It wasn’t love at first sight for either John or Jane Deans…unbelievable concerning the history they made together.
Jane was born at Auchenflower Farm, Ayrshire, Scotland on the 21st April 1823. She was eldest child of farmer/gentleman James McIlraith and his first wife Agnes. When her mother died, Jane became the mother hen of her younger siblings, even when her father remarried.
Jane had been away from Auchenflower at finishing school when she returned home to what she considered to be a very unhappy situation. Never one to hold back on speaking her mind, she told her father in no uncertain terms that he was putting her honour and reputation on the line by letting the new farming cadet – John Deans – live in the main house with the family.
Un-swayed by his 17 year old daughter’s plight, Jane was forced by no fault of her own to ‘dislike’ this young man VERY MUCH!! No doubt aware of the heavy unwelcome weight of just being in Jane’s presence, John fell hard for Jane’s cousin, who he pursued and was rejected by.
While John was mending his broken heart, Jane had love life problems of her own. Gavin Brackenbridge, who had been a dear friend since childhood, was now growing up to be a fine example of a young Scottish gentleman and the pressure that they should make their match soon was coming in from all directions. Confused, Jane pondered over the matter endlessly, not sure why people expected her to end up with Gavin. She just didn’t feel that way about him.
John was to be a cadet at Auchenflower for 2 years in order to prepare him for his immigration to New Zealand. It is not recorded down when the affection tables turned for John and Jane but by the time John’s elder brother William was leaving Scotland for New Zealand, the pair took a long hard look at each other at William’s farewell picnic on Knockdolian Hill.
‘She is too young for such a commitment, just 18,’ John told himself, ‘will she even like New Zealand? Will I like New Zealand?’
It was there on the hill side amongst the other picnic goers that ‘an understanding’ was made between them…she would wait for him.
Jane would remember those last days with John in Scotland as the happiest of her life. She would later recall how John was always the life of any party and was a man of virtue and duty. As the time came closer for John to leave Scotland, he kept making Jane promise to him over and over that she would wait. No one could really say how long it would be before they would see each other again.
So Jane waited. She busied herself with tending to her younger siblings and half siblings, learning to keep house, leaning and taking strength from her faith and waiting for John’s letters to come. If either of them were lucky, they may just get two letters a year as it was 3 months each way by ship for the correspondence to travel.
At one time, John heard through other letters from home that Jane had gotten married. This proved to be mistaken identity as it was actually one of Jane’s cousins who had gotten married. Jane also received word that John had married a Maori princess which of course was a falsehood; so over the years, times did prove to be quite trying.
By the time John felt things were right to actually become engaged to Jane, almost 8 years had passed. He had himself a good life on the Canterbury Plains with his brother William, a successful farm and gardens beside a large group of trees that would become known as Deans Bush. The days of never seeing another face for weeks on end were coming to a close as the Canterbury Association ships were due any day. More people were coming; the dream that was the city of Christchurch was beginning.
So, Jane received her marriage proposal. While John was almost sick with nerves waiting for her reply, Jane would not be rushed or forget she was a lady! Yes, she would marry him but he would have to come home to Scotland to claim her.
Although the timing couldn’t have been any worse (William Deans had just drowned), John made plans to sail home to Scotland. When he and Jane finally tied the knot in September 1852, Jane was 29 years old!
Even suffering from homesickness and culture shock, I’m sure Jane couldn’t help but feel relief at seeing the Port of Lyttelton. After all, she was now 3 months pregnant and had been sick for the entire voyage. Placed on a one-eyed horse, she was led over the Port Hills via the Bridle Path. She was so weak that she stayed the night with friends of the family in Heathcote before continuing on to Riccarton the next day.
Unrecorded in any of John’s letters and journal entries during his trip home to Scotland, was the fact that he had been very ill with a fever. In Scotland, amidst all the wedding plans, a cough had settled on his chest and was proving to be stubborn. Surely, Christchurch’s warmer weather would put this ailment to rest. Unfortunately, this was not so.
Jane wrote that it was just a fortnight after arriving at Riccarton that she realised that John would not recover. She had viewed him from out of the Deans’ Cottage window standing in pain and Jane did her best not to despair.
Jane gave birth to a son – John Deans II – on the 6th August 1853. As John was slowly dying, he made his plans for Riccarton and Homebush.
Trustees were set up to help Jane with the business side of things and managers were assigned to both estates.
John died on the 24th June 1854 with Jane at his side. Taking her son in her arms, she made up her mind to live for him and keep his inheritance safe.
Jane read every document, letter she could find, trying to get her head around the matters of business that she was now facing. She took to the new challenges so well that the trustees really only heard from her when she needed their advice.
Never a robust sort of woman – she was a sufferer of illnesses and depression – she would not only outlive her husband, her only son and 4 of her grandchildren but earned the right to be a celebrity in her right.
She became an excellent business woman who knew good stock. She remained strong in her faith, knew what she wanted, fought the forefathers on more than a few occasions and won, and carried out her husband’s dying wishes by building Riccarton House and preserving the remainder of Deans Bush – all the time her faith as her rock.
When John Deans II came of age in 1879, she was there to watch him receive his inheritance, she had done it!
In her twilight years, she enjoyed being around her grandchildren who all held a great fondness for her.
Here’s William Deans memory of her – one of her grandsons.
“I can see Grannie sitting very upright by the fire chatting away happily, and waiting till 9pm for the toddy to be brought to her before retiring to bed for the night. It sounds an awful drink to me, but it seemed to do her good. I remember her once sitting down at an old piano and playing a tune very sort of weakly, and little weak voice singing old Scottish songs”
Jane died in 1911 at Riccarton House. She is buried with John at Barbadoes Street Cemetery.
*Jane Deans Profile image courtesy of Fairfax Media*
*Jane Deans Grave & Close taken by Annette Bulovic*