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Story: Innes, Catherine Lucy

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Innes, Catherine Lucy



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

Catherine Lucy Williams was born in England probably in 1839 or 1840, the only daughter of Theodore Williams and his wife, Mary Ann Williams. The family came to New Zealand in 1850, arriving on 16 December in the Randolph, one of the First Four Ships sent to establish a settlement at Christchurch. On 26 March 1860 Catherine was married in St Michael's Church, Christchurch, to David Innes, a South Canterbury sheepfarmer. They travelled to England, where their only child, David Theodore Charles, was born in 1861, and returned to New Zealand in 1862. After the death of her husband on 24 December 1865, Catherine Innes began writing a series of weekly articles for the newspapers, describing the progress of the city and Canterbury province. She may have needed this work to help support herself and her child; later, she sold her home in Papanui Road and moved to Wellington. Her newspaper articles were revised and expanded for publication in 1879 as Canterbury sketches; or, life from the early days, under the pen name 'Pilgrim'. Catherine Innes died on 28 April 1900 at Oriental Bay, Wellington, and was buried in Karori cemetery.

The origins of Canterbury sketches are evident; as journalism, the writing works to a more disciplined and purposeful agenda than a collection of merely personal memoirs. This is most obvious in the frequently formal tone and subject matter, in the scrupulous thoroughness and attention to detail, and in the generally low profile maintained by the narrator. Catherine Innes does reveal a distinctive sensibility in the book, but her purpose is not autobiographical. Canterbury sketches aims to portray the character of life in the early years of the fledgling settlement, and to pay tribute to the subsequent advancements of city and province. This programme gives Catherine Innes an impressively wide range of material, and the sketches develop along quite eclectic lines. Other sources – newspaper articles, poems and journal entries – regularly punctuate and extend the boundaries of the narrative.

The central core of the book is a careful historical record of public affairs, from the first meeting of the provincial council in 1853 to the 1879 Canterbury Agricultural and Pastoral Show. The history of the church is given full attention, beginning with a description of the first service held in 1850 in a Lyttelton warehouse: 'strange it was to see the bright summer costumes and the pink and blue ribbons of the Pilgrim mothers and daughters, contrasted with those rough planks and cases, and that dingy, cob-webbed, lowering roof.' Accounts of civic, political and religious events over 30 years are interspersed with observations on conditions in the new settlement: 'there was nothing to be seen but the Land Office, a large tent (Dr Barker's), a large expanse of plain, dotted here and there with Ti palms, quantities of tutu and fern, gullies, creeks and swamps all around, and nothing but a narrow track to guide us; such was Christchurch in 1851.' There are reminiscences of domestic life, social events, picnics and balls. Personal anecdotes, typical of the general experience of the time, are related. Jokes and amusing stories – many at the expense of a new arrival from England – are told in a conscious effort to lighten the narrative: 'Soon after dancing commenced, a gentleman lounged into the room…. He was a languid swell, and whisper ran around the room that he had just come from England, and was writing a book.'

Canterbury sketches goes beyond the work of informing and being entertaining, however. Catherine Innes makes regular comments and judgements on her material, and is often sharp in her criticisms. Nostalgia and conservatism are evident in her frequent comparisons of the past with present: industrious early settlers are contrasted with inept and unsatisfactory contemporary workers; the more intimate, informal manners and patterns of society in the 1850s and early 1860s are compared with the 'petty jealousies or cliqueism, which are both so rife in the present day…in Christchurch.'

Despite such sour notes, the main objective of Canterbury sketches is to celebrate the efforts and achievements of the Christchurch settlers. It has been argued that Catherine Innes's writing contributed towards a developing sense of identity in the province and its inhabitants. Comprehensive and careful over detail, the Canterbury sketches were meant to play a public role, and do so with an earnest enthusiasm that suits the subjects well.

How to cite this page:

Ronda Cooper. 'Innes, Catherine Lucy', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1i2/innes-catherine-lucy (accessed 14 June 2024)