Monday, February 19, 2018

Thames (NZ): Women on the Goldfield - Polly Plum

It is a common misconception that the women on the Thames Goldfield were merely beavering away in the home, the servants of their hard working husbands. Without doubt life was hard, and keeping the house would have been a major activity, but the women in general were anything but quiet. An excellent book covers the lives of women at the Thames - To Find a Fortune, Women of the Thames Goldfield, 1867-1893 by Rosemary Killip. (Victoria University of Wellington 1995)

Women on the goldfield were busy in community activities, connected with the churches and schools, along with the many charitable groups that existed to help those less fortunate than themselves. Many fought for their rights, whether it be the vote, limiting the sale of alcohol, or better conditions for their families. The newspaper provided an avenue for many to have their say, through letters to the editor. One of Thames' best known names who advocated for change was 'Polly Plum' aka Mrs Mary Ann Colclough.

A book has been published by Jenny Coleman that covers the exceptional life of this lady, known to us as a school teacher at one of the first goldfield schools.

The opening passage in Coleman's book reads:
"'I am well known and everywhere known as a firm and earnest woman's advocate, and I am content and grateful to be so considered' - so declared Polly Plum in 1871. The women behind the pseudonym was Mary Ann Colclough (pronounced 'Cokely'), described by a major Auckland newspaper in the early 1870s as the 'best abused woman in New Zealand of the present day'."

Mary Ann Colclough nee Barnes was born in Middlesex, England in 1836. Mary Ann immigrated to New Zealand, arriving in Auckland in December 1857. The following year, Barnes sat her teacher's examination with the Auckland Education Board and received a first class first grade teaching certificate. She ceased teaching at the St Barnabus School following her marriage 9 May 1860 to Thomas Colclough. The life of Mrs Colclough is covered in Coleman's book, let us leap forward to her time at Thames.

School Life at The Thames:
In August 1873 Mrs Colclough came to Thames and took over as headmistress of the Kauaeranga Girls' School that was in the old Presbyterian church - at the corner of Rolleston and Richmond Streets, Shortland Town. The school had been started in 1868 by Mr McKee, then later became known as Kauaeranga Girls' School, although boys were also on the school roll.

Above: The first Presbyterian Church (x) far right, that was used by the Shortland School during the week. Later used as Kauaeranga Girls School before a new building was constructed on corner of Sandes and Richmond Street.

Mrs Colclough was well received by the people of Thames. The Daily Southern Cross 14 August 1873, reported that children and parents alike were taken with their new headmistress. While attendance dropped from 250 to 150 of late, this was due to several epidemics, rather than a reflection of the education on offer. (report below)

Colclough appears as a hard worker, willing to travel to support her family and unfortunately not unfamiliar with money problems as a result of her moves, bankruptcy was an ongoing threat. Sadly new payment schedules for country teachers coincided with Colclough's move to the new school, not helped by the sudden drop in attendance. So the amount of money she was promised by the board never eventuated, and she was lowly paid compared to her counterparts in larger urban schools.

The Kauaeranga School and Mrs Colclough made the headlines in December 1873, when there was discussion over her stance of sending a pupil home because they did not have shoes. It was apparently a Board of Education ruling, but not always strictly adhered to if the child was otherwise cleanly dressed. Headmistress Colclough argued that the child was ashamed to come to school and that all parents in Shortland should be able to afford suitable shoes for their children.

In the Thames Advertiser 3 April 1874, Colclough advertised night classes for young ladies, particularly aimed at those who wanted to become teachers. This may have been an act to try and earn some extra money, for at the end of the month she had been forced to file for insolvency.

Following the bankruptcy proceedings things turned from bad to worse for Mary Ann, and the School Board sought to dismiss her - she in return felt they had discredited her name.  In the Thames Advertiser 31 August 1874, barely a year since this talented lady/teacher came to the school, she was dismissed from her position. The paper quoted Colclough's version of events and her sad financial state. The next replacement teacher would be Miss Frances Haselden, who went onto have a long association with the Kauaeranga Girls aka Sandes Street School. (Further background in the Thames Advertiser 2 September 1874 on Colclough)

Mrs Colclough aka Polly Plum:
The women's right activist side of Mrs Colclough is fully documented in the book by Jenny Coleman, it appears that she really was a trendsetter, that was ahead of her time - laying the groundwork for later women such as the suffragettes. Mary Ann spoke/lectured at venues around New Zealand and in Australia.While the papers are full of letters to the editor and other correspondence from 'Polly Plum' on the rights of women and their standing within the family and community.

How was Polly viewed by the locals? Feedback to the papers was often very unfavourable. Tommy wrote to the editor of the Thames Advertiser 2 September 1874, and reminded Polly Plum to not be so proud and remember she was a woman! The Thames Star kept up to date with Mrs Colclough's lectures and reported fairly the content she had presented. For instance in Melbourne her lectures on women's status were seemingly well received. (Thames Star 25 November 1874)
The Final years:
The Thames Advertiser 10 March 1885, announced the death of Mrs Colclough at Picton, aged just 49 years of age. Mary Ann had two children, Willie and Lulu.


The book by Jenny Coleman "Polly Plum A Firm and Earnest Woman's Advocate, Mary Ann Colclough 1836-1885" is available at the Thames District Libraries and libraries throughout New Zealand.

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