Topic: Isabella MacKenzie: a brief biography by Graham M. Thompson

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Isabella MacKenzie: a brief biography by Graham M. Thompson is a 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

Clan MacKenzie lands have stretched across the highlands of Scotland for centuries, during which time fortunes have risen and fallen as alliances were made and dissolved. Outside influences also affected the people of the north, not least the notorious Highland Clearances.

By the 1870s a branch of the family living at Wellhouse on the Black Isle was still suffering from the prolonged effects of that dramatic destruction of the crafting system, prompting one daughter to consider her future.

The family occupied a portion of land so were in a better situation than many of their clansmen and women. However, with a number of children in the household it became clear that in the foreseeable future the farmland available would not support them all.

At about 25 years of age Isabella, through the New Zealand Government migration scheme, made arrangements to travel to New Zealand. That journey began from her home in Scotland, but in June of 1872 the reality would have set in as she sailed from Gravesend in the ship Hydrapes under the command of Captain Babot.

By September of that year Isabella Mackenzie landed in Port Chalmers after a voyage that was comparatively speedy and reportedly without incident and listing little sickness. Those were unusual circumstances on migrant ships, which often arrived at their destination with a complement much reduced from when it sailed, and of those remaining, many in poor health.

From the port of arrival Isabella travelled by paddle steamer to Dunedin. The practice of the time was for new arrivals to be accommodated in the barracks under the watchful eye of a matron. Here would call settlers and perhaps the more affluent migrants to meet and interview prospective employees. Isabella would be one of those chosen to begin her new career in her new country.

She brought with her the courage and determination of her race, together with the ability to read and write, and was supported by her religious faith. Her Bible was carefully inscribed inside the cover and on the flyleaf with the dates of departure from Inverness and her arrival in New Zealand. Beyond these assets she had travelled as an assisted migrant classed as a domestic servant, and with no known contacts in her new country she set about making her way in a new life.

The first months of her residence in New Zealand are shrouded in mystery until her name appeared in the marriage registry in Clyde, where she married George Murray who had come (probably) from Macduff in the Southern Highlands. That man was a groom to the Naylor family, so it is not unreasonable to suppose that Isabella was employed by the family as a domestic. It is likely that Benjamin Naylor or his agent travelled to Dunedin where, at the immigration barracks, he had chosen the newly-arrived and presentable young Scotswoman to join his staff.

Some years later when their only son reached his teenage years, Isabella, having do doubt in the interim occupied her days as a housewife and mother, made a substantial move in her employment. Together with George she applied for the position of matron at the Dunstan Hospital, Clyde. There is no record she had trained in nursing so it would appear that good character and a caring attitude was sufficient to meet the requirements for such a position. George, meantime, became the wardsman, whose duties encompassed maintenance and other heavy work at the cottage hospital.

Isabella also acted as the district midwife and many years ago I spoke to an elderly resident of the town who clearly recalled Mrs. Murray travelling round the village on her bicycle with her nurse’s bag on the handlebars as she visited expectant mothers. He stated that Mrs. Murray had brought him into the world along with most of the other babies in the district.

There is a family tradition that Isabelle cycled through the Cromwell Gorge to visit her son, by then married, in Cromwell. I have reservations about the veracity of that story knowing the length of the journey and being aware that the road was of poor quality in the latter part of the 19th century. Nevertheless it does perhaps suggest Isabella’s strength and determination.

Less than two years later it appeared that Isabella considered her services should be better rewarded and applied to the Hospital Board of Management for a modest increase in remuneration. A letter from the Vincent Hospital Board refers to minutes of a meeting at that time indicating the couple resigned their positions in the health service so it may be assumed that the Board declined her representation. The Scottish determination and judgment of self-worth was to the fore.

George then took the lead in employment when he became the licensee of the Dunstan Hotel, where without a doubt Isabella would manage the catering and domestic aspects of the accommodation. It should be noted that the designation Dunstan Hotel has had a rather chequered career and the building which now bears that name is not that which the Murrays managed.

For the briefest of periods the couple pursued their new careers until one day when George walked to the banks of the notoriously dangerous Clutha River for their habitual swim. He did not return, leaving his widow to assume management of the hostelry for the succeeding years. Women licensees were not unknown, but to hold that responsibility in a town which was still in pioneer mode and with itinerant goldminers and fortune-seekers passing through must have at times required a great deal of nerve.

Upon relinquishing that task Isabella and her son retired to a cottage in Sutherland Street, Clyde. That cottage still stands and is in a well-preserved condition, being known as Miss Macdonald’s cottage. Time took its toll and Isabella’s health began to fail, leading to her move to live with her married son in Cromwell, where she died in 1907.

On a hillside the cemetery overlooking Clyde holds a now unmarked plot where Isabella and George can, in imagination, still survey the town so far distant from their homeland and the families they never saw again. Perhaps in some way they know of their many descendants and look with favours upon our endeavours.

A life well-lived by a determined and courageous woman who met and overcame so many obstacles to leave for me an example to which over many years I have referred, and which has guided me through good times and bad.


This page archived at Perma Cc in October of 2016:

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