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Catherine Bishop. Photo/Jesse Taylor/Supplied

The award-winning historian putting colonial businesswomen on the map

There was more to colonial women in New Zealand than childbearing and standing by their men, historian Catherine Bishop tells Clare de Lore.

Ann Bird’s face is a study in resignation and weariness. Bird, widely credited as the first European woman to step ashore in Nelson, has just endured another tragedy – the death of her 24-year-old son. Twenty or so years earlier, she had been widowed and left with five small children to support. She took over her husband’s butcher shop, expanded the business and stayed at the helm for 40 years until her death in 1891.

Bird’s story of resilience, hard work and commercial enterprise is one of hundreds recounted in Catherine Bishop’s book Women Mean Business. Her sorrows were not uncommon, with Bishop noting that “married women running businesses often did so through a physically exhausting 20- or 30-year biennial cycle of pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and sometimes miscarriage, along with the not uncommon deaths of children.”

Nineteenth-century business and commerce in New Zealand was, going by most official records, almost entirely a man’s world. But pioneering entrepreneurial women established some well-known businesses that endure to this day. Auckland’s Smith & Caughey’s department store, for example, was founded in 1880 by Marianne Smith, but there is no mention of her in the store’s 1898 historical publication.

Bishop grew up surrounded by boys and men – her father, Vincent, was a housemaster at the all-boys Whanganui Collegiate boarding school. The Bishop family – her father, mother Janet and brother John – lived on the school grounds. Vincent, who died several years ago, was not only a highly-regarded teacher, but also a DIY enthusiast and “a bit of a womble”, according to his daughter, who now has two daughters of her own.

Nelson butcher Ann Bird. Photo/Nelson Provincial Museum, Tyree Studio, 17353

What was it like being a teenage girl and living at a boys boarding school?

I had 11 years of my life there, and although it was a bit peculiar, it was great during the holidays because we had the whole school grounds to ourselves – a bit like a private playground. Dad was madly DIY – I think he basically built and renovated our house in Whanganui. He was a real character, and a lot of people in Whanganui remember him. My mother is an amazing woman because when we were growing up, she was the housemaster’s wife, which is like being a consort – it’s a job but it’s not paid.

And your own education?

I went to Whanganui High School and then Victoria University, where I studied maths and history. I went to Australia and did a master’s in history at the Australian National University in Canberra. As you do in your twenties, I wanted out of New Zealand and, after Canberra, bought a one-way ticket to London to do my OE. I ended up staying eight years because I met my now ex-husband there and we had a child. I have one child born in the UK and the other was born in Sydney, so when we watch sport, there’s usually someone who is happy.

After more than 20 years living in the UK or across the Tasman, do you still feel connected to New Zealand?

One of the interesting things about writing this book was going back to New Zealand. Feeling like a visitor in your home country is kind of weird. The Māori thing is really interesting – when I left, the national anthem was not sung in Māori, so that’s a complete shift. I find it inspiring, so different from other places that I have been. I’m coming back soon for two months, travelling with my book, and I hope to recover my New Zealand accent by the time I get back to Australia.

Reading was a favourite pastime. Photo/Susan Maclean/Supplied

What inspired you to write Women Mean Business?

I finished my PhD in 2012, writing on business women in Sydney and Wellington. I approached an Australian publisher about a book, but they wanted one only on Sydney’s colonial businesswomen, and that became Minding Her Own Business. [The 2015 book won the A$30,000 Ashhurst Prize for Business Literature.] I’ve spent the past four years adding to my research for Women Mean Business, because I decided it should not just be about Wellington women but all New Zealand women.

Did you find a common thread in the stories of women who started and ran businesses in 19th-century New Zealand?

If there’s anything in common, it’s about survival. There’s no safety net, so you have to do something yourself if no one is going to employ you. They’ve left England, mostly, and want to make a better life for themselves and their children. But, in terms of a typical business woman – no, there wasn’t one. I kept on trying to look for them being entrepreneurial and  to make a case that they were feminists, but that was rubbish. Most of them were doing business because they had to. But there is one woman who writes to her family, saying, “Life is really good now. I can devote myself entirely to my family because we’ve got the shops running well and I don’t need to run them any more.” She steps back and she’s quite happy. That annoyed me; I wanted her to actually be wanting to grow her business. But the business is giving her a better life and this is exactly what she wants.

Mother Janet in 1977. Photo/Bishop family/Supplied

You record that businesses established by 19th-century women were usually taken over by men, after about eight years on average. But, apart from Ann Bird, another notable exception was Maria Pope, of Christchurch. What made the difference in her case?

Yes, Mrs Pope’s variety stores continued without getting an injection of testosterone, as I would call it. She kept the business going and passed it on and it had a tradition of female leadership well into the 20th century. Normally, you would get men coming in – sons, husbands or sons-in-law – and taking over. But her daughter didn’t marry until she was in her fifties and I suspect her son-in-law wasn’t particularly interested.

You’ve highlighted stories of a few Māori women who were doing all sorts of interesting things. Tell me about Mākereti Papakura, known as Guide Maggie.

She is so impressive. Her father is Pākehā and her mother Māori, and she can cross over between the two worlds. She really exploits that, working as a tourist guide, writing a guidebook and forming an international touring concert party with her sister, before going to the UK and ending up at Oxford University. She’s managed this in spite of what you imagine would be some of the obstacles put in her way. It would be interesting to know how untypical she was, really, because I tried, but mostly without success, to look for more Māori women or at least obviously Māori women. I loved reading Barbara Brooks’ A History of New Zealand Women. It really blew my mind the way she incorporated Māori women into that book. Hazel Petrie’s Chiefs of Industry: Māori Tribal Enterprise in Early Colonial New Zealand identifies a few women, but there is a bigger project to be done on Māori women.

Mākereti Papakura, known as Guide Maggie. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Do you have time for reading for pleasure?

For many years, I worked in book shops – in Waterstones in the UK, and, when I came back to Australia I worked part-time while my kids were little. I used to devour books, but when I started my PhD I was reading only work stuff and it took me ages to be able to read anything else. Finally, I have got back into it. My mother loves to read and she’s always recommending something. When I was younger, she would leave a pile of books by my bed. I’d think, “Do I really want to read something my mother has recommended?” But she has quite good taste in books and for my last birthday bought me Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I’ve just started No Friend but the Mountains, by Behrouz Boochani. He’s a refugee who was incarcerated on Manus Island and his autobiography has won almost every Australian literary prize. I've just picked up A Single Thread, by Tracy Chevalier, who wrote Girl With a Pearl Earring.

You dedicated your book, “For my mother, Janet, whom, as I grow older, I am increasingly learning never to underestimate.” What’s behind that?

Mum taught me you can do anything, because she was always doing something new. When my kids were little, she wrote children’s books and taught herself clip art to illustrate them. Then she took a book-binding course and we now have these unique children’s books written and made by my mother. But when I was 20, I really underestimated her, just as my daughters now probably underestimate me. I remember thinking, “Mum, you’ve got a brain, a master’s degree, why aren’t you doing something more than bringing up children?” Now, looking back, we were lucky. Mum is fabulous.

WOMEN MEAN BUSINESS: Colonial Businesswomen in New Zealand, by Catherine Bishop (OUP, $45).

This article was first published in the October 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.