Don’t be misled by the tightly pulled hair and the unsmiling visage of Lady Mary Anne Barker. Beneath that demure Victorian façade beat a heart as wild and courageous as any Rider Haggard hero. Lady Barker travelled the world during her lifetime, from her native Jamaica to India, Australia, Trinidad, Madagascar and New Zealand and left behind twenty-two books chronicling her adventures.
Lady Mary Anne Barker
Station Life in New Zealand provides a fascinating account of her years Downunder , the pages rippling with merriment as they bring back to life the now vanished colonial world of flood and storm, picnics and balls, exploration and peril.
Lady Barker’s New Zealand adventure began in 1865 when, as a 34 year old widow, she married Frederick Broome, eleven years her junior. They immediately set sail for the fledgling colony where Broome had purchased a South Island sheep station, Steventon – yes indeed, named after the same vicarage of Jane Austen fame. They spent the following three years here, tucked under the vast reach of the Southern Alps.
Her first impression of Christchurch was of a very pretty little town, still primitive enough to be picturesque, and yet very thriving. She exclaimed over the health of the children and the handsomeness of the men, bronzed and stalwart – in splendid condition. The gold rush had drawn adventurers from around the globe so men vastly outnumbered women in the colony. This led to all sorts of unexpected problems, such as women having to dance all night with an unending supply of partners – which did not seem fair, considering the number of partnerless young women at London balls.
A post office in Christchurch in the 1860’s.
The shortage of women also meant servants were hard to find and became far more assertive than when back in Britain. Some nursemaids told mothers you’ll keep baby yourself o’ nights and Lady Barker was astounded when the maid in her lodging house asked if she could cut a pattern off her riding habit – her best one!
Realising she would have to learn to cook, Lady Barker armed herself with a cookbook which, she lamented, assumed the user had at least a modicum of experience, and threw herself into the task. I must confess some of my earliest efforts were both curious and nasty, but F—ate my numerous failures with the greatest good humour; the only thing at which he made a wry face was some soup into which a large lump of washing-soda had mysteriously conveyed itself.
Armagh Street, Christchurch. Circa 1860.
She adapted quickly to life on the station, and found the shepherds a very fine class of men…and I find them most intelligent; they lead solitary lives and are fond of reading. She therefore set up a lending library, using her own collection to keep them well-supplied, especially in their preferences for travel or adventure. She also set up a school for the local children.
Farming in New Zealand.
There were social occasions too; and we get a glimpse into convivial Victorian entertainments: card evenings, singing, round games and dancing. There were picnics in summer, ice-skating in winter. And always there was the joy of exploration, mostly on horseback.
But it was not always fun. Months after their arrival, Lady Barker gave birth to a young son who passed away just two months later and she describes his death with aching restraint.
Station Life in New Zealand has been reprinted a number of times and remains a highly entertaining read. Lady Barker’s lively accounts of everyday life provide a vivid record of a now vanished world but they also capture the excitement, the hope and the exhilaration that many migrants still experience today when embarking on a new life in a new land.