Mary Jane Milne was born at Coalisland, County Tyrone, Ireland, on 16 September 1840, to Margery Fay, née Dawson, and her husband, James Stewart Milne, a builder. Mary Jane was the eldest of their six children, one of whom died in early childhood.
The family left Ireland in July 1863 and sailed on the Queen of the Mersey from Gravesend, London, on 1 August; they arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, on 26 November. The Milnes found a house at 1 Park Road, Grafton, which they rented from the Wesley Mission and Educational Trust Board. This property was leased in Mary Jane's name for nearly 40 years.
Mary Jane Milne was a trustworthy and capable young woman. She immediately found work as head milliner with David Graham who had a soft-goods emporium. She gained knowledge of merchandising, marketing, banking and the tastes and expectations of prospective customers.
Early in 1867, despite the economic recession in Auckland, Mary Jane bought into a business with her sister, Charlotte. The Misses Milne advertised in the local papers that 'they have purchased the whole of Mr. and Mrs. Wilson's stock, and will continue to carry on the above long established and well known business.' This was a millinery and drapery shop situated on the corner of Wyndham and Albert streets. The stock purchased cost £281, with fixtures valued at £10 and monthly rental £10. The uphill location and considerable competition meant a slow start and some delay in paying off the financial commitment to the former owners, but the business gradually built up. In 1874 they moved to larger premises on the corner of Queen and Wellesley streets.
That same year, on 29 August, Charlotte Milne married Henry Charles Choyce, a buyer in Archibald Clark and Sons. In 1876 the sisters' firm became known as Milne and Choyce when Henry joined Mary Jane as a business partner. The firm at first concentrated on fashion, variety and quality in all items of drapery. Dressmaking was an especial service offered and the shop provided employment for a large staff. Mary Jane, with her experience, knowledge and flair, went on several buying trips to England and Europe to place orders for the most fashionable stock.
In 1901 Milne and Choyce became a public company with Choyce as managing director. Mary Jane Milne was not on the board, but she remained active until her retirement in March 1908. She held a large shareholding and remained influential in the business all her life. From time to time the premises were rebuilt and enlarged; by 1909 Milne and Choyce had moved to a central position in Queen Street.
All her working life Mary Jane Milne drove daily to the shop in a horse and gig from her home in Park Road, until she took the typically enterprising step of purchasing in 1903 a twin-cylinder Darracq car. Deeply involved in the business, Milne also possessed a great devotion to her family, although she never married. Her parents lived with her until they died – Charlotte and Henry Choyce settled on the same Park Road property – and in 1889 she became guardian of the four children of her brother, John Stuart Milne. Her nephew, another John Stuart Milne, joined the business when he was 17; he became its secretary in 1901 and a director in 1909.
In 1904 Mary Jane Milne moved to Westbourne Road, then in 1909 to Vincent Road, Remuera, where two other family homes were built on the section. The warm family life continued until, and after, her death there on 4 April 1921.
Mary Jane Milne was a remarkable woman, reliable and capable, with a good business sense. She had the Irish sense of humour the family shared and was known for her benevolence and devotion to duty. Her energy and ability ensured that the company adapted, and survived lean as well as buoyant times. It provided employment for many shop assistants, dressmakers and managers, as other departments developed from the millinery and drapery business. Her buying trips ensured that some of the finest goods were imported into Auckland from European markets.
Mary Jane Milne's early influence and ideals set the company course for more than 100 years for service to the customer and responsibility to staff. She pursued her career at a time when women would usually have remained in the home rather than take a major role in the world of commerce.