Story: Hellaby, Amy Maria

Page 1: Biography

Hellaby, Amy Maria

1864–1955

Businesswoman

This biography, written by Angela Caughey, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Amy Maria Briscoe was born in Birkenhead, Cheshire, England, on 3 February 1864, the fifth of six children of Elizabeth Bishop and her husband, John Briscoe, a master cabinet-maker. By February 1868 her mother and all her siblings had died. Her father remarried and some time later emigrated with his new wife, Isabella Alexander, and Amy to the Chatham Islands, arriving by 1872. He bought a small ship and traded between the islands and the New Zealand mainland. Amy was sent to board at St Mary's Convent in Ponsonby, Auckland, where she received a good all-round education, developing high moral standards and a refined taste.

On 20 January 1885, aged 20, Amy Briscoe married 36-year-old Richard Hellaby, a butcher, at St Mark's Church, Remuera, Auckland. Over the next 17 years she supported her husband while he established a large business in the meat industry, and cared for a family which eventually comprised three sons and three daughters. In late 1900 Richard's brother William, and his wife Rosina, both died unexpectedly, and Amy and Richard assumed responsibility for their five children. Then in June 1902 Richard himself died suddenly of a heart attack. Widowed at 38, Amy found herself responsible not only for the two families but also for the business. She was not totally unprepared; aware of his heart condition, Richard Hellaby had encouraged Amy to take an interest in the running of the family firm.

R. & W. Hellaby Limited at the time was said to be the country's largest private company, employing over 250 people. It was the largest exporter from New Zealand of frozen meat to Great Britain and tinned corned beef to the Pacific islands. A syndicate immediately tried to buy the substantial assets. Amy refused to sell, being determined to keep Hellabys until her sons and nephews were old enough to decide their futures. It is said that the strain of taking over the business caused her hair to go white in the first few weeks. The day-to-day affairs were run by Richard's two trustees, but Amy made the major financial decisions. During the next 12 years assets were sold in an effort to consolidate the company. In addition, the abattoir was moved from Westmere to Westfield, and a six-storeyed company office was erected in Queen Street.

Amy also had to supervise the completion of Bramcote (now Florence Court, Omana Avenue), an imposing and elegant family residence surrounded by large gardens and horse paddocks, in Mountain Road, Epsom. She looked after her father here when his second wife died. Acting on the plans she and Richard had made, she took her children on regular trips to Europe to broaden their education.

When war broke out in 1914 all the young Hellaby men joined the army. Amy Hellaby sold Bramcote and took her two younger unmarried daughters to London for three years, buying a house in Bayswater to provide a home for the men when they were on leave. During her absence business declined, but profits nearly quadrupled in 1919 after her return. Around this time she built and moved into a smaller home in Remuera Road. After family discussion her son Fred took over from the trustees in 1921, with his brother John and cousin Arthur in support. Amy gradually retired from active participation while they carried out an extensive rebuilding programme. Under Amy's control the firm had been an efficient enterprise, ready to take advantage of economic opportunities. The next generation of owners benefited from her careful management.

Amy Hellaby was a generous but not always compliant benefactor to Auckland Anglican churches and schools. A son and a nephew had been educated at King's College when it was in Remuera, and initially she would not support the school's move to the flat land at Otahuhu: she believed firmly that pupils should look out to distant horizons from their classrooms.

Amy was of medium height and build and stood very erect. Her penetrating gaze suggested severity, but this was belied by her warm and loving personality. In later years her commanding presence was accentuated by the ever-present black velvet ribbon round her neck and voluminous lace shawl round her shoulders. She was a courageous and independent woman and a natural leader. She would listen and learn from those she trusted, but had no patience with the foolish. Amy Hellaby remained healthy and active and was regarded as the head of the family to the end. Loyal household staff attended her in her last years. She died at Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Epsom, in her 92nd year, on 7 April 1955.

How to cite this page:

Angela Caughey. 'Hellaby, Amy Maria', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3h14/hellaby-amy-maria (accessed 17 September 2019)