The Women of New Zealand's goldfields

Frustration over a lack of information about many women who made a living on New Zealand goldfields in the 1800s has prompted Canterbury Museum researcher, Julia Bradshaw, to go out in search of them. 


Researcher Julia Bradshaw sits at a table before a fireplace.
Canterbury Museum researcher, Julia Bradshaw. Photo: supplied.expand/collapse

As a result, she has found many stories about women who reinvented themselves, often becoming successful businesswomen who cashed in on miners with money to spend.

She recently gave a talk called “Adjustable Marriages: relationships, divorce and bigamy on the goldfields” at Kate Sheppard House in Christchurch. The talk is available on Podcast on Plains FM Radio.

Helen Osborne, Property Lead for Te Whare Waiutuutu Kate Sheppard House says they are fortunate to be able to collaborate with Canterbury Museum. “I am excited about bringing incredible stories of the past to life in this house.”

According to Julia there was a huge variety of women on the goldfields – including wives and sex workers, but also a lot of businesswomen. During her research it had been easy to find information on women who got into trouble with the law because they were mentioned in police gazettes and court records, which newspapers picked up. Some women reinvented themselves when they arrived in New Zealand, changing their history, or their names, or their marital status – perhaps claiming to be widows – to explain a child if they were unmarried.

Most of the women came to New Zealand from the UK sometimes via the goldfields of Australia. ”It was not the done thing for women to work as miners, instead, hotel keepers were the thing to be. There was so much money to be made from selling alcohol. Others became dance girls in the pubs to encourage men to stay on drinking for longer. Some ran accommodation places, bakeries and selling all sorts of crafts.”

It was not possible to gain a divorce in Aotearoa New Zealand until 1867, but it was made harder for women. A man could be granted a divorce if a wife was unfaithful, whereas a woman had to prove something extra such as cruelty, sodomy, bigamy or rape.

On the question of bigamy, Julia Bradshaw says very few cases came to the attention of the authorities: “It was really the work of family historians who showed how common it was”.

Julia is continuing her research to produce a book, and is interested in hearing from people who have information about bigamy and divorce, and about businesswomen involved with the South Island goldfields.

If you have any information you can email Julia Bradshaw at: infoline@canterburymuseum.com.

- David Watt