Topic: Esther Wallis (1879-?)

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Esther Wallis was adopted by the infamous Minnie Dean in 1890 and ended up giving evidence at her trial for infanticide in 1895. Esther was my second cousin thrice removed - Debbie McCauley (2013).

Esther Wallis was born on 8 October 1879, the illegitimate daughter of Emily Wallis (1863-1914) who was a pupil teacher at Colombo Road School in Christchurch. The spelling of her name is recorded as 'Esther Wallace' (Folio No: 3777, Christchurch).

Records of the Canterbury Hospital Board (Female Refuge Diary 1879) record:

8 October 1879 - Emily Wallis ill with fever. E. Wallis left the Refuge Sep 7th [must be November 7th] to go as Housemaid to Mrs Heywood at £20 a year. Her child has been adopted by some friends. Since the adoption of her child her parents have received her. Remarks: This was a very sad case, the girl being only 16 - and the father 19, a lad attending the school where she was a pupil teacher. She had parents living at Opawa who were in great distress at the discovery of their daughter's condition, but their small home and large family prevented the possibility of her being confined at home.

Esther was raised by her grandparents John and Eliza Wallis (nee Hart) who was a suffragist and friend of Kate Sheppard. However, John and Eliza found themselves increasingly unable to cope as they had twelve children of their own (the last one born in 1891), and when Esther was ten years old she was sent to Minnie Dean (1844-1895) at Winton.

Esther Wallis (1879-?)

Williamina "Minnie" Irene Dean (nee McCulloch) was born in West Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland on 2 September 1844 to John and Elizabeth McCulloch (nee Swan). Elizabeth, along with three of her daughters, had died before Minnie reached the age of thirteen.

Minnie moved to Tasmania, Australia, where she had two illegitimate children; Ellen Ann Milne (née McCulloch) (1860-1882) and Isobella Milne (née McCulloch) (1863-1949). Ellen married James Shepherd Milne (1849-1920) in 1879 and Isobella married his brother, William Dawson Milne (1850-1935), at Woodlands on 29 August 1881.

Arriving in New Zealand in 1868, Minnie claimed to be the widow of a doctor. She seems to have made a living by teaching at various schools, ending up at Nighcaps, near to Dunrobin Station. On 19 June 1872 she married Charles Dean (1836-1908) at Etal Creek in Southland (reg. 1872/9104). Charles had been working at Dunrobin Station as a shepherd.

Five-year-old Margaret Cameron was adopted by Minnie and Charles in 1880.

On 6 August 1882 Minnie's daughter Ellen, suffering from what was probably post-natal depression, drowned herself and her two children in their home well at Woodlands. One could speculate that this incident influenced Minnie's later behaviour. She may have been fostering children to try and replace her lost grandchildren (as well as earn a living) and not been able to cope when they proved too much for her or simply realised that life was fleeting and could be taken away in an instant.

In 1884 Charles was declared bankrupt and in around 1887 Minnie, Charles and Margaret moved to 'The Larches' in Winton where Minnie began taking in unwanted babies for money.

In October 1889 a six-month-old baby in Minnie's care died of convulsions after a three-day illness. 

Minnie and Charles adopted Esther on 22 April 1890, changing her named to Esther Wallis Dean. According to Rawle (1997); 'In 1890, with Charles's consent, she adopted Esther Wallis to assist with looking after the children' (p. 9). 

A six-week-old infant in Minnie's care died of inflammation of the heart valves and congestion of the lungs in March 1891. An inquest was held and Minnie asked to improve the children's living conditions. Another baby died six weeks later. 

In 1892 Minnie registered Esther Wallis Dean at Winton School.

The 1893 Infant Life Protection Act meant that homes receiving payment for looking after infants under the age of two for more than three consecutive days had to be licensed as foster homes and were subject to police inspection.

In around November 1893 four-year-old Willie Phelan was though to have died via drowning at The Larches. Minnie buried his body in the garden. Minnie was seen boarding a train carrying a young baby and a hat-box on 2 May 1895, then later carrying only the hat-box. Police investigations unearthed the bodies of two babies (Dorothy Edith Carter & Eva Hornsby) and the skeleton of Willie Phelan. 

Charles and Minnie were arrested in 1895. 'When Dean was arrested she had six children in her care, including Esther. All were content and healthy, if poorly dressed and living in squalor' (Sell, 2009, p. 68).

'Esther Wallis and Margaret Cameron, who had left The Larches to live a life of her own, looked after the children when Mrs Dean was arrested, until the police placed them in a Charitable Aid Board in Invercargill' (Rawle, 1997, p. 20). The children's names were Ethel Maud Hay, Florence Smith, 'Baby Gray', Cecil Guilford and Arthur Wilson. The temporary home was located in 'Bowmont Street, Invercargill, conducted by the Southland Hospital Board' (Watt, 1973, p. 18 & 49).

Nineteen-year-old Margaret and fifteen-year-old Esther were called upon to identify the bodies recovered from 'The Larches':

Both girls had been present at the exhumation of the bodies and, despite the grisly nature of the scene, had obviously treated the tiny corpses to close inspection. They both considered the skull of the older child (now with only a piece of the scalp and hair attached) to be that of an adoptive brother named Willie Phelan. Under questioning, Margaret Cameron recalled the details of a number of other children whose whereabouts had not yet been established (Powell, Debra, 2013, p. 312).

Esther Wallis (1879-?)

Margaret and Esther Wallis gave evidence at the trial of Minnie Dean:

Another child, Willie Phelp, Mrs. Dean brought from Dunedin five years ago. He was then about two years. The child remained at Larches a few months after September, 1893, and disappeared when no one was about the house but Mrs. Dean, who said a woman from Invercargill came for him. Mrs. Dean did not treat this child well. She would knock him down and seize him by the hair and bump his head on the floor. Mrs. Dean was in the habit of getting drunk, but was always sober when she abused the child. Some children she treated well, others not so well. She used to get drunk by herself. Cyril Scoular was about four years old when he disappeared. Esther Wallace [Wallis] corroborated Cameron's evidence re the disappearance of the children, and said she was sent out of the way on all occasions. Mrs. Dean made her take the children with her, and only the one that disappeared was left behind in the house on each occasion. From the hair, she thought the skeleton was Willie Phelan, whose new velvet suit was in the house after he disappeared (New Zealand Herald, 11 June 1895).

Charles was discharged without conviction and likely attempted to frighten Esther and influence her testimony:

That their adopted father's presence or absence at the coronial hearings may have had some bearing on the nature of the girls' testimony is evidenced by an aside included in the newspaper report on the third inquest. Both the Press and the Hawkes Bay Herald reported a complaint by Sergeant MacDonnell that after his release Charles Dean, despite being "warned not to do so‟, had "forced himself‟ into the Charitable Aid Board home where Esther Wallace was being boarded. After having managed to "communicate‟ with his adopted daughter, Sergeant MacDonnell claimed that "the girl was not now so willing to give evidence as she had been‟. While the nature of this exchange is not clear, it is possible that Charles attempted to intimidate or dissuade Esther from testifying honestly ("The Winton Baby Farming Case‟, Press (Canterbury), 11 June 1895, p. 5; "The Winton Baby Farmer‟, Hawkes Bay Herald, 11 June 1895, p. 4). (Powell, Debra, 2013, p. 312).

Minnie Dean was found found guilty of infanticide on 21 June 1895. She was hanged at Invercargill Prison on 12 August 1895. Minnie remains the first and only New Zealand woman to receive the death penalty and be hanged. She was buried in Winton Cemetery.

After the trial, Esther was sent to a Girls Home in Invercargill, and details of her life from this time onwards have yet to be uncovered. The family would like to find out what became of Esther and contact can be made through this website if more details can be provided.

In 1896 the Infant Protection Act was passed.

On 1 June 1901 Esther's birth mother Emily married Abraham Henry Townsend (reg. 1901/2185). They had no children together but Abraham had a son by a former marriage. Emily died, aged 48,  in Linwood, Christchurch, at the residence of her stepson on 6 March 1914 (reg. 1914/1898).  Emily left her estate to her stepson and her death entry is blank in the space for age & sex of living issue.



Births, Deaths and Marriages Online (New Zealand).

Dunedin History Group (2009). Minnie Dean: The Legend Lives On.

Frances Moss: Great granddaughter of Eliza Wallis (nee Hart)  (personal communication, 17 April 2013).

Hood, L. (1994). Minnie Dean: Her life and crimes. Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin.

New Zealand Herald (11 June 1895). The Winton Baby Farming Cases.

New Zealand Truth (9 December 1922). Minnie Dean: Child Murderess  (p. 3).

North Otago Times (21 May 1895). The Winton Baby Farm (p. 1).

Otago Witness (12 August 1882). Inquest at Woodlands (p. 19).

Powell, Debra (2013). The Ogress, the Innocent, and the Madman: Narrative and Gender in Child Homicide Trials in New Zealand, 1870-1925 [Thesis, University of Waikato].

Rawle, J. (1997). Minnie Dean: A Hundred Years of Memory. Christchurch New Zealand: Orca Publishing. (pp. 9, 17-20, 39-42, 45-46)

Sell, Bronwyn (2009). Law Breakers and Mischief Makers: 50 Notorious New Zealanders.

The Dean Case (via Papers Past) 'Esther Wallis, who lived with Mrs Dean for five years, deposed to Mrs Dean going to the Bluff on April 29 and returning next day with a baby called Dorothy Edith. On May 2 she accompanied Mrs Dean and the child to Lady Barkly railway station, and met her again at Winton station on May 6. Mrs Dean had a tin box with her that she had taken away and also some parcels. She said she had given the baby to a lady. The tin box was much heavier when Mrs Dean came back on May 6 than when she went away. She said there were bulbs in it.' (Bruce Herald, 21 June 1895, p. 3)

Watt, J. O. P. (1973). The Trial of Minnie Dean. Invercargill, New Zealand: Times Printing Service.


How to cite this page: McCauley, Debbie (2013). Esther Wallis (1879-?). Retrieved from (Tauranga Memories, last updated: *insert date*). In-text citation: (McCauley, 2013)


This page was archived at Perma cc February 2017

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Esther Wallis (1879-?)

First Names:Esther
Last Name:Wallis
Date of Birth:8 October 1879
Place of Birth:Christchurch, South Island
Country of birth:New Zealand
Fathers name:not recorded
Mothers name:Emily Wallis
Mothers date of birth:1863
Mothers place of birth:Wellington, North Island, New Zealand
Mothers date of death:6 March 1914
Mothers place of death:Linwood, Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand

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