During the 1920s the citizens of Auckland benefited from a number of munificent bequests given by Marianne Smith. An enigmatic and very private person, she was unusual in that unlike most wealthy women of the time she had not inherited her money but had earned it herself. She was born Mary Anne Caughey on 10 March 1851 at Portaferry, County Down, northern Ireland, the youngest daughter of the seven children of James Caughey, a grocer, and his wife, Jane Clarke.
Little is known about Marianne's early years in Ireland. She worked for missions in Belfast, and was on the committee of the Prison Gate Mission. On 21 July 1874 at Portaferry she married William Henry Smith, who worked with her brother Andrew at a Belfast drapery store. The newly-weds sailed to New York where William had a job in a drapery firm. Marianne helped at the famous mission in Water Street run by the evangelist Jerry MacAuley, and at the Door of Hope, a refuge for single mothers.
Returning to Belfast around 1879 the Smiths started a charitable mission in a poor part of the city, but William's health deteriorated and they decided to emigrate to New Zealand. The couple arrived in Auckland in early 1880, and Marianne opened Smith's Cheap Drapery Warehouse on Queen Street. Because the new firm could not support husband and wife, William initially worked for another draper, but by 1881 Marianne's store was doing so well William was able to join her.
The shop's success was built on a policy of high turnover through low retail margins, embodied in the mottos, ‘Small profits and quick returns’ and ‘A nimble sixpence rather than a slow shilling'. The store specialised in supplying country customers and fostered a Maori clientele by advertising in the Maori-language newspaper Te Korimako.
In 1882 Andrew Caughey, who had emigrated to New Zealand a month before the Smiths and entered the Methodist ministry, settled in Auckland and joined the business as a partner with William. The firm was then named Smith and Caughey. The omission of Marianne from the partnership reflects the role of married women at the time, but she remained vitally involved in the business.
In 1884 Smith and Caughey moved to a prime site on the western side of Queen Street, and began direct purchasing from overseas markets, a move which infuriated local wholesalers. In 1902 Marianne and William went to India in search of new goods, and in 1908 and 1913 she made buying trips to Britain. In 1900 William and Andrew had formed a limited liability company. Although not a director, Marianne was one of eight shareholders.
The Smiths also continued Methodist mission work, and were among those who established the Helping Hand Mission in 1885. The Helping Hand, as its name denoted, adopted a strong welfare role, with the Sisters of the Poor (also known as the Visiting Sisters) nursing people in their homes. The sisters were the forerunners of the Deaconesses of the Methodist Church of Australasia in New Zealand, appointed from 1907, and helped pave the way for the establishment of government-funded district nursing services, which began in 1909. When the Helping Hand Mission evolved into the Methodist Central Mission, Marianne was president of the 20 Visiting Sisters. Another aspect of the Helping Hand Mission was the Door of Hope, founded in Cook Street in 1896. For 16 years William was chairman and Marianne was the secretary. From 1903 to 1910 Marianne was also on the board of the YWCA.
The couple had hoped to have a family, but Marianne had suffered a number of miscarriages and stillbirths. During an extended trip to Britain in 1908 and 1909, the Smiths informally adopted a baby boy called Reginald. Marianne was by then in her late 50s.
William died in 1912, leaving Marianne a wealthy widow with a small child. She withdrew from active mission work about this time, but retained a strong interest in Smith and Caughey. In 1916 she joined the board as a director (a position she held until her death in 1938) and always attended meetings. She increasingly identified as a Caughey and was often referred to as Mrs Caughey Smith. As a woman of Christian conviction as well as considerable means she was able to continue making charitable gifts, as she and William had done when he was alive. In 1907 they had given the Alexandra Home for Convalescent Women and Children for the benefit of working-class families to the Auckland Hospital and Charitable Aid Board.
In 1916 Marianne gave the couple's former home, The Grange, in Herne Bay, to the Auckland Division of the Salvation Army to become an orphanage for girls. Another orphanage, the Wesley Home in Mt Albert, had been given to the Methodist Church jointly with her brother Andrew in 1913. Andrew was on the board of Wesley College, a school for boys in South Auckland, and in 1927 Marianne gave the college money for a hospital. Two years later she donated a substantial chapel, to be called the W. H. Smith Memorial Chapel. In 1929 Marianne also gave two parks to the people of Auckland. The first, named Quinton Park after Quinton Castle in Portaferry, was located on a clifftop on the North Shore. The second, in Green Bay, also commemorated her Irish birthplace as it was named after Viscount Craigavon, prime minister of Northern Ireland, who visited Auckland in 1929. In June 1935 the significance of Marianne Smith's gifts was recognised when she was made an MBE.
Marianne’s adopted son Reggie participated in the religious life of the household in his boyhood, leading prayers and accompanying his mother when she presented bequests. As he grew older, however, he developed more worldly interests and his relationship with his mother became strained. He wanted to become a doctor, but she removed him from school before he had completed his education. Eventually he drifted away from the Methodist church and his family.
Marianne’s controlling attitude towards Reggie gives one insight into her rather elusive character. She was regarded as a frugal woman who was shrewd with money. She was very devout and somewhat reclusive, although this withdrawal may have occurred quite late in her life. Some, indeed, described her as very talkative and strong-willed. She always wore black, as was the custom for widows.
On 12 September 1932, not long after the breach with Reggie, Marianne married the Reverend Raymond Preston, a retired Methodist minister from Sydney. He was 71, she was 81; the ceremony took place at St John’s Church, Ponsonby. Six years later, on 1 September 1938, Marianne Preston died at her Princes Street home; she was survived by her second husband.
She left a huge estate worth around £325,000, but left Reggie only £100. He challenged this and because he was not formally adopted, legislation was needed to enable him to receive a larger legacy. However, most of the estate went to set up homes ‘for aged, infirm, or impecunious women’. The trust she established holds nearly half the shares in Smith and Caughey Limited and administers the Caughey-Preston Rest Homes and Geriatric Hospital in Remuera, Auckland.