Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by Jo-Anne Smith, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Sarah Russell was baptised at Mallow, Cork, Ireland, on 21 August 1822. She was one of 13 children of Mary Tarrant and her husband, William Russell, an army officer. The family emigrated to Australia in 1838. On 8 June 1844, at Sydney, New South Wales, Sarah Russell married Edward Maurice O'Connell, a major in the 99th (Lanarkshire) Regiment. They were to have four sons and one daughter.
Sarah and Edward O'Connell arrived in Wellington, New Zealand, about 1848, where Edward took up duties as a brigade major to the commanding officer. He soon abandoned his army career for runholding. In April 1852 he travelled to Canterbury, and purchased the Mt Grey run, comprising 20,000 acres under pastoral licence and a pre-emptive right to 250 acres. There were two houses, a dairy, a stockyard and a milking shed on the land. Sarah O'Connell sailed to Canterbury with the family five months later, arriving at Lyttelton on the Persia on 21 September 1852.
The Mt Grey run was located between the Kowai and Ashley rivers, north of Christchurch, extending inland to the foot of Mt Grey. The O'Connells called it Connell Villa, until Edward O'Connell's death in 1853, when the name was changed back to Mt Grey. The station was a stopping point for many travellers, and Sarah O'Connell was well known for her hospitality. Sarah Courage wrote, in Lights and shadows of colonial life, that she 'was a fine tall Irishwoman, with a kindly cheerful face' and a 'kind motherly manner.' She had 'the happy knack of being comfortable and of making you, as a consequence, feel so too'. Charlotte Godley was also impressed, describing her as: 'not very ladylike, but good-looking, with something very pleasant about her manner, and, as her name may suggest very Irish.'
In August 1853 the family travelled to New South Wales, where Edward O'Connell died later that year. Sarah O'Connell remained in New South Wales until November 1854, when she returned with her family to Canterbury by the Nelson, and took over the running of Mt Grey. By the terms of her husband's will, she was to administer the property for 12 years, when it was to be valued and divided into shares among herself and her children. She ran the station, in fact, for some 15 years until her death in 1870. In 1857 she took up an additional run of 5,000 acres adjoining Mt Grey.
Sarah O'Connell ran a notable dairy, having 50 cows milking in 1856. Her butter and cheese fetched good prices. She bred and trained bullocks especially for hauling station wool wagons and they were much sought after. Her merino sheep won a prize at the first Northern Agricultural and Pastoral Show, held at Rangiora in December 1866.
The isolation of station life was lessened for Sarah O'Connell by the support of her family. Three of her brothers and two sisters lived in Canterbury, and a sister and the children's governess lived with her at Mt Grey. Edward O'Connell's manager, George Douglas, continued to work there until 1857, when Sarah's brother, John Russell, replaced him. Prices for farm produce declined in the late 1860s, and Sarah O'Connell was forced to take out a mortgage of £1,200 on the farm in September 1869. After a year of illness, she died at Mt Grey on 7 October 1870. The run was sold by her executors in 1871. Sarah O'Connell had been well known and well liked in Canterbury. Her death was recorded in the Lyttelton Times with a long and affectionate obituary.