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Jane Williams



The Early Years



Although an important figure in the missionary story, less is known of the early life of Jane Williams (née Nelson). She was the daughter of James and Anna Maria Nelson (née Dale), and born on 5 April, 1801[1] at Nottingham. Her background, what is known of it, appears similar to the others described here. Her father was connected to the same clique that occupied Nottingham’s business, civic and church affairs as the Williams and Coldham families. The Nelson brothers, George and James, attended the St Mary’s Gate Independent Chapel, and George was another of the Sheriffs of Nottingham and also engaged in the hosiery business.[2]


The evidence points towards her having a sound education for, in 1817, at the age of sixteen, Jane joined Mary Williams’ school at Southwell as an assistant teacher. Southwell is a small town some 20 km from Nottingham, which in those days had a population of a little over 2000.The school, which included accommodation for Mary Williams and her family, was located in the State Chamber of the Bishop’s Palace, the remainder of the Palace having been ruined during the Civil War. The years Jane spent teaching will have prepared her well for this role when she applied it in New Zealand. We can gain some idea of her appearance from the silhouette shown here, made at about the time of her marriage, when she was in her early twenties.[3] 


Her future husband, William Williams had left Southwell Grammar to take up his surgical apprenticeship nearby. But it is likely that he visited his old home from time to time, then, and later when he was at Oxford, using a room on the upper floor for his studies. Inevitably he would have met Jane in the process.


Despite a mutual attraction, Jane initially appeared unwilling to make the missionary journey to New Zealand, for which William was preparing himself. This later turned out to be a misapprehension – it was Anna Nelson, Jane’s mother, who objected to the match and its consequences. It seems that she did not wish her daughter to live ‘abroad’, not an unreasonable sentiment given the remoteness of New Zealand.[4] William’s brother-in-law, Edward Heathcote, passed on this information, and the difficulties were soon resolved.[5] According to a letter from William’s mother, written to Henry Williams in January 1823, William was determined not to entertain another refusal.[6] In the short period from her betrothal to William and marriage, it can be assumed that she underwent some of the preparation given to other missionary wives. Added to her teaching experience would have been nursing or medical skills, frequently called upon in New Zealand owing to William’s long absences from home.


If their courtship had to fit in with the demands of William’s studies and preparation, then their marriage ceremony also had to fight for space in his busy schedule. In July 1825 William received his sailing orders and a wedding was hastily arranged at Attercliffe, a village near Sheffield where Jane was visiting the Rectory.[7] They were married in the Rector’s house by the Reverend John Blackburne, Also present were Jane’s sister Anna, and a poet and composer of hymns, James Montgomery. It was recorded that Jane wore a simple white dress, the only one available at short notice.[8] William and Jane sailed on the Sir George Osborne on the 12.8.1825 for New South Wales.[9]


The voyage was notable as the South Pacific Pearl Fisheries Company’s commercial expedition to New South Wales and the Pacific Islands. A fellow passenger of the Williams family, was Samuel Stutchbury who was appointed naturalist to the expedition. Stutchbury was previously an assistant to William Clift, who was conservator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, and had trained in the medical and natural sciences. He and William would have found much of common interest.[10]


[1] Some sources suggest 8.4.1801, but NH Williams (MS) loc.cit confirms the above date.

[2] N H Williams,

[3] We can draw this conclusion as one in similar style was made of her husband. Silhouettes were then a popular and economical means of creating a likeness, compared with the more expensive miniature, or painting.

[4] Porter, F, 1974, The Turanga Journals, Price Milburn/Victoria University Press, Wellington, p.25

[5] Noted in 1821 by Mary Williams’ brother John Marsh that ‘ I perceived a flirtation going on between my nephew Will’m & Miss Nelson…’ . He also referred rather ruefully to the fact that none of the women linked to his sister’s sons brought anything “to help out in the increased expences (sic) of the married state”, reflecting perhaps his concern over the sometimes precarious state of his sister’s finances www.williams.gen . This statement seems a little surprising given that Marianne Coldham was by then a beneficiary of her father’s estate.

[6] Porter, F, 1974, loc. cit., p.24-25.

[7] Porter, F, 1974 loc. cit., p.25

[8] Williams F W. Through 90 years, 1826-1916. Whitcombe and Tombs, Christchurch.

[9] The ship’s name is always spelt as Osborne with the ‘e’, although the only Englishman famous enough to have a ship named after him was the baronet, general and parliamentarian, Sir George Osborn.

[10] Branagan, D F and Vallance T G, 1976. Stutchbury, Samuel (1798 – 1859). Australian Dictionary of Biography, v.6, Melbourne University Press.

[3] Porter, F, 1974, loc. cit., p.24-25.

[4] Porter, F, 1974 loc. cit., p.25


Anna Maria Nelson.jpg

Anna Maria Nelson (nee Dale)

Silhouette of Jane Nelson c. 1824-25. Photo from Rev. J S Williams.

Southwell Bishop’s Palace in the early 19th C. Mary Williams’ school, where Jane Nelson taught, was housed in the original State Chamber on the left.

From C Brown, 1896, A History of Nottinghamshire,

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