Page 1: Biography
Rye, Maria Susan
Feminist, reformer, emigration organiser
This biography, written by Charlotte Macdonald, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Maria Susan Rye is said to have been born in London, England, on 31 March 1829, the eldest in a family of nine children. She was named after her mother, Maria Tuppen, a woman of Quaker descent, from Brighton, who had married solicitor and bibliophile Edward Rye.
Maria Rye attended St Luke's Church in Chelsea, London, where Charles Kingsley senior preached an active, if conformist, faith. His parishioners were urged to take their Christianity into the world. Maria Rye accepted the message wholeheartedly and at the age of 16 devoted herself to parochial work. About the same time she is reputed to have helped one of the family servants emigrate to Australia. By the time Maria Rye was in her early 20s she had become aware of the difficulties encountered by women who tried to make their own way in the world. In part this awareness came from her own experience. While her brothers received a formal education, she was left to glean what learning she could by reading in her father's library. Her small allowance was insufficient to grant any degree of independence. It is likely that her mother's life of constant childbearing made marriage unappealing to the ambitious and energetic Maria.
Maria Rye was drawn into the campaign for reform of married women's property law in 1856 after an article she wrote supporting the cause was published in the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. She and other feminists who were involved in the campaign, including Barbara Leigh-Smith (later Bodichon), Bessie Rayner Parkes and Mary Howitt, were soon at the centre of a wide-ranging emancipation movement. Economic independence was the principal issue with which the group was concerned in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Under the auspices of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women, founded in 1859, Maria Rye opened a law engrossing office in Portugal Street, adjacent to Lincoln's Inn Fields. Here she trained and supervised about 20 women in the work of drafting and copying legal and other business documents.
Although the office was a success, by 1861 Maria Rye was persuaded that such small-scale enterprises would not provide a solution to the problem of women's underemployment. Instead she began to advocate emigration. She argued that the colonies needed gentlewomen to work as schoolmistresses, governesses, and companions, and to enhance the quality of society. Maria Rye soon embarked on what amounted to a personal campaign. Women interested in emigrating were invited to apply to her for information and practical assistance. She claimed that during 1861 and 1862 she helped approximately 80 women to emigrate. With the endorsement in the columns of The Times of several influential supporters, she co-founded the Female Middle Class Emigration Society in May 1862.
At about this time Maria Rye became aware of the plight of working class women as well, and the focus of her campaign shifted. During mid 1862 she began recruiting working class women for emigration programmes sponsored by the colonies, including several parties which sailed to Otago and Canterbury. By the autumn she was determined to tour the colonies to 'investigate the whole subject of Female Emigration'. She hoped to establish reception committees and gather support for the Female Middle Class Emigration Society. She also wanted to observe at close quarters the operation of government-organised emigration. Otago was of particular interest to her as it had recently inaugurated a special female immigration programme to balance the numbers of men arriving in search of gold.
Maria Rye reached Port Chalmers aboard the John Duncan on 12 February 1863. She spent the next 18 months travelling extensively in New Zealand. A single woman of 33, well connected and with a reputation as an advocate of women's rights, Maria Rye was the subject of considerable curiosity. John Wilkinson, writing to Donald McLean, noted with surprise that she did 'not seem to despise the advantages of attractiveness in externals common to her sex: – has…a jaunty hat fronted with flowers, a light blue mantle, a pair of "follow-me-lads"[ribbons hanging over the shoulder].'
Soon after her arrival Maria Rye confronted the Otago provincial administration over conditions at the Princes Street barracks where newly arrived immigrants were accommodated. The building offered little more than rudimentary shelter. Requests for improvements had been ignored and by the time of Maria Rye's visit, overcrowding made the building's inadequacies more apparent. She was appalled by what she discovered and even more shocked by the government's apparent lack of interest. When her detailed charges were made public in March 1863, a row erupted. The issue of the treatment of women brought to the colony as government immigrants was a significant factor in the ousting of J. L. C. Richardson from the superintendency at the beginning of April. When Maria Rye's version of events was published in The Times, a select committee of the Otago Provincial Council was called to investigate her allegations. While she had her supporters, Dunedin as a whole was rather taken aback by her boldness. To a friend she wrote: 'I am looked on as a kind of ogre, I'm afraid.'
Maria Rye spent the winter and spring of 1863 in Canterbury. Her visit began constructively. She settled her travelling companion, Miss Waters, into a situation, and organised the ladies of Canterbury into a committee to establish a servants' home for the accommodation of servants while they were ill or temporarily without employment. As in Otago, however, she had little success in persuading the provincial administration to make improvements to their immigration programme, particularly to shipboard conditions. She was also disappointed to discover that even in Canterbury, where her hopes were highest, there was little support for her Female Middle Class Emigration Society. She was told that there was a desperate need for household servants, cooks and dairymaids but little employment available for women of the governess class.
Maria Rye became increasingly determined to expose the faults of existing government immigration. This did not make her popular, especially when sensational reports describing shipboard mortality and the callousness of colonists appeared over her name in The Times. The Lyttelton Times regretted that Miss Rye had 'strayed out of the cover in which young ladies usually pass their spinsterhood.' As effecting a change in public opinion was her only means of achieving reforms, Maria Rye was inclined to overstate her case. She was also dogmatic (to the point of intolerance in matters of religion) and could be overbearing, particularly to those she regarded as social inferiors.
In the second half of her New Zealand sojourn Maria Rye visited Nelson, Marlborough, Wellington and Hawke's Bay provinces. After consultation with each of the provincial authorities she agreed to inaugurate a combined scheme of female immigration in which she would select and send single women who would be suitable domestic servants. The amounts voted towards this proposal were considerable; Wellington set aside £4,000.
Maria Rye's interests extended beyond immigration. Her visit fostered links between feminists in England and New Zealand. In particular, she influenced Mary Ann Müller, with whom she stayed in January 1864. In Hawke's Bay Maria Rye was one of those who urged settlers to establish schools, including a girls' boarding school in Napier, for which she undertook to find suitable teachers.
After leaving Auckland in September 1864 Maria Rye travelled through Australia. She was embroiled in controversies over the reform of at least two public institutions. In mid 1866 she returned to England with a commission to select and dispatch immigrants for the government of Victoria. Towards the end of that year she sent 70 single women and 50 families to Napier on the Montmorency. This was the last contact Maria Rye had with New Zealand, and the only outcome of the arrangements she made with the provincial governments.
After this Maria Rye promoted Canada as an emigrant destination. In 1868 she took her first party of working women across the Atlantic and on to Ontario. She did not resume her work with the Female Middle Class Emigration Society, nor did she maintain contact with her feminist associates who by this time had taken up the enfranchisement issue, a cause which she did not support. In 1868 she was awarded a civil list pension for her work in ameliorating 'the condition of working women in England.'
Finding young women who were suitable and willing to emigrate became increasingly difficult. In 1869 Maria Rye initiated a scheme for sending destitute children to Canada, where they were found employment. This type of work was later adopted by Dr T. J. Barnardo and others. For the next 25 years Maria Rye, assisted by her lifelong companion, Lizzie Still, and her sister, Bessie Rye, sent about 4,000 children (mostly girls) from England to western Canada. However, she continued to be a controversial figure. Contemporaries accused her of showing no interest in the welfare of the children after they had reached Canada, and of operating a profitable business behind a charitable façade.
Although Maria Rye's association with New Zealand was short it occurred at a critical time in the history of the colony, and in the development of her own career. Her visit coincided with the peak of immigration to the southern settlements and she was successful in prompting public debate about the management of immigration and women's access to employment and education. The visit to Australasia provided knowledge and practical experience which helped shape her work as an emigrationist. She was, in more than one sense, an imperial figure. Maria Rye died at Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, on 12 November 1903.