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Browne, Harriet Louisa


Political hostess, community leader, letter-writer

This biography, written by Margaret Long, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Harriet Louisa Campbell was born on 1 July 1829 probably at Edinburgh, Scotland, the daughter of Grace Elizabeth Hay and her husband, James Campbell. On 4 June 1851 at St Quivox, Ayrshire, Harriet married Thomas Robert Gore Browne, who was some 20 years her senior. Thomas had begun his career as a professional soldier and had gained experience in colonial administration. Soon after their marriage he took up the position of governor of St Helena. In 1855 he was appointed governor of New Zealand. The Brownes arrived in Auckland on the Merchantman on 6 September 1855.

Harriet Browne had a pleasant personality, strong musical and theatrical interests and wide tastes in reading. She was also very attractive: Alfred Domett described her as 'a woman out of a Book of Beauty…ample white muslin flounces and fine long dark tresses.' Using these gifts, she made Government House in Auckland the centre of cultural and political life. She held weekly at-homes and frequent dinners, balls and theatrical or musical evenings.

In addition to her other qualities Harriet Browne possessed a shrewd political understanding. Jane Maria Atkinson, writing on 3 October 1860, said, 'she is remarkably energetic and clever, without being in the least strong minded, …She really governs the country as much as the Governor, for he does nothing and writes nothing without consulting her first.' C. R. Carter, MHR for Wairarapa in 1860, later recalled that she 'was versed in politics and general information, and possessed of great conversational powers…she was the reigning genius of Government House'. He claimed that she gave considerable support to the Stafford ministry (which he opposed) through her liberal dispensing of hospitality. He was amazed to see that the extra attention Harriet Browne gave to Canterbury members, in particular, turned them into supporters of Edward Stafford.

It is clear that Harriet Browne regarded her principal roles as wife, helpmeet and mother. She had six children, of whom three – Harold, Wilfrid and Francis – were born in New Zealand. Her first child, Mabyl Helena, was born at St Helena, and Ethel and Godfrey were born in Tasmania, after her departure from New Zealand in 1861. She read John Stuart Mill but was obviously not converted to his views on women and depreciated her own intellectual abilities. She once described her failure to reconcile opinions of moral philosophers: 'with a woman's ignorance and a woman's want of logical power it is impossible to separate truth from falsehood and reason from unreason.'

In 1860 war broke out in Taranaki, as a result of the dispute over the Waitara block. Thomas Gore Browne's stance on the issue was the subject of much criticism, which continued after he had completed his term of office in New Zealand in September 1861 and taken up an appointment as governor of Tasmania. Harriet Browne's loyalty to her husband was unshakeable. She wrote numerous letters to people in England and New Zealand defending his stewardship and soliciting support in face of a possible inquiry: 'If there should be a Committee we must come out of it with honor; it would not be bearable to go down to posterity as fools and murderers'. The slur on her husband's reputation continued to trouble her: in 1864 she wrote, 'This Waitara question is the skeleton in my life. I know my husband is an honest man'.

In Tasmania the Brownes lived just outside Hobart. Harriet Browne continued to attend and organise musical, theatrical and social occasions. She enjoyed her 'bairns', her weekly readings with 'some very nice good girls', and her weekly music practices. However, her letters to friends in New Zealand were nostalgic in tone: 'how much more deeply we are interested in those [questions] of New Zealand.'

At this stage of her life Harriet Browne became more concerned with social issues. Thomas spent two days a week in Hobart on official business, and Harriet accompanied him and occupied herself with charitable works. She taught at a ragged school, which, along with an industrial reform school, she had helped to establish, and read to the dying in hospital. She told Mary Richmond that she was the 'patroness' of a female refuge, an orphan asylum, a ragged school and the Dorcas Society, but added, 'I am not up to working with committees and do not understand my duty as president.' On 14 December 1868 she received an embossed certificate from the Ladies' Committee of the 'Girls Reformatory and Industrial School', which stated: 'the origin of the Reformatory is almost due to yourself', a view Harriet herself probably did not share.

The Brownes left Australia in 1868. Thomas Gore Browne was knighted in 1869 and after one year as temporary governor of Bermuda, from July 1870 to April 1871, retired. He died in 1887. Harriet Browne survived him by 19 years and in 1898 made a return visit to Tasmania. She died on 9 April 1906 at Brooklands, Weybridge, Surrey, England.

How to cite this page:

Margaret Long. 'Browne, Harriet Louisa', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1b38/browne-harriet-louisa (accessed 25 May 2024)