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

Isabella Williams

Isabella Brough was born in Perthshire, Scotland about 1806, and baptised at Errol on 25 January 1807. Her parents were Mary Valentine and her husband, Charles Brough, a labourer of Leetown. At 25 she married a baker and confectioner, John Williams. Eventually John established himself in business at Dumfernline.

The couple were attracted to the colonising plans of the Canterbury Association, and, with their two sons and five daughters, travelled to Plymouth. There they became assisted passengers in the steerage compartment of the Randolph, one of the First Four Ships. The vessel sailed on 7 September 1850.

On 16 December the ship anchored in Lyttelton Harbour, and such steerage passengers as came over to Christchurch were promised spots in the Market Place, now Victoria Square, where they and their families might squat. John Williams climbed the Bridle Path, reached the summit, and there, like Moses, gazed upon the promised land which he would never reach. Fitter souls who had staked out their claim and were returning to Lyttelton, found his lifeless body. A heavily-built man who had had little exercise for three months, he was ill-prepared for the harsh terrain and beating sun and had fallen victim to a stroke.

Isabella kept her head, sold yeast to fellow immigrants, and allowed the Anglican cleric Edward Puckle to open a subscription on her behalf. This featured prominently in the first edition of the Lyttelton Times (11 January 1851), emphasis being placed on John's 'high character' and the fact that he had died 'while making praiseworthy endeavours to find a suitable spot on which to locate his family'.

January 11.

AS it is generally believed that many
persons have been debarred by circum-
stances from hearing or fully understand-
ing the distressing facts connected with the death of the late JOHN WILLIAMS, and
the hopes which are entertained of the pros-
pects of his deserving family, it is hereby
intimated, that the SUBSCRIPTION which
was set on foot at the time of the calamitous
event has not yet closed, and that the
following gentlemen are ready to receive
donations, and to give information on the subject:-

On 15 January the clan sought refuge with the Deans brothers at Riccarton. Isabella contacted a relative in Scotland, and arranged that he send out 'scotch tweeds, knitting, worsted, linseys and socks' so that she might establish a drapery business in Christchurch.

In 1852 Glasgow House - a 'little shop' according to one contemporary - opened its doors in Colombo Street opposite the Market Place. Later the premises and living quarters were expanded. R E Green recalled how H E Alport's two-storey auction rooms 'merged into and formed part of Mrs Williams' drapery establishment (which became) a much larger building of two storeys. It had much larger shop windows, and three larger dormer windows above'. Under later proprietors, Armstrong's, the business swallowed up the area to the Armagh Street corner.

Isabella's advertisements describe her as a 'wholesale and retail draper and silk mercer', and as an 'importer of drapery goods of the newest patterns and best qualities'. It was an age when fly-by-night customers could easily leave behind a trail of unpaid bills. This explains the draper's punchline: 'Has always on hand a large and well-selected stock to choose from, at very moderate prices, for cash'.

Glasgow House was the scene of the nuptials of several of Isabella's children. The daughters, who had worked in the shop, married older, established men. Two spouses were doctors, a third was a merchant and a fourth a commission agent. Elizabeth Williams made what seemed the best match. Her husband, the powerfully built, aggressive William 'Cabbage' Wilson was 'the richest man in Christchurch', and a nurseryman who moved into politics. In 1868 the couple were the first Mayor and Mayoress of Christchurch. Wilson lost his public standing when he beat his wife and swindled an estate of which he was trustee.

One daughter, Emily Hay, was widowed, and returned to Glasgow House. When Isabella died on 8 August 1882, her estate, valued at 'under the sum of £4000', was divided among her children, Emily receiving an extra portion 'as a special acknowledgement of many kindnesses and much consideration shown towards me in my declining years'.

Isabella was a Presbyterian who emigrated under the auspices of the Canterbury Association, a body whose aim was to transplant a section of class-ridden, Anglican Church-dominated, rural England to the Antipodes. She was also a working class widow who succeeded in the harsh economic climate of colonial New Zealand. She and her sons are buried in the Anglican section of the Barbadoes Street Cemetery. Their tombstone has a reference to John, although he is buried at Lyttelton. At the base of the monument is inscribed 'All Canterbury pioneers'.


Special thanks are due to Ron Chapman of Hoon Hay and Joan Woodward of the Canterbury Museum.

Other resources - Christchurch City Libraries