Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Who was Miss Colenso?

Before Christmas I posed a mystery question: who was the Miss Colenso whose botanical drawing appeared in the album of Sarah Mathews, the wife of NZ's first surveyor general?

(See last blog dated 22 Dec 2011 for more information and a link to images of the actual album - it's worth checking out…)

Initally I wondered if the mystery botanical painter was Fanny, William Colenso's daughter, but by the date in the album, she would have been married and no longer a Colenso. Then I wondered if it was by the daughters of Bishop Colenso, William Colenso's first cousin. (The thing which interests me, if the latter, is it implies that Bishop Colenso's family had relatively close connections with William Colenso - although there is very little evidence to support this.)

Fortunately fellow Colensophiles came to the party and supplied this information.

(Below is from Ann Collins, a Colenso relative (through WC's brother) who talked the matter over with fellow Colenso family members Gillian Bell and Gwilym Colenso. This conversation spanned Australia, NZ and Britain….)

Ann Collins writes...

The most likely contender, given that WC’s daughter was married and that the Bishop’s daughters were in South Africa at the time is the Bishop’s sister Frances Emily Colenso (1815-1879).

She lived (probably kept house for them) with her father and uncle until her father died in 1860. She was a schoolmistress in East Stonehouse Devon in 1861, with her niece Mary Kendall (daughter of Sophia Colenso and Nicholas Kendall). In 1871 she was living in Seaford Sussex on an annuity.  
It is possible that she travelled to Italy, possibly with the Butlers – Mary married Spencer Perceval Butler in 1863. I think this is what the reference to San Remo is about. Some information on the Butler’s is on the following link.
The Bishop’s wife and daughters were also botanical painters. The Bishop’s wife maintained a long correspondence and exchange of information with Katherine Lyell. Katherine Lyell was the wife of Henry Lyell, brother of the geologist Sir Charles Lyell, who had married her sister Mary as well. The two sisters’ father was Leonard Horner, an educationalist and  geologist. Both sisters were considered notable botanists.
The Bishop’s female family were all in South Africa for the 1870s. His daughter Fanny had travelled to England with her brothers in 1869 but returned in 1870. The brothers were then being educated at Oxford and Cambridge.
So it appears that the likely contender is Bishop Colenso's maiden sister, Frances Emily Colenso. She was William's first cousin and a contemporary. How she came to meet Sarah Mathews we do not know. Albums were a bit like facebook - a kind of collection of connections, both random and at times deeply meaningful. Maiden women often spent a lot of time looking very carefully at plants and, in a way, acknowledging the beauty of creation by copying them in paint or even embroidery.

The paintings of the botanical subjects are quite lovely and skilled. Ian St George has supplied the information that they are an arum, called delightfully 'striped jack-in-the-pulpit' (a suitable name for William Colenso one might think) and secondly, the berries of a pepper tree - a common enough tree in many older New Zealand gardens.

In the next few weeks I will meet with some people who lived in the 'Colenso cottage' which was transported to Hohepa Farm which is right beside Colenso's one-time mission. The question is: is this a building once owned by Colenso from the 1844-1862 period? If so, it would be very significant historically.

 I love these sort of mysteries. 


  1. I have read your interest in the drawings, and as Frances from South Africa features in the life of one of my cousins, extensive research has been done. Both Frances and her mother entered a series of cards into a competition, 1880's. I dont think a pepper tree would grow in England, but certainly did in SA Fruit can be toxic if eaten in quantity. - A declared Category 1 invasive plant in Kwa-Zulu-Natal and Category 3 invasive plant in the rest of South Africa we have them here as well in Aus

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