Mary Rolleston (1845 – 1940)

“…nothing said about the Pilgrim mothers? Yet, they bore the same discomforts, hardships and privation and in addition had to put up with the Pilgrim fathers.”

Mary Rolleston – Woman’s Division of the Farmer’s Union – Year Unknown

As the bells of The Holy Trinity of Avonside tolled over the eastern side of Christchurch – many years before she spoke these words – those of its parish made their way to church.
Amongst them were good friends -promising writer Samuel Butler and budding politician William Rolleston. Maybe as the two walked along or possibly rode on horseback, they may have discussed worldly issues, shared local news but there was no doubt that their attendance of church had nothing to do with their spiritual welfare.

As the two men entered the small church, their eyes would instantly stray towards where the choir stood, all ready to start the worship. There amongst the other singers, was an attractive young woman, the darling of the social circuit, Elizabeth Mary Brittan. Whether Mary, as she preferred to be called, felt the weight of their stares or not – she was destined to drive a wedge between the friends…or so it was gossiped of for many years.

Mary was born in Dorset, England in 1845. When Mary was four years old, her mother died – Elizabeth Mary Chandler and her father – Dr. Joseph Brittan – risked everything by marrying his dead wife’s sister, Sophia, a few years later.
The scandal that followed literally chased the family onto a ship heading to Lyttelton. It was a practical choice as Joseph already had family settled in Christchurch; his brother William Guise Brittan. Sophia was to also join her own family in the new colony as her sister Louisa was married to William; talk about keeping it in the family!

Joseph instantly ventured into the political circles of Canterbury but was most unsuccessful. Even though he fell short in that profession, he was still a popular man to have a cigar and a glass of brandy with.
So from a young age, his daughter, Mary got a taste of politics and as a young woman, played hostess with ease to many of the big and intimidating names of Christchurch with the Brittan’s home ‘Linwood’ being very popular. She would listen and learn from her father’s guests and had no problem expressing her own views on many different topics.
She was also very popular and with all the Victorian graces she could muster, she could bring a room full of men to a standstill when she made her entrance.

While Mary swirled her way around the social delights of Christchurch, a very quiet, doleful but aspiring William Rolleston was making his way in the world.
He was running his own farm – Mount Algidus – out in the Rakaia. He would chat to his hoof stock in Latin and Greek so he wouldn’t become rusty and read poetry every night before going to sleep, tucking the book safely under his pillow. He was a teacher by trade but dreamt of making a difference as a politician.

Moving his life to Christchurch, he began to climb up the ladder of government which included mixing socially in the same circles as Mary. He was a frequent visitor to ‘Linwood’, seeking the advise of Joseph and of course, to see Mary.

No one was more surprised than William when Mary accepted his marriage proposal.

Over 10 years her senior, the pair couldn’t have been more opposite. When William took to the knee – in the sand dunes no less – before Mary, the ‘rumour mill’ still hadn’t quietened down over the hasty departure of Samuel Butler just the year before.
The talk was that he had proposed to Mary and was rejected.
He was suspected to be homosexual and the fact that he fled Christchurch in the company of a ‘close’ male companion – the real reason for him leaving so quickly may never be known. No one argues the fact though that Samuel was more than fond of Mary.

So began the reign of the Rollestons! William and Mary were married on the 24th May 1865, of course, at the Holy Trinity of Avonside. They moved to Wellington the same year for William’s career. They only returned home to Canterbury when William accepted the position of Superintendent in 1868. Mary was William’s strict confidante but they did not always share the same views. As always, Mary had no problem speaking publically about her passions which at times were embarrassing for William.
She thought bibles in schools were a great idea and opposed the lowering of land prices, making it easier for the middle class farmers to make a go of it; both complete opposite views of William. Surprisingly, Mary was against the women getting the right to vote. She claimed women were too “inexperienced and uneducated’ for such a right.

In 1877, the Rolleston’s hit hard times when William took the historic title of being Canterbury’s last Superintendent after disestablishing the role.
Suddenly no money was coming in and William took his career back up to Wellington, leaving Mary and their children behind at the family farm in Kapunatiki. Mary hated every minute of it as it was a simple, isolating, baron existence and William was hardly at home.

So you can imagine how delighted Mary was when she returned to Wellington in 1880. She fell straight back into the role of hostess and was always in high demand for public engagements and social dinners.

When William died in 1903, they were back living at Kapunatiki. Mary returned to Christchurch and continued to do her public speaking and pushing on with other issues that took her fancy.

She died in 1940 at the age of 95. For a woman who loved to be amongst it, in it and around it, it was at the quiet Holy Trinity of Avonside that she played as a child, sang in the choir, got married, wept at her parents’ graves and finally was laid to rest herself, in the grounds – beside William.

Pictured here is Mary and William Rolleston and their children, at Kapunatiki in 1888. Standing at back: Rosamund. Back row: Hector, Mary and William. Front row: Arthur, John, Frank, Dorothy and Lance. Ground: Margaret.
Reference Number: PAColl-0713-01-2-4

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