Page 1: Biography
Adamson, Catherine Mary Ann
This biography, written by Trish McCormack, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
The diaries that Catherine Adamson wrote from 1895 until 1906 stand today as the only known daily record kept by a South Westland founding mother, and are invaluable for the glimpses they give of the daily work and life of the pioneers. Their author was born Catherine Mary Ann Friend in Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia, on 13 October 1868 to Ann Elizabeth Langham and her husband, Samuel Friend, a labourer. As an infant she travelled to Ōkārito, Westland, New Zealand, with her parents. Samuel, lured by tales of the fabulous gold strikes in the area in 1866, began mining, but by the time they settled there the district's population had declined from thousands to hundreds as the rich gold-bearing beaches were worked out. Ōkārito, with its port, was still a centre of commerce for the province.
Catherine Friend probably attended Ōkārito School, where she learned the fine copperplate handwriting that she was later to put to use in her diaries. On 23 September 1888 at Ōkārito she married Robert Adamson, a farmer, butcher and flaxmiller. They were to have five children. Robert's family had taken up some of the first land in the Wataroa (Whataroa) area, and Catherine and he were to farm Volis station, a big block of heavily forested land. The work of converting these rugged South Westland valley flats into farmland was demanding.
Her busy life allowed Catherine Adamson the time to pen only a few lines a day. However, her diaries give a graphic description of the workloads shouldered by all family members, whether it was Catherine herself churning up to 33 pounds of butter a day for sale to the Ōkārito miners or catching a bucket of whitebait, or the whole family out searching for their cattle and horses on the large unfenced commons of the Wataroa flats, or the men clearing the bush and droving cattle.
Stoic in character, Catherine showed her personal feelings only very occasionally in her diaries. Indeed, the things she merely mentioned and did not dwell upon provide some interesting insights into her personality, such as the passing remark 'self sick' and comments on the men's work on the day she gave birth to a son in 1899. The brief chronicle of that same child's illness and subsequent death in 1901 emphasises how fatal it could prove to be cut off from medical help. The support Catherine gained from her Anglican faith during this tragedy is revealed in her diary: 'my Darling's funeral took place…. Family all came home leaving our Darling in God's world.' Another child died in 1906.
Catherine was an important member of an informal network of women who, although living lives of extreme isolation scattered throughout South Westland, provided one another with invaluable support during times of illness, childbirth and other hardships. She and Robert were esteemed members of their community and were renowned for their hospitality. Life centred on the farm, but visits to Ōkārito were always a highlight for the Adamson family. Catherine Adamson's parents had bought Ōkārito's Royal Hotel in 1896 and the family usually spent Christmas there. They joined in horse riding excursions, picnics, race meetings and balls. Occasionally they went further afield to Hokitika, usually in the coastal steamer from Ōkārito, and in 1901 Catherine and Robert had an extensive tour of the North Island.
Catherine Adamson died on 9 August 1925 at Westland Hospital, Hokitika, and was buried in the Wataroa cemetery. Robert died in 1941 and was buried with her.