Page 1: Biography
This biography, written by John A. Salmond, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Sarah Cockburn was born on 7 August 1864 in the parish of Abbey St Bathans in Berwickshire, Scotland, the seventh and youngest child of John Cockburn and his wife, Elizabeth Liddle. John Cockburn was a farm worker who at times could barely feed his large family. One of Sarah's earliest memories was of trying to satisfy her hunger by eating wild sorrel. To escape poverty, John Cockburn decided to join his eldest son, George, in New Zealand. Leaving one daughter behind, the family departed on the Zealandia on 4 October 1872.
Soon after their arrival in Dunedin on 4 January 1873, the Cockburns set out by bullock cart for Cromwell where George was farming. After a year there the family moved to the village of Queenstown, where Sarah had her only formal education – two years at the local school. She left at the age of 11 to look after her father because her mother, having already established herself as one of the district's midwives, was frequently away from home.
When she was about 15 Sarah went to keep house for her brothers George and David, who were attempting to carve out a farm from the wild lands of the Rees valley, at the head of Lake Wakatipu. She was the first female settler to live there. In the solitude she developed an interest in astronomy. Quiet evenings and clear skies were ideal conditions for observing the stars. She shared this enthusiasm with her brother George, and eagerly read his collection of books on astronomy.
At about 18, despite her own lack of formal education, Sarah Cockburn became governess to three children on a remote sheep station. She inexpertly taught them reading, writing and simple arithmetic; her insistence on decent schooling for her own children derived partly from this experience. During a provisioning visit to Queenstown she met John Salmond, a young carpenter recently arrived in the district from Torphichen, Scotland. They were married on 7 April 1886 at Queenstown, and the following year Mary, the first of their eight children, was born.
Both John and Sarah Salmond were staunch Presbyterians. Sarah was a member of Queenstown's St Andrew's Presbyterian Church for more than 70 years, and three of her children, Mary, James and Alex, became leaders of New Zealand Presbyterianism.
Sarah Salmond's interest in astronomy transcended the boundaries of a mere hobby. In December 1874 several American scientists had come to Queenstown to observe the transit of Venus across the solar disc. Sarah Salmond, convinced that this event should be remembered, lobbied for years to have a plaque erected on the site of the observation. On Wednesday 17 June 1953 she had the honour of unveiling a monument to mark the site.
Sarah Salmond retained this interest all her life. During her last illness she took two books to hospital with her: the Bible, and a little book on astronomy called The heavens declare. She died on 18 October 1956 at Ross Home, Dunedin, aged 92. Her husband predeceased her in 1940 and her two eldest sons, John and George, died young. She was survived by her six remaining children: Mary, Beth, William, James, Robert and Alex.