Katherine Mansfield and late 19th century NZ women

As I recently wrote about New Zealand writer Ngaio Marsh’s house in Christchurch, I thought I would now write about NZ writer Katherine Mansfield’s Birthplace (KMB for short), here in Wellington. However, I will wander off on tangents so bear with me. I have in some years been a member of the KMB so I have visited it numerous times, but not very recently.  A new manager, Emma Godwin, started a year or so ago and I was keen to see what she has done. This week the Old St Paul’s volunteers’ annual social gathering was held there so I had a chance to look around. More about the house later.

First something about KM – born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp on 14 October 1888 at Wellington, New Zealand, in the wooden house on Tinakori Road in Thorndon that is now the KMB. As the birthplace website says: “She found the confines of colonial Edwardian life stifling and sought inspiration for a new way of living in the writings of Oscar Wilde and other decadents. She … counted among her friends Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and the American artist Anne Estelle Rice… She was a rebel and a modernist who lived her short life of 34 years to the full. Her life spanned a time when gender roles for women underwent a radical change. Katherine Mansfield was among an emerging female professional class and saw herself as a writer first, a woman second.”[1] [my emphasis]

KM  KMB birthplace historic

Katherine Mansfield in 1920 from Te Ara blog ‘who the hell was Katherine Mansfield?’; and KMB from KMB website.    

Ngaio Marsh was born only seven years later than KM, but as she lived much longer (until 1982), she seems in quite another generation from KM. Katherine Mansfield became well known for her short stories, and Ngaio Marsh for her crime novels – both achieved success first in England (or ‘Home’).

Unlike the Ngaio Marsh House which Ngaio lived in most of her life (except when overseas), the Beauchamps moved in 1893. So Kathleen only lived in this house for her first five years. It had subsequent occupants, including Sir Truby King, the founder of Plunket Society. The house was returned to its original layout and design in the 1980s when the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society was established. “The restoration project was a significant undertaking. The house had been chopped about and changed over the years but thankfully some lovely original features, such as the bamboo style banisters, remained largely intact, and scraps of wallpaper were found that enabled their reproduction.”[1] The house does have some items that belonged to the family and to KM but they have had to be returned – some of these include: “chairs that belonged to Katherine Mansfield’s mother; her fathers’ desk and other decorative arts from the period”. Some rooms have been devoted to exhibits of Mansfield’s early years and accomplishments. As well as Mansfield’s typewriter and a collection of first edition books, the house contains a replica of the doll’s house described in ‘The Doll’s House’, correct in every detail from the oily green paint to the amber lamp. Other rooms have been furnished to reflect the social status of the Beauchamps during their period of occupation.[2]

The Beauchamps were quite well-off, KM’s father being a bank manager, and although the house was certainly not as grand as some at the time, it was a two-storey dwelling. Almost all houses in Wellington at that time were wooden. In 1887, KM’s father, Harold Beauchamp, leased land for a forty year period from the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Sir Charles Clifford [see my post on William Fox’s journey – part two, for a mention of Clifford]. A requirement of the lease was the erection of a ‘good and substantial house of the value of £400’. The house was built in the middle of an economic depression, however, and was plainly decorated. Apparently KM called it a ‘horrid little piggy house’ but this may have been in comparison with the more prestigious house in Karori they moved to in 1893. [3]

I love this lithograph of Wellington from 1894 – I used it when I was at Heritage New Zealand researching the house of architect Thomas Turnbull – which is the one in the right foreground that now houses the Italian Embassy. This image also shows the KMB – located in the wealthier part of Wellington.

KMB Thorndon lithog KMB thorndon detail

Right: Detail showing KMB house in middle, with porch on the side

Left: New Zealand Graphic and Star Printing Works. Artist unknown: Wellington, New Zealand, from Thorndon. Litho. at the N.Z. Graphic and Star Printing Works, from a photograph [1894]. Ref: A-385-023. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

Here’s a photo of Kathleen (back, left) and her four siblings in 1898, so after they moved from Tinakori Road.

KMB birthplace family

Bell, Vera Margaret, 1885-1974. Photograph of Katherine Mansfield with her siblings. Ref: PAColl-4488. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, c. 1898

I am interested in KM as a writer, but I’m also interested in her life and how it differed so much from what I suppose were the more ‘typical’ lives of New Zealand women of her generation. Both of my grandmothers were born in 1885 – by a strange coincidence on the same day: 18 May 1885 – and for anyone interested in coincidences, my paternal grandmother died on 18 May (1972). We have long drawn-out generations in my family so both of them died when I was quite young – I don’t remember them very well; but their names amused me – Winnie and Minnie.

This photo of my paternal grandmother, Winifred (the girl in the middle) with her sisters, mother, and aunt and her two children was taken the same year as the Beauchamp family photo above (1898). (See my post on NZ Edwardian photo album for more photos of this family). Winnie’s mother, Ruth Read, and aunt, Emma Read, were sisters (nee Sheckell) who married two Read brothers.


Read family, Wanganui, 1898

Ruth Read took her three daughters back to England in the mid-1890s – according to an aunt of mine, she didn’t intend returning to New Zealand or her husband; but, whatever the case, she did return to Wanganui after about two years away. My maternal grandmother Minnie (nee Allsworth) never visited England, she grew up on Brancepeth Station and later Masterton in the Wairarapa (see my post on “The Emigrants”) and married small-time farmer Norman Jones in 1908.

Another New Zealand woman born in Wanganui in 1885 was the artist Edith Collier – born on 28 March 1885, the eldest of 10 children of Eliza Parkes and her husband, Henry Collier, a music shop proprietor and substantial landowner. The Colliers were a musical family and active members of St Paul’s Presbyterian Church. Edith attended local primary schools and Wanganui Girls’ College.[4]

As she was born in the same year and town as Winifred Read (and they attended the same girls’ college) it seems likely they may have known each other, or at least had connections in common. I have read Joanne Drayton’s biography of Edith, and it makes rather sad reading. She went to England and in 1920 joined New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins’s classes at St Ives. “There she began producing the most comprehensively modern and experimental work of her career: ‘I have one very bright N. Zealander, from Wanganui, Collier by name’, Frances Hodgkins wrote to her mother. ‘I’ll make something of her I feel sure.’ Convinced of Edith Collier’s talent, Hodgkins could not anticipate the overwhelming obstacles her protégée would soon face. Persuaded by her family to return home, Edith Collier left England in December 1921. In New Zealand she quickly assumed the responsibilities of the eldest unmarried daughter. Nursing and helping family members meant she had limited time for her art.”[5] It got worse: “Savage criticism of her work on her return to New Zealand, negative responses from her own community, and the burning of the majority of her paintings of the female nude by her father left her demoralised and artistically incapacitated.”[6]

Frances Hodgkins was born in 1869 in Dunedin. She was to become one of New Zealand’s best known artists of the mid-20th century (she died in 1947). Her earliest known works, dating from about 1886, are charcoal sketches of relations. “When she left New Zealand in February 1901 she was following the example of many of her contemporaries, notably Dorothy Richmond, A. H. O’Keeffe, Margaret Stoddart and Grace Joel.” I also like her sister Isabel’s watercolours, but as the Te Ara biography of Frances says: Isabel Hodgkins married in 1893 and departed Dunedin to live in Wellington with her lawyer husband, W. H. Field. “As Isabel Field she continued to paint, but her responsibilities as wife and mother left no time for serious study and her work did not develop.”[7] Probably meaning she did not develop into the Modernist artist that her sister became well known as.

Another New Zealand author (actually born in Australia but moved here at age six) was Edith Lyttelton, born in 1873, she eventually wrote under the pen-name of G B Lancaster and was a widely read author in the early 20th century. It seems to me her mother was a tyrant (this is from reading Terry Sturm’s biography of her, An Unsettled Life). In 1909 she moved to London with her sister and mother, who had made the girls understand that they would never be allowed to marry, ‘as Mum had only had us in order that life should always be easy for her’. Her mother’s resentment of her meeting people outside the family meant that Edith was unable to mix in literary circles as much as she would have liked.[8]

The comment about Katherine Mansfield that I highlighted earlier (“Her life spanned a time when gender roles for women underwent a radical change.”) while true, there were still strong restrictions on women’s roles that perhaps only a few managed to overcome – if they even wanted to. I have no reason to suppose either of my grandmothers was unhappy with her lot or was a struggling artist or author hindered by her family! Neither has left letters or diaries, as far as I know – I have a few memoirs of the Jones family, but I know nothing about their attitudes to women’s roles.

One indicator might have been whether they signed the women’s suffrage petition in 1893 that led to New Zealand women getting the vote that year, but my grandmothers would have been too young. No Allsworths signed it, but a ‘J Read’ and a Mrs G Read, both of Wanganui, signed it. There were three Read brothers – my great-grandfather, Robert (who married Ruth Sheckell in 1884), George (who married Amelia (Milly) Freeman in 1878) and John (Jack) who married Emma Sheckell in 1894, so ‘Mrs G’ may have been Milly. Also, four Jones women of Masterton signed it, but as this is hardly an uncommon surname I don’t know if they are of ‘my’ Jones family. However, my Jones’s were strictly observant Methodists and the editor of the Methodist Times allowed his paper to be used in the movement’s support.[9] It seems no Beauchamps of Wellington signed it.

Continuing with coincidences, both my grandmothers had five children – three girls and two boys, and my parents were the second youngest child in their families. Minnie helped on the dairy farm in Masterton (doing milking according to my mother), while Winnie lived in the suburb of Berhampore, Wellington with her carpenter husband and family – in fact not far from where I now live. My most vivid memory of the widowed Winnie was that she taught her budgie (named Kiwi) to talk – she must have spent hours talking to him – he recited nursery rhymes, could say his name and address – all mimicking her voice of course. In his older age he would get things mixed up.


This is Minnie and Winnie in 1939 at my parents’ wedding in Masterton. It was December, summer here in New Zealand, and yet they still have coats on. The curious children in the background are in their less formal summer clothes – clearly they weren’t going to the wedding!

Another Wellington woman writer, Robin Hyde, was born Iris Wilkinson in 1906 in South Africa, but came to New Zealand with her parents when she was a couple of months old. They lived in the Wellington working-class suburbs of Newtown and Berhampore, until they moved to a ‘better’ area when she was of secondary school age. In Berhampore, the Wilkinson family lived near my grandparents, and it is likely that two of my aunts, who were born in 1906 and 1909, would have known Iris or her two younger sisters.

Iris became a journalist, poet and novelist, under the name Robin Hyde. I have read a biography of her [10] and her book Dragon Rampant about her time in the war zones of China in the late 1930s, but although I have a copy of The Godwits Fly, I haven’t read it (yet!) This autobiographical novel is said to tell the story of her early life, as does “a haunting sequence of poems in Houses by the sea, published after her death. She was a pupil at South Wellington School and Berhampore School, where she was dux in 1918.” [11] Tragically, she committed suicide in London in 1939 just before the outbreak of war. Probably unlike the other women considered here, “for Hyde, New Zealand’s future lay in the Pacific, not crouching ‘in the shadow of the old world’. She wrote feelingly of those victims of greed and war living on society’s margins. As one who had suffered personal loss, illness and poverty she identified with the dispossessed, and in a hostile world longed for community and reintegration.” [11] My aunt Gwen, born the same year as Iris, became a primary school teacher (until she had to give up when she married in 1950) and a stalwart supporter of the Labour Party – so perhaps those early Berhampore years left a mark!

So, at last, back to my recent visit to the KMB house. Currently there is an exhibition on called ‘The Bodice Ripper’ which traces some of KM’s rather racy life and includes costumes of 19th century women’s undergarments made by Drama School design students. There are also some you can try on! Emma the Director has plans to focus the house more on KMs life rather than as a Victorian house museum – which I think is a good idea as I’m sure most people visit it because of the connection with Katherine Mansfield, not to see how a family lived in 1880s/90s Wellington.

KMB birthplace stairs KM typewriter

Two photos I took at the KMB house.


[1] Katherine Mansfield Birthplace website

[2] Heritage New Zealand List entry

[3] Heritage New Zealand List entry

[4] Joanne Drayton. ‘Collier, Edith Marion’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 30-Oct-2012

[5] Drayton, Te Ara entry

[6] Drayton

[7] Linda Gill. ‘Hodgkins, Frances Mary’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 22-Oct-2013

[8] Terry Sturm. ‘Lyttleton, Edith Joan’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 30-Oct-2012

[9] Patricia Grimshaw, Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand, 2013, Google Books

[10] Challis, D. & G. Rawlinson. The book of Iris: a biography of Robin Hyde. Auckland, 2002

[11] Jacqueline Matthews. ‘Hyde, Robin’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 27-Feb-2014


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