Page 1: Biography
Torlesse, Elizabeth Henrietta
Homemaker, community leader
This biography, written by Jo-Anne Smith, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Elizabeth Henrietta Revell was born probably in 1835 or 1836, in County Wicklow, Ireland, third daughter of Thomas Revell, farmer, and his wife, Margaret Elizabeth Bradell. Elizabeth and her mother, five brothers and four sisters, as second cabin passengers on the Minerva, arrived in Lyttelton, New Zealand, on 2 February 1853. Henry Torlesse was also on board and became friendly with the Revells. The Revells lived at the Lyttelton barracks until their acre of land, Korotueka, at Kaiapoi, was purchased. Thomas Revell emigrated in late 1853. Elizabeth went as a lady help to a family at Governors Bay to assist with the Revells' finances. When the Revells moved to Kaiapoi, the whole family worked the farm; Elizabeth helped develop the garden and thresh wheat.
Elizabeth Revell became engaged to Henry Torlesse in October 1856 and married him at Kaiapoi on 16 June 1857. Afterwards they lived at Fernside sheep run, near Rangiora, where Henry had been farming with his brother Charles Torlesse. On 29 September 1859 Henry was ordained at Christchurch and assigned his first cure at Okains Bay, Banks Peninsula. Conditions at this remote bay were very primitive. Elizabeth aided in parish duties, took Sunday school, and school on Monday mornings while Henry rested. In addition to accommodating their own family (Elizabeth became pregnant almost yearly), they took in boarders so Henry could give them a preparatory education. Elizabeth and Henry Torlesse had eight daughters and two sons, but three daughters died within a year of being born.
In November 1863, when Henry's health failed, they returned to Christchurch, where, in January 1864, he was appointed the chaplain to the gaol, hospital, and Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum. In these institutions he came across destitute women who were often driven to prostitution. Because there was no official means of helping them, he began raising funds for a female refuge. Elizabeth worked with Henry to establish the refuge, organising women to knock on doors and collect money. She wrote to her mother-in-law on 13 May 1864, 'We do not for a moment hope to stem the tide of sin but we want to have a home where those poor girls who have once fallen and are now anxious to leave the miserable life and try and regain by quiet industry and good conduct the position that they have lost.'
Despite being refused funds by the provincial government, the female refuge opened in 1864. Henry was the chaplain and Elizabeth was involved in running the institution until they moved to Governors Bay in 1867.
Again they took day pupils, but Henry became ill, and they returned to Fernside, where he died in December 1870. Elizabeth was left with seven children and for two years received a pension of £40. She owned land in Rangiora and kept livestock and a large garden that she looked after herself. During the holidays she took in children in need of country air, and they helped with the work to be done around the place. In 1907 she moved to Christchurch and died there on 22 September 1922.