The Gildea Sisters

Maria Rye, and her place in my family history

Kathleen O’Connell Fitzgerald

The earliest of my women ancestors in New Zealand were the sisters Anna and Susan Gildea. When the good ship John Duncan arrived in Port Chalmers on February 13th, 1863 they were among the passengers. Born in Boyle, Roscommon, in the North West of the Republic of Ireland, Marie, Brigid, Anna, Catherine, Susan and Letitia were the daughters of Patrick and Honora Gildea. Patrick was a carpenter who specialised in coach building. The daughters were all literate, as well as competent dressmakers and milliners. The two older daughters remained in Ireland, Brigid to marry and Marie to care for their parents until both died. Anna and Susan, Catherine and Letitia all emigrated to New Zealand as young people, as did Marie when her parents died.

Maria Rye was a mid 19th century woman who was concerned with the prospects and living conditions of young emigrant women. In her biography of Rye, Marion Diamond describes her as “a woman motivated by both feminist and philanthropic ideals, devoted her life to the migration of women and girls out of England.” She was stirred by the plight of girls and women in the middle of the 19th century who had difficulty finding work. The perception of “superfluous” women gave rise to diverse organisations offering help. Rye felt that the colonies needed more middle class women and that emigration opened opportunities that were otherwise available only to boys and men.

Maria often made her concerns public as in the London Times that published this letter. The Otago Witness reprinted it on the 4th March, 1863.
What a melancholy picture of genteel poverty is presented by the educational advertisements in the columns of the London Times. We read there, scores of announcements of Governesses wanting situations, while the list of openings for their employment is sadly smaller by contrast. A little thought indulged in while gazing at the daily broadsheet, might conjure up a sad scene in the mind’s eye, of once happy homes broken up through misfortune or death, and of amiable and educated girls deprived of their natural protectors and forced to go forth among strangers to earn their daily bread. Truly the lot of such is pitiable indeed; poverty in whatever shape it may come is a great misfortune; but educated poverty carries with it a sharper pang still.” (

Her words stirred emotions. The wages for educated women in England were on a par with domestic servants in England while in the colonies they could earn up to three times more. “The daughters of shopkeepers and master tradesmen of England usually perform the household work of their own homes, and as such would be perfectly suitable…as immigrants to the colonies.” For colonial children they could provide a good English education in languages, a little science and in the English way of life. These educated women would be a better venture as immigrants than would domestic servants.” (

When the Otago Provincial Council in 1862 began to encourage different groups of immigrants, depending on the needs of the rapidly expanding gold rush population, they targeted women, especially single women. Before Maria’s involvement there had been a number of women who took advantage of Otago’s need, sailed to the colony and were quickly snapped up as servant girls in the developing city and further afield. Dunedin housed these young women in the Female Immigration Barracks until they found work. At first there was extremely basic accommodation. “There were only small square holes in place of windows; two–tier bunks without mattresses, no food supplied, no matron to receive them…and it was winter. Their lavatories were down a steep and slippery clay bank.” (Trotter). Better housing was assigned to them later and in 1862, Mrs Jessie Crawford appointed as matron. Some saw her as a martinet but “she did her best to keep the barracks clean but it was an uphill battle with no water supply. Still, she had the girls washing out the whole place every day.” (Trotter)

With support from various philanthropic groups, Maria promoted the idea to young women from England. She organised the charter of the John Duncan from Shaw Savill. Along with those from England the passengers also included 27 Irish girls recruited by agents from Otago. Maria accompanied the immigrants (mainly young females) to New Zealand. She was farewelled with suitable acclaim by friends and well wishers in Gravesend and the occasion was documented. Among those on board the John Duncan were, from “Boyle, in Roscommon, nine Irish girls (who) had set out with no superintendence whatever…fine, fresh, hearty girls they were, able and willing to work, modest and full of fun.” (Bessie Parker). Apparently these did not meet with Miss Rye’s approval. On board she was reported to have listened to “tale–bearing from her own charges about the behaviour of the Irish girls.” (Trotter). But the Captain wrote “that the Irish girls had been the best behaved and the cleanest on the ship.” (Trotter). Two of these young women were Anna and Susan Gildea. They are listed on the debtors’ list of those who arrived on the John Duncan as owing £7.00 apiece for assisted passage.

In his book White Wings, Henry Brett notes that “the John Duncan, a fine American–built ship of just upon 1000 tons, was chartered by the Shaw, Savill Co. to convey immigrants to New Zealand. She sailed from Gravesend on November 6, 1862…arriving in Port Chalmers after an uneventful passage of 98 days.” Maria wrote an account of the arrival. It was summarised in the Times.

Dunedin, Otago, March 16.
The joyful cry of “Land ahoy!” was sounded the 9th of this February. A gentle breeze brought us, almost from the bluff to Cape Saunders, the pleasant smell of fresh earth, and the most delicious perfume from the flowering shrubs. As we drew near the shore we coasted for miles past rocky hills of all shapes and sizes, varying in colour from the deepest red to a fine buff brown, in many places covered with timber, cut here and there by gorges, small bays, and creeks, and patches of white sand and isolated rocks (one very noticeable called Gull Rock), varying the scenery till we reached the Heads. From the Heads past Port Chalmers to the town of Dunedin the mainland and the small peninsula (which protects the town from the ocean) fit into each other like lock and key, the watery arm that divides them winding between rock and rock in the most picturesque manner imaginable. On either side the trees grow from the summit of the hills to the very water’s edge, the whole forming one long panorama of the most exquisite beauty. Dunedin itself is built on the level land lying at the foot of a semicircular mountainous range running from Anderson’s Bay to the North–East Valley, some of the houses being dotted midway up the hills. There are two daily newspapers, three good (branch) banks, five large places of worship, besides three or four small Jewish synagogues; but the town has quadrupled itself within the last 18 months. The Bank of NSW which opened a branch office here about 12 months ago, with a staff of four offices, has now business enough to employ 23 clerks. The gold escorts are continually arriving night and day. Our advent was almost simultaneous with that of some 1,000 miners from Melbourne. Since then 2000 more have arrived

Later the report covers the Immigrants’ Barracks. “It is occupied simultaneously by successive draughts of young and single women from home and by a body of mounted police from Melbourne lately introduced to keep order at the diggings. The two wings are divided only by a small zinc paling just sufficiently high to screen patrons behind from observation; meanwhile there is perfect liberty of ingress and egress at all hours. The girls are left to do everything for themselves, the matron often sleeps out, and there are no means of getting even water except from some public house. The result, two or three illegitimate children are at present residing there, and two or three similar additions are expected within the next month. Colonial wages are high, but so are colonial prices; Governess salaries of 60s to 40s. House rent is fearfully high, 18s a week is asked for two small rooms. The town is half tents and the rest is nearly all wooden and Miss Rye herself noticed one house built entirely of tin biscuit boxes, battered ‘out’. Meat is dear, and all the necessaries of life far more expensive than in England. Nor is society select. Goldfields attract all the worst characters for many miles round, and some of the greatest villains under the sun are at this moment now at Otago.” (Times, Friday, May 29, 1863).

Maria wrote she was pleased to state that “with the exception of about three or four servants (who will probably be placed in a few days), all my girls and governesses have found suitable employment, the latter at salaries of from £60 to £40; the former at wages from £40 to £20 per annum.”

Maria Rye spent the next 18 months travelling extensively in New Zealand. A single woman of thirty three well connected and with a reputation as an advocate of women’s rights, Maria Rye was the subject of considerable curiosity. John Wilkinson, writing to Donald McLean, noted with surprise that “she did not seem to despise the advantages of attractiveness in externals common to her sex: has a jaunty hat fronted with flowers, a light blue mantle, a pair of “follow–me–lads” [ribbons hanging over the shoulder].” (C. MacDonald).

Anna and Susan moved to Hyde and married, Anna to Bernard O’Neill and Susan to Tim Miscall. In 1867 Bernard O’Neill sponsored Catherine and Letitia to come to New Zealand. They joined their sisters in Hyde. Kate was a teacher for a time and married John Laverty. Letitia married Ned O’Connell. She was a midwife. As the township prospered so did the families. Letitia was my great grandmother.

Diamond, Marion; Emigration and Empire; Taylor and Francis Ltd (where?) 1999.
English Women’s Journal, Vol x, Feb 1863.
Macdonald, Charlotte; ‘Rye, Maria Susan – Biography’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.
Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 1–Sep–10 URL:
Trotter, Olive; The Maid Servants’ Scandal. University of Otago, 1993.

© 2014 Kathleen O’Connell Fitzgerald