Page 1: Biography
Mackay, Maria Jane
Founding mother, midwife, nurse
This biography, written by Beulah Edwards, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Maria Jane Taylor was born on Norfolk Island on 21 July 1844, the daughter of Thomas Taylor, a convict guard, and his wife, Margaret O'Sullivan. Soon after her birth the family returned to Parramatta, New South Wales, where Thomas Taylor's 99th (Lanarkshire) Regiment of Foot was stationed. Taylor was discharged as unfit in 1846 and invalided back to England.
In 1847 he joined the Royal New Zealand Fencibles and sailed to Auckland, lured by the promise of a cottage and land at Howick, one of the defensive villages planned for the southern approaches to the town. Howick was a dismal place: isolated, badly serviced, crowded and unhealthy. After Taylor's death in 1852, Maria's mother married William Cherry later that year.
Nothing is known of Maria's life for the next 10 years. She married John Joseph (Joe) Mackay, a farmer, at Howick on 7 May 1862; they settled in a cottage with a small area of land at Brookby, near Whitford. Maria managed the farm while Joe shared sentry duty guarding the settlement when there were fears of a Māori invasion from Waikato in 1863. One night she saw Māori waiting on the bank not far away, and kept the fire in all night, pacing up and down in her husband's spare boots to persuade them there was a man in the house. It is a comment on her character that she did not take advantage of the building erected in the stockade to shelter women and children.
After 1863 Maria and Joe Mackay moved to East Tāmaki, where they farmed and raised a family of 16 children; five others died in infancy. In 1887, when her mother died, Maria inherited an eight-acre property at Howick; using it as security she became part-owner of a farm in Mangatāwhiri with other family members. The Mackays lost the Howick property in the 1890s and, disappointed, left to live at Paeroa, then Thames.
Maria Mackay supported herself and her family by working as a nurse and midwife. She cared for miners' families in Karangahake and Waikino, visiting the sick and attending confinements by horse and trap, or on foot. She continued this work after Joe's death at Thames in 1908, following which she moved to Te Aroha. She had also to care for her daughters, Terry and Bessy, when they were dying of tuberculosis; 11 of her children predeceased her.
Maria Mackay was black-haired with dark brown eyes and of small stature; she wore large gold earrings 'like handmade gold nuggets.' She had boundless courage and ambition and a fiery temper. Her husband was in awe of her, and her daughters relied on her support in caring for several illegitimate grandchildren – 'little extras', as she called them. She became a Catholic, possibly in order to marry Joe Mackay, but abandoned the church after his death.
In later life Maria Mackay became somewhat eccentric: she lived in a small cottage at Whitaker Street, Te Aroha, without electricity, cooking in a camp oven as she had done throughout her life. When she died on 5 February 1933 she had 58 grandchildren and 64 great-grandchildren. The instability of her childhood, followed by a lifetime of economic insecurity and personal tragedy, lent bitterness to her soul, but her courageous response to hardship typified the spirit of the early pioneers.