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

Susannah Bligh

Susannah Owen was born in Liverpool in 1842, the daughter of Susannah Witnall and her husband, Richard Owens, a sawyer. In June 1859, she married John Bligh who has been variously described as American, Irish, or from Liverpool. With him she emigrated to Canterbury.

In Christchurch Susannah gave birth to a son, Theodore Rupert, and a daughter, Susannah Letitia. Both died in infancy. When it became clear that she could not bear healthy children, Susannah sought out two of the many ex-nuptial babies born in the colonial town. The adoptive son was Dicky, the daughter Florence Ethel, or Florrie. In 1893 Florence was godmother to the daughter of John Bligh's second wife. In 1899 she married William Gilpin.

The Blighs' participation in the business activities of the young city are well documented. John, 'one of the best cooks that ever put a pie in an oven', had served his apprenticeship in Panama mail service boats. At the bottom end of Whately Road (now Victoria Street) he established a restaurant and boarding house. Of a generous nature, he 'never refused a man a bed or a meal if he had the brains, the capacity, and the will to earn something later to pay for it'. However, such an easy-going manner did not affect profits. Susannah was 'a splendid business manager, a circumstance that had a marked influence on the Bligh fortunes which rose as the years fluttered past'.

Observing how the masses swilled alcohol in the numerous public houses, Susannah found a niche market among a clientele which sought a completely different atmosphere. Bligh's was 'the resort of honeymooning couples for whose convenience special bridal chambers were provided'. Mrs Bligh's hand is apparent in the 1878 purchase of a five acre block on the corner of Papanui Road and what is now Bligh's Road. There the couple built a house and 'laid out a lovely garden' which supplied produce for the city establishment.

In the restaurant kitchen there were four ranges and four male cooks. Susannah ruled the cooks. However, the children who came into the 'nice smelly shop' to buy six penny worth of ham or meat pies, or gingerbread squares and halfpenny cakes topped with pink sugar saw only the gentle side of her nature. Years later one recalled that Mrs Bligh had 'a lovely face with dark eyes and black curls … always smiled and was very kind to us school children'. In the boarding house she was equally skilful at dealing with people: 'She could always command a large number of her boarders to give her a hand after tea to shell peas or do anything else she required'.

John, a heavily-built man, was 'very clean looking' and 'always had on a white apron and … Scotch cap'. He 'had very little to say but, like the sailor's parrot, he thought much'. The Whately Road complex was 'a household word throughout the length and breadth of New Zealand', but John, seeking further triumphs, bought a sandy waste at New Brighton. As road access was primitive, he made many boat trips with earth, plants and furniture from the Victoria Street bridge to the property. Conifers were planted, garden walks laid out, a playing field formed, and house erected. Sailing clubs, families and business groups picnicked at Bligh's Gardens, while conservationists enthused about how John had made the desert 'blossom as the rose'.

Susannah was briefly involved in John's apparent success. In 1885 picnic parties were encouraged to camp at Bligh's Gardens where 'Mr Bligh's family will hospitably provide hot water &c'. The following year Susannah was stricken with cancer of the uterus. She willed her property - valued at about £3400 - to her husband, and after two years' suffering, died at New Brighton on 7 February 1888.

Within three months, John Bligh, 'gentleman', was married to Kate Williamson. In 1893 he wrapped Louisa, new-born infant of the second Mrs Bligh, in the star-spangled banner, took her to the Gladstone Hotel and shouted for all hands. But the New Brighton speculation had 'about settled him financially', and he concentrated on the management of the Whately Road enterprise. Here he died in 1896, leaving an estate valued at less than £400. Kate struggled to keep the business alive but 'evil times fell upon her, and she too left the historical building'.

John and Susannah lie in an unmarked grave in the Burwood churchyard. Bligh's Gardens, to the south of the city council yards at New Brighton, were long ago subdivided for building sections. The restaurant and boarding house, near where the Salvation Army citadel now stands, became the site of Wildey's print office. But backblocks dwellers, unfamiliar with the changing face of Christchurch, continued to advise their just-married offspring to stay at Bligh's - 'it is so respectable' - and thus the printing office was, for years, aroused from its slumbers by couples seeking the 'famous boarding house' and 'ideal hash house'.


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