World Famous Author Flees Christchurch While Rumours Fly – 1863

As the bells of the Holy Trinity of Avonside tolled over the eastern side of Christchurch, the parishioners made their way to church.  Amongst them were two good friends: the promising writer, Samuel Butler, and budding politician William Rolleston.  These two would have made their way to church – by foot or horseback – quite likely discussing worldly issues or sharing local news; but there was no doubt that their attendance of church had little to do with their spiritual welfare.

Once the two men would enter the small church, their eyes would instantly stray toward the choir who were ready to start the worship. There, amongst the 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 the gossip would be for many years.

As Samuel Butler fled Canterbury without hardly even a goodbye, the rumour was that his marriage proposal to Mary had been rejected and that she had accepted William Rolleston’s proposal instead.  No one was more surprised than Rolleston himself who was 10 years her senior and of a rather melancholic nature.  Mary, the most popular Belle of Christchurch, had grown great in her self-confidence – especially having been hostess to her father’s political friends at their ‘Linwood’ home and knowing she could easily bring a room full of men to a standstill when she made her entrance.  This odd pairing did nothing to cool the gossip!

The young Samuel Butler (his most well-known book is ‘Erewhon’) arrived in Canterbury in 1859 in an attempt to separate himself from his overbearing father.   After exploring a great deal of the Canterbury High Country, he purchased 5000 acres near the headwaters of the Rangitata River and began two years of very successful sheep farming.  He named his property ‘Mesopotamia’. The grassy remains of his cottage foundations are a must see for any Canterbury historian or Samuel Butler fan.

Around the same time, alongside the Wilberforce River, William Rolleston (who was a teacher by trade) was also making his way in farming named his place ‘Mount Algidus’. He spoke to his stock in Greek and Latin so as to not to get rusty, bathed daily in the icy waters of the Wilberforce and was also known to keep a book of Tennyson’s poems under his pillow.  His life changed when the Canterbury Superintendent, Samuel Bealey, asked him to join the Canterbury Provincial Council.  Rolleston accepted and, after his arrival in Christchurch, soon laid eyes on Mary Brittan – and the rest is history.  They married in 1865 and Rolleston served as Superintendent from 1868 till 1877.

And what about poor Samuel Butler?  Was his heart broken?  He would always say it was but that it wasn’t over Mary Brittan, whom he claimed to be only “very fond of”.  His heart was broken over leaving Canterbury the way he did.  He loved his life here and always grieved over the way he left.  Even after explaining the reason having been due to the death of his father and the great inheritance that waited, no one ever forgot this bizarre love triangle that had Christchurch all in a buzz!

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