Page 1: Biography
Hewett, Ellen Anne
This biography, written by Ronda Cooper, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Ellen Anne Baker was born in Jersey, Channel Islands, on 15 July 1843, the eldest daughter of Hannah Hough and her husband, George Baker. The family emigrated from Liverpool on the Earl of Sefton in December 1854, coming to Nelson, New Zealand, via Melbourne, on a small brig in mid 1855. When aged 15, on 6 September 1858, Ellen Baker was married to 26-year-old James Duff Hewett in her father's house in Nelson; the marriage had been arranged by her mother. The Hewetts farmed a property at Kai Iwi, 12 miles from Wanganui, and had three sons and one daughter. James Hewett became a justice of the peace, and on 23 March 1863 was elected a member of the Wellington Provincial Council for Wanganui and Rangitikei. But on the night of 9 February 1865 he was killed in a Hauhau raid on the farm. Eventually the widow took the children back to England to live with her husband's family.
On their return to New Zealand in the early 1880s Ellen Hewett was very active in evangelical work with the Maori and in the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Her family encouraged her to write a book of reminiscences of her early life, and Looking back was published in 1911. It was extremely successful, going into a second edition only four years later and still available in its sixth edition in 1978. Ellen Hewett died in Auckland on 14 February 1926 and was buried at Purewa cemetery, Auckland.
The popularity of Looking back is understandable given first the drama of Ellen Hewett's early years in the colony, and second the contemporary appeal of the religious material which makes up a significant part of the book. Ellen Hewett gives a thorough account of the intense, sometimes visionary, experiences which revitalised her faith and transformed her into a committed evangelist. Prayers are reported in full, as are many exemplary stories of the conversions of friends and acquaintances. The religious passages are emotional and boldly rhetorical, sometimes directly exhorting the reader. Despite their conventional tone and vocabulary, and their conscious sentimentality, these sections indicate that a strong idealism motivates the writing.
The narrative is more matter-of-fact, concise and even understated when depicting the actual events of Ellen Hewett's life. The misfortunes related here give some logic to the deep feeling of her religion. From her early teens she had to cope with a series of demanding situations: caring for her sickly father at the age of 12 while her mother returned to England for a year; marriage to a virtual stranger and the move to a remote farm in a distant province; the loss of nearly all the Hewetts' possessions in two house fires at Kai Iwi; the constant menace from parties of hostile Maori, culminating in the violent death and ritual mutilation of her husband; and the subsequent, virtual bankruptcy of the young widow. The more everyday hardships of pioneer life are given full attention also: the hard work with laundry, cooking and sheep; the dangers of travel over muddy roads or flooding rivers; the lengthy separations when Hewett was called away to the militia or on political business; and the suffering through the illnesses of children and friends.
Ellen Hewett writes of these difficulties in a businesslike, purposeful way, with a sharp sense of the telling detail and the pointed personal anecdote. There is a lively sense of humour and a fine sensitivity to landscape and natural beauty. However, the viewpoint remains exclusively domestic, and the book makes no attempt ever to consider the wider political situation or background to its events. Often though Ellen Hewett develops an ominous sense of foreboding through some particularity. Her piano, a wedding present, is introduced with the hindsight that it will later be damaged 'by the Maori spears and tomahawks'; the death and decapitation of 'one of the officers at Taranaki' is emphasised as a precursor to her own tragedy: 'How little we dreamed as we stood together that in six months…my poor husband's body would be carried through that same gateway in exactly the same mutilated condition!'
Ellen Hewett has an enthusiastic sense of the dramatic possibilities of her story, and directs them back to contribute to the religious and moral lessons of the book. Yet despite the high profile and overt nature of her evangelical intentions, the predominating qualities of Looking back are the colour and power of the events themselves.