Auckland’s 175th anniversary year is an appropriate time to honour the life of Sarah Mathews, a very intrepid lady.
As the wife of Fenton Mathew (Hobson’s first Surveyor-general) Sarah was the only European woman present at the flag raising ceremony and the festivities which marked the founding of Auckland on the 18 Sept 1840. She was also the first lady to make her home in the new colony. And through her meticulously kept diaries she made an invaluable contribution to New Zealand’s early history.
As a young English bride from a well to do family, Sarah joined her surveyor husband in Australia for seven years .Then he was given the task of finding the best place for Hobson’s new capital and she accompanied him to New Zealand on his surveying expeditions.
They stayed for some weeks in the Bay of Islands where Sarah was impressed by the natural beauty but not by the shocking behaviour of some of the European settlers in Kororareka or by the local Maori whom she viewed through the lens of her sheltered English upbringing.
In April 1840 Fenton and Sarah embarked on an epic journey on the Ranger, a 46 ft. wooden sailing vessel from the Bay of Islands to the Firth of Thames in a quest to locate the best site for the capital. Sarah meticulously kept a detailed personal diary as they travelled along uncharted coasts and took many small journeys inland.
Tessa Duder paints a graphic picture of how the journey must have been for Sarah. She would have been well aware that they were travelling along a dangerous coastline. The chances of the Ranger being caught on a lee shore by a sudden NE gale, or coming to grief on as yet uncharted reefs were considerable.
As well as these dangers Sarah, as the only female on board, faced the challenge of having to live in cramped and probably smelly conditions alongside tough Aussie sailors who were very likely ex-convicts. Washing her hair and undergarments, and drying sodden outer clothes and boots must have been a huge challenge. She was prone to seasickness but rarely complained and continued to write eloquently in her diary about the grandeur of the unfolding coastline and the magnificent scenery.
Sarah’s dream of establishing a permanent home and a beautiful garden in New Zealand were dashed when Fenton was demoted, and then lost his job. Widowed at a relatively young age she spent her remaining years back in England impoverished.
Fortuitously her relations kept their poor old Aunt Fenton’s handwritten diaries and eventually they were returned to New Zealand. Tessa Duder had access to these as they are held at the Auckland library and was also able to track down three of Sarah’s great-great-great nieces for further information.
Tessa felt strongly that Sarah’s biography deserved to be written as while there are many stories about men in our colonial history there are all too few about women. She is a consummate storyteller and has done Sarah proud.
Title: Sarah Mathew (Explorer, Journalist and Auckland’s ‘First Lady’). Author: Tessa Duder Publisher: David Ling Publishing RRP $34.99
By Lyn Potter. Read more here.