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Marianne Williams

The Early Years


Marianne Coldham was born on the 12 December, 1793 in the parish of St Peter Mancroft, Norwich.[1] Her parents were Wright and Ann Coldham, and she went with them to Nottingham, not long after she was born. Details of Marianne’s early childhood and education are scanty, but her daughter (Marianne Davies née Williams) later recalled that she had an education ‘far above the average’ – other personal qualities including a strong will, a sense of humour and an ability to write well and enthusiastically.[2] This last quality was vital in that she would be the recorder of events and provide descriptions of domestic life in New Zealand, for her relatives at home and for posterity.


Her circumstances might have indicated a gilded life for Marianne and her family, but tragedy was to strike a number of times. Four of her siblings died in infancy (three boys and a girl), and then in 1810 her mother died from the complications of childbirth. Marianne, nearly seventeen, was left to run the household, which then comprised six younger sisters, including the new baby, her grandmother, and father who was then Mayor of Nottingham.


Her uncle, George Coldham, the Town Clerk of Nottingham, died in a carriage accident in 1815, then in 1816, still a comparatively young man, Wright Coldham died, leaving Marianne in charge of the remaining family at the age of twenty-two.[3] The family had recently moved to the house in Halifax Place (earlier named Halifax Lane) previously owned by Wright Coldham’s brother George.


Three more sisters were to die young – Caroline and Frances, who were probably teenagers, and Emily who was the youngest. Just when these events occurred is not at present clear, although Emily, at ten, attended the wedding of Marianne and Henry Williams in 1818.[4]


The evidence for the timing of the death of the children comes from Wright Coldham’s will which he signed on 11th of March, 1816. In this he leaves his estate in trust for seven, named, daughters, who we must assume were alive at the time of his signing.[5]. As it provided for the redistribution of the legacy amongst the surviving sisters, should any of them die, the four who ultimately remained should have had sufficient to cover their needs, and those of Wright Coldham’s elderly mother, Mary Temple, who lived with them.[6]


Wright Coldham’s term of office as Mayor finished not long after his wife died – in any event it was a position that covered expenses rather than income, and the business of hosiery manufacture was not in good shape at the time. In the will no monetary value is placed on the estate, which is described in formulaic terms, although presumably it was foreseen that there was enough to provide for the continued maintenance of beneficiaries who did not have other sources of income. Marianne received her inheritance shortly before her marriage, which probably meant that it became merged with her husband’s assets and used to support their preparations for life in New Zealand.[7]


Marianne was appointed administratrix of her uncle George Coldham’s estate, replacing her father, on his death – a measure of the esteem in which she was held by the family.[8] It is also likely that she played an important role liaising between the numerous family beneficiaries and the administrators of her father’s estate. The circumstances thrust on her would have required her to call on substantial personal resources, which might explain her later accomplishments in New Zealand, and her resilience in the face of adversity.


By the time of Wright Coldham’s death Henry Williams had returned to England and was discharged from active service, becoming a drawing master based at Cheltenham. As Henry had to get his financial affairs in order, as a consequence of his older brother’s business failure, marriage to Marianne was delayed for a period, during which Marianne and her sister stayed with Edward Marsh and his family. The two eventually married on 20th January, 1818, at Nuneham Courtenay in Oxfordshire. By this time Henry’s brother-in-law, Edward Marsh, was encouraging both of them to become involved in the work of the Church Missionary Society.


Marianne shared Henry’s enthusiasm for joining the CMS mission in New Zealand, and set about preparing herself for what lay ahead, including training in midwifery and nursing, teaching, learning to cook and garden.[9] Henry described his wife as accompanying him ‘(not) ..merely as my wife, but as a fellow helper in the work’.[10] Her previous social life and status as part of the mayoral family sometimes led to tastes in fashion that more conservative members of the Williams family thought a little extravagant for a missionary’s wife, but she was prepared to make concessions.[11]  Prior to sailing for New Zealand she had three children, the last of which must have kindled her worst fears, given the family history, of the dangers of childbirth in those days.[12] Fortunately both Marianne and the baby, Samuel, survived a complicated birth.


In what must be regarded as an extraordinary transition, on the 11th September, 1822, Marianne, with Henry and their three children, embarked on the Lord Sidmouth (Captain James Ferrier) for Port Jackson, New South Wales, and thence to New Zealand. She never returned to England.



[1] Yorkshire is given in a number of sources (eg Fitzgerald, C, 2004. Letters from the Bay of Islands, Penguin, Auckland, p.2; Williams, SM, 1990. Williams, Marianne. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, v.1,  p.595; Woods, S, 1977, Marianne Williams: A Study of Life in the Bay of Islands New Zealand 1823-1879. Pvte. Pub. p.1,2) although the International Genealogical Index quoted in www.williams.gen has her christened at the Octagon-Presbyterian Church in Norwich, on 28.12.1793. Wright Coldham was also born in Norwich. Ann Temple’s lineage can be traced back to the 11th century and Leofric Earl of Mercia and Lady Godiva – a more appropriate ancestor than might appear, given that the colourful legend surrounding her seems unlikely, and she and her husband were benefactors to monasteries.


[2] Fitzgerald, C, 2004. Letters from the Bay of Islands, Penguin, Auckland, p.4


[3] Although his age of death was not greatly out of step with life expectation at the time.


[4] Even by the fairly dismal standards of the day this is a significant number of deaths. The Church of England Prayer Book at one time included a phrase that thanked God for ‘the safe deliverance and preservation from the great dangers of childbirth’. Mortality from this cause was about 5/1000 in 1810. Chamberlain, G. 2006. British maternal mortality in the 19th and early 20th centuries. J. Roy.Soc. Med.99(11): 559-563.


[5] The trustees were friends of Wright Coldham, John Stout (a hosier) and Edward Hardy. Several family sources describe these children dying in infancy, which on this evidence seems unlikely.


[6] Notes sourced from Marianne Davies, Marianne Williams’ daughter, names the grandmother as Anne Temple. This is incorrect- her name was Mary Temple (p. 11, Davies, G, 1998. The Shield of Faith, privately published).


[7] The legal doctrine of coverture then required that the property of a married woman became that of her husband. While never short of essentials they appeared to live fairly frugally in New Zealand.


[8] Appointed by the Prerogative Court of the Archbishop of York and formally called Administratrix de bonis non an administrator appointed when a previous administrator is not longer able to carry out the task.Nottinghamshire Archives, DD/270/32, Date 1818. She later relinquished the former role when in New Zealand. Although frequently reported as an administratrix of her father’s will it has not been possible to find an official record for this. There is no record of the appointed administrators vacating their position.


[9] Fitzgerald, C, 2004, loc. cit., p.5


[10] Williams, SM, 1990, ‘Williams, Marianne’, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, p.595.


[11] A frilly parasol was thought by Henry’s sister (wife of Canon Edward Marsh ) to be of ‘imputed extravagance’. Fitzgerald, C, 2004, loc. cit., p.5.


[12] A lengthy and difficult labour involving a breech birth. Fitzgerald, C, 2004, loc. cit., p.5. Happily the track record on maternal and child mortality improved significantly in New Zealand.

A silhouette of Marianne Williams at nineteen.

With permission of the Auckland Museum Library.

Halifax Place, formerly the site of the Coldham home in 1816. With permission of A. Nicholson,

The Will.

The house at Nuneham Courtenay where Henry and Marianne were married in 1818. Drawn by Henry Williams.

With permission of the Auckland Museum Library.

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