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Story: Wallis, Mary Ann Lake

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Wallis, Mary Ann Lake


Orphanage matron

This biography, written by Elspeth Mairs, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Marianne Dockray (later Mary Ann Lake Dockery) was the daughter of Robert Thornton Dockray, a gardener, and his wife, Marianne Lake. She was born on the family farm in Dartford, Kent, England, probably on 17 October 1821, and baptised on 14 November 1821. The eldest of eight children, she was well trained in housekeeping and farm work. When her parents opposed her intended marriage she fled to London, where, on 4 June 1842, she married John Philip Coster at St Botolph's Church, Bishopsgate. The couple sailed for New Zealand on the George Fyfe, arriving in Nelson in December 1842.

The Costers initially took up land in Waimea, but poverty forced them back to Nelson where John found work as a constable. Their only child, Agnes, was born early in 1843. In June of that year John Coster was one of those killed in the Wairau incident; in little more than a year Mary Coster had been wife, mother and widow. She and Agnes were taken in by Mary and Henry Redwood, fellow passengers on the George Fyfe, who cared for them until the worst of the shock was over. Mary helped with sewing and minding children, and received in return a small salary and her keep.

More than a year after John Coster's death, Mary refused her parents' offer of a paid passage back to England. She returned to Nelson where she opened a tiny grocery shop. On 2 October 1844 she married Richard Wallis at the Wesleyan Chapel, Nelson; they were to have 10 children. In the 1850s they ran a small school for girls. Richard also did contract farm work and drove bullock teams from Richmond to Motueka. From 1859 to June 1866 he was postmaster at Richmond, and schoolteacher.

In 1866 Mary and Richard Wallis moved to Motueka; they bought land in Hursthouse Street and named the property Hulmers. In 1867 it was opened as an orphanage, while continuing as their private home. The institution, the only one of its kind in the area, took in both orphans and neglected children from as far away as Nelson and Greymouth. A fee of 7s. per week was charged to parents or guardians, with medical expenses being met by the Nelson provinicial government. Numbers increased, forcing a move to the Gables in 1870. The expense of enlarging this building – and, it seems, the difficulty of collecting the fees – caused a financial crisis, and by June 1872 only one child was maintained in the home. The provincial government now agreed to pay the weekly fee, increased to 8s. by the colonial Department of Education in 1878 when the orphanage and its 53 children were returned to an enlarged Hulmers.

Children, from babies up to the age of 12, were taken in, remaining until they were at least 14. The boys were then apprenticed and the girls went into service, although the Wallises remained their guardians until they were 18.

Mary Wallis looked after the children's health, food, clothing and beds. Richard Wallis trained the boys in husbandry, kept the books, taught school and maintained discipline. Their daughters Penelope, Mary and Eliza helped in the home and the school. The younger members of the family were educated with the orphans, and the school pass rate was high. Christianity was taught by reading and discussing Scripture and singing hymns.

Richard Wallis died on 28 August 1882, and the orphanage was then run by Mary Wallis, her daughters Frances and Kate, and her son Richard. Mary Wallis sustained the orphanage by her capacity for hard work and her managerial ability. She had a real affection for the children, and her keen sense of humour must have been an asset. Even after the closure of the orphanage, children came back for holidays or to be cared for when ill.

Mary Wallis died of heart failure at Motueka on 24 May 1910 and was buried in Motueka cemetery.

How to cite this page:

Elspeth Mairs. 'Wallis, Mary Ann Lake', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2w6/wallis-mary-ann-lake (accessed 13 July 2024)