Women in the Church: Eliza White

Two New Zealanders attended the consecration in London of Christchurch’s first Catholic Bishop. They were Eliza White and her husband Alfred, on a business visit in 1887.

In later correspondence Eliza said she was unimpressed with the newly appointed leader of the newly established Catholic Diocese of Christchurch. Soon, though, she would alter her assessment of him. She became a staunch supporter of the learned Londoner and a prolific benefactor to the diocese he led.

Eliza died, in 1909. Celebrating her Requiem Mass, Bishop Grimes paid warm tribute to this remarkable woman. The English country girl was indeed remarkable. Orphaned at a young age, she received a very elementary education, supported herself as a nursemaid from the age of 14, and at 21 worked her passage to New Zealand as carer of a rich couple’s child.

Eliza and Alfred White became well known around Canterbury and further afield. Their home furniture and furnishings shop, A J White’s, was esteemed for its quality merchandise and honest dealings. It duly prospered. Eliza played a major role in the firm’s growth, especially as manager during her husband’s absence on buying trips and after his death.

Born Eliza Baker at Chippenham, Wiltshire, in 1841, she was the youngest of six children of a small farmer. Left an orphan at 11, she lived with an elder sister until leaving at 14 to earn her own living in Swindon. Little is known of her formal education but it is thought to have been minimal. However, she would later be referred to as highly intelligent, strong minded and financially astute. Perhaps she was desperate for a better life than England could offer.

The story is told that she first heard of New Zealand when a friend of the Godleys was talking. John Godley had headed the founding of Christchurch for the Canterbury Association in 1850. He and his wife, Charlotte, were leading citizens during their time in New Zealand.

The story continues that Eliza then consulted an aged seer who studied his tea leaves and advised her to go to New Zealand. So she embarked on the New Zealand emigrant ship Zealandia as a 21-year-old nursemaid, in September, 1863. At the end of the three-months voyage she stepped ashore at Lyttelton – and almost wept in despair. She wrote that she “thought her head would break” and that “if the boat had been returning then and there (she) would have gone back to the old country”.

One positive aspect of her situation must have convinced her to stay. On board she had met 27-year-old Alfred White, a fellow emigrant and a Catholic. Friendship developed into love and, in March 1864, the couple married in Christchurch’s Catholic Pro-cathedral.

Marriage Register entry for the marriage of Alfred and Eliza White 1864

As it was a “mixed marriage”, non-Catholic Eliza took the required oath to guarantee her husband the right to exercise his Catholic faith and to raise any children they might have in the same faith. She soon accepted the Catholic faith for herself and was formally accepted into the Church in 1866.

Alfred had trained in several crafts, including cabinet-making, at home in Taunton, Somerset. He had learned much from his father who ran a business making fine furniture and trading antique pieces.  Settling into Christchurch he felt his future would be best assured in the furniture trade. So the firm of A J White’s was launched.

In the ensuing years Eliza bore seven daughters and a son. Two further children were stillborn. The success of the furniture trade, which diversified into home furnishings, allowed her to hire home help. This spared her to take part in management of the business. It also enabled the Whites to send their girls to boarding school with nuns in Timaru from the age of 11. The only reference to the son’s education is an extract from the memoirs of Margaret O’Reilly, the Irish cook and laundress for the Whites, who mentions their son finishing his education in England.

At the start, O’Reilly says, Eliza ran the little shop while Alfred built furniture and made weekly treks to Lyttelton to buy and sell furniture. Before the rail tunnel was opened, this would have required climbing over the Bridal Path on foot with items of furniture packed on his back. It was at these times, and on Alfred’s numerous trips unaccompanied to England to buy antique furniture, that Eliza showed her prowess in business and financial management.

A decade after their start, the Whites decided to sell the firm and take a trip “home” together. They planned to set up another business in Wellington when they returned. A Mr Sheat bought the company but, for reason unknown, Eliza then decided she would not go to England. So Alfred went alone, in 1875. On his return the couple moved to Wellington. But before they could start a new business there, a telegram came from Sheat pleading bankruptcy and offering the business back to the Whites at a price less than they had sold it for.

The Whites bought the business back. Quickly they resuscitated and expanded it. A new three-storeyed brick building was opened on High Street in 1879. Staff numbers there exceeded 80, ranging from craftsmen building furniture in a factory to removals men storing and carting furniture in horse-drawn pantechnicons. The company was sold in 1980 and merged with the firm McKenzie and Willis.

Eliza’s and Alfred’s joint trip to Britain eventuated at last in 1887. In her memoirs O’Reilly claims the reason for the couple’s journey was to be reconciled to eldest daughter, Cissie, and her husband, a Mr Withell. O’Reilly says the Englishman Withell had become a friend of the family and visited them often. He had fallen in love with Cissie and she loved him. Withell proposed marriage but Cissie’s parents opposed this as Withell was 10 to 15 years older than her. However, when Cissie was 21 the enamoured pair married “quietly” just before Withell was due to return to England. They then departed as husband and wife. Harsh words and hurt feelings must have stricken the Whites with remorse enough to seek reconciliation.

O’Reilly poses another motive for the Whites’ trip. “They took their son with them to finish his education in England,” she writes. They could have known nothing of the forthcoming consecration of Bishop Grimes before they arrived in England. It was blessed coincidence that they were able to attend the service.

Several references in O’Reilly’s memoirs indicate the grand style in which the Whites lived in Christchurch and the deep devotion they had to God and the Catholic Church. For instance, O’Reilly writes: “Mrs White went to Mass every morning and after breakfast a bell summoned the staff to the dining room for morning prayers”.

A J White’s was by now a complex business and Eliza had played a big part in its development. She did not stop there though. Her flair in property dealing was widely known as the company bought blocks of land in the central city and various suburbs. A major investment was the purchase of 60 hectares in the Clifton-Sumner area for residential subdivision. Others included a small farm at Opawa and a larger one just outside the city’s south-west boundary. The family moved home several times but seem to have liked living at Opawa best.

The wider Sumner area was a focus for the Whites’ property purchases. It was there, too, as devout Catholics, that they made generous gifts to the diocese. These included land and buildings for a temporary church in 1889. Following Alfred’s death in 1895, Eliza donated land for the current Sumner Catholic church that opened in 1913. Many other donations were made to church and civic causes.

Our Lady Star of the Sea Church, Sumner 1913

By then, of course, Eliza’s impression of Bishop Grimes was most positive. She built the grand volcanic stone mansion, Rock Villa, at Sumner and is believed to have offered it to the bishop as his residence. The bishop gracefully declined the offer. She made generous donations to the bishop’s most dear project, the building of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Barbadoes Street. The cathedral project came near to being cancelled because of rising costs and lack of money – perhaps it would not have been built without Eliza’s munificence.

Alfred had been ill for some years before he died in 1895. This placed even more burden on Eliza but she seems to have flourished with the responsibilities of management. After her death in 1909, further benevolence was witnessed in her will. With careful and canny wording, she bequeathed funding for the building of two orphanages in Christchurch – one for girls and one for boys. She stipulated that the girls’ establishment be built first and the male orphanage must not be undertaken until costs for the first project had been met. While Eliza intended the orphanages primarily for housing Catholic children, she insisted that “no children of any other religious denomination should for that reason be denied admission”.

Eliza required also that the first orphanage be named St Joseph’s, that it be administered by a “Religious Order of the Catholic Church” approved by the bishop, and that administration be subject to the control of a board of five trustees. The estate trust board would consist of those three of her daughters who remained in Christchurch, plus a lawyer and an accountant. The only unmarried daughter, Maud, chaired the board and remained active on it until her death at 85 in 1960. The trust estate owned six large city properties, each containing several buildings. After final settlements, the trust estate’s value was estimated at £40,000, more than a century ago (worth $5.4 million today).

The trust considered a site on Prestons Road, north of Christchurch, for the first orphanage but decided it was too remote from the city. Instead, the orphanage was built on Nash Road, Halswell, in the mid-1930s. It occupied land subdivided from the Mt Magdala property and was operated by Sisters of the Good Shepherd. Demographic changes from about 1950 forced the trust board to consider different methods of caring for orphans. These included the admission of young boys, as it became clear the mooted boys’ orphanage would never be built. By the late 1970s declining numbers of orphans and nuns, and the development of new methods of care for children, led to the closure of the orphanage. The building was sold to a Christian group and converted to a school. It was later demolished. The White Trust meanwhile assumed the caring for needy people in smaller homes.

Book cover of John Fletcher’s history of the Eliza White Trust, published in 2002

It is difficult to establish the type of person Eliza was. Her obituary in The Press newspaper refers to her as having “displayed not only keen business ability but foresight and enterprise”. Local historian John Fletcher has written: “She was indeed a strong woman and her strength of character was from all accounts passed on to her daughter Maud who played a key role in seeing the provisions of her mother’s will were carried out”. Bishop Grimes eulogised Eliza as a woman with a wonderful brain and willpower, a stern sense of duty, and a constant compulsion to work.

Intelligent and strong-minded, with a flair for financial and business affairs, is about all that can be gleaned about Eliza from archival sources. Her image as a short, stout figure similar in appearance to Queen Victoria is noted. Whatever her nature and however she felt about sending her children away for schooling at such young ages may never be known. But surely she would have been pleased to see the ongoing work of the charitable trust that became her memorial.


Thanks to the author Michael Crean

Images from Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives collection


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