Charlotte Griffith Godley (1821 – 1907)

It never seemed to occur to Charlotte Godley that staying behind in England was an understandable option. After all, her husband, John Robert Godley was not to be away in New Zealand for more than 3 years.

Charlotte Griffith Wynne was born in North Wales in 1821. One of eight children in a well-to-do family, Charlotte grew up to be a prime example of what every Victorian-era young lady should be.

Even so, she had an unusual underlying strength about her. She knew her duties but never failed to trust in her own advice. She married John Robert Godley in 1846 without a clue of what was coming. She was a great favourite with her many nieces and nephews. One nephew showed his discontent with the couple – this four and a half year old strode up to Bridegroom and proceeded to kick him in the shins! He was taking away Aunty Charlotte and needed to be dealt with!

The following year, John met Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the owner of The New Zealand Company. Out of this historical meeting, the Canterbury Association was born. When ill-health threatened John’s well-being, a warmer climate was recommended. It was then that John offered his services to the Association while taking his leave in Canterbury. He was made the Chief Agent and the rest is history.

Bravely, Charlotte began to prepare for their journey to New Zealand. She was first to say that this move was ‘anything but pleasure’, the lack of amenities of a woman of her standing I’m sure was a troublesome certainty. Her own sisters were horrified with the thought, telling her it would be a shame for her to ‘spoil her hands’.

The Godley’s arrived in Lyttleton in April 1850. While on board the ship, Charlotte had began to write letters home to her mother. Now published, these letters show the author to be sensitive, witty and a sharp observer – sparing no one’s feelings with the power of her pen. These letters are a priceless view of early New Zealand and the characters that formed it.

“He grows more wonderful every day,” Charlotte wrote about James Edward Fitzgerald, even noting how he would leave his holland blouse ‘very open’. Everyone seemed to have the full descriptive attention of Charlotte.

On the 5th December 1850, Charlotte became the first women to venture out past Riccarton Bush, heading west with John, their son Arthur and a group of surveyors. Amongst this party were Charles Torlesse, Edward Jeringham Wakefield and Fredrick Weld – some of the founding fathers. Charlotte writes:

“We came to banks of the Courtenay (Waimakariri) on which we camped for the night. The little tent, just big enough for a bed for us three, was soon pitched. I assure you camping is the best fun possible, excepting at dressing time…as, though the gentlemen could go down to the river, Arthur and I could not quite manage so, but had to confine our evolutions to the top of our bed and kneel, as we could not stand upright in the tent, and of course no looking-glass so it was rather a scramble.”

The Godley’s left New Zealand permanently in December 1852 – now a family of four as Charlotte gave birth to the couple’s first daughter. Sadly, John would pass away in London in 1861. Charlotte hardly spoke of New Zealand but her family knew it was all stored fondly away in her memories. She died in 1907 at the age of 85 years.

*Text courtesy of Letters From Early New Zealand by Charlotte Godley*

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