes stacked on the shelves on the back wall'. Most stock was imported from England, Switzerland, Germany and Holland. Once Ethel had a dispute with the Customs Department. While she claimed that her liqueur chocolates were innocent confectionery, the bureaucrats argued that the substantial amount of alcohol in each chocolate should have a bearing on the amount of duty which should be levied.

Myrtle Clark's husband, Clem Knight, was vicar of St Chad's Anglican church, Linwood, from 1941-45. George Lang would arrive, commandeer the old copper at the back of the vicarage garden, and make syrups to his wife's recipe for the soda fountain. A dash of lemon before the other ingredients were added to the fountain gave the sarsaparilla a flavour much enjoyed by the shop girls of the city. Icing Easter eggs, now made by Mr and Mrs J Tyerman, remained a speciality. Regular customers ritually checked for the arrival of new shipments of confectionery; their reward was to receive a few extra chocolates when they made a purchase. Frequent purchases were made by couples on a night out at one of the many cinemas which then clustered in and about Cathedral Square. Youngsters who could not afford Ethel's wares watched for the disappearance of display chocolates, and came in to be given the 'window lollies'.

George and Ethel lived in flats in St Elmo's Courts and Cashel Street. Six days a week Ethel walked to her shop, served there till the evening, and then ate at the posh Zetland Hotel. Thereafter she returned to her post to serve the cinema crowds and late night shoppers. Sometimes her widowed daughter, Gladys Coxon, or a grandchild helped. But often her only companion was Joey. There was a series of Joeys, yellow or green budgies which hopped along the counter or sat on Ethel's shoulder. Sometimes Joey would go off on the shoulder of a clerical worker, and be brought back when his escape had been discovered.

Although wars and strikes threatened an enterprise which depended on the arrival of imported goods, Ethel was able to make her business a success. But it was contact with the public which most satisfied her. She looked forward to visits by the men who, as boys, had worked for her at the Queen's Theatre, and when on holiday outside Christchurch, was pleased to meet former customers. She told a reporter:

"I have enjoyed every minute that I have had in business … I loved selling sweets when I first started, and I love it now. The personal associations started in the shop have brought me a great deal of pleasure, and I would not change my occupation for any other in the world …"

George was tall and Ethel very short, her head and shoulders just appearing above her shop counter. For her, service and quality of commodity were paramount. She was a good saleswoman, possessed a dry sense of humour, and always had a kind word for regular customers and their families. She liked antique furniture, the feel of velvet clothing, and perfume. At Christmas she plied her grandchildren with strawberries, cream and icing sugar, but was herself without a sweet tooth. As she told the reporter: 'I seldom ate sweets as a child and never taste them now'.

Ethel was conscious that she had served longer as a confectioner than any competitor, and possibly longer than anyone in New Zealand. On Saturday 22 July 1950 she served the evening throng. Two days later she was dead.


  • Births, deaths and marriages, Christchurch
  • E F Davidson scrapbook, Christchurch City Libraries
  • 'Easter eggs most of the year' (article on the Tyermans), Press, 23 March 1966
  • Ernest John Clark's will, Archives New Zealand, Christchurch
  • Ethel May Lang's will, Archives New Zealand, Christchurch
  • Jackson, Robert, Film and New Zealand, 1978
  • Linwood-Bromley burial book, microfilm, Christchurch City Libraries
  • McLauchlan, Peter, 'Canterbury sketchbook' Press, 27 June 1992
  • McLauchlan, Peter: Papers, Christchurch City Libraries
  • Star, 25 July 1950
  • Richard Greenaway: Interviews with Ruth and James Russ, James Coxon, Rona Hayles and Gwendolene Agassiz, November 1993

Other resources - Christchurch City Libraries