top of page

What Katy did . . .

It seems to be that every ability we possess comes from somewhere. Latent talent or personal leanings must have a source or genetic component. That's my theory anyway. As a confirmed book lover, it was a revelation to learn that in my own family history, a real live (albeit long dead) writer, existed. As so little evidence remains, it is hard to know how many people read her stories, or how popular a writer she was, but nevertheless in the wilds of colonial New Zealand 'our Kate' was at least being published. How big an achievement that was, is certainly something to reflect on. It is hard enough to pull off nowadays, let alone before telephones, email and halfway decent transportation.

Here she is . . . my 2nd great grandmother, Katherine Allen (nee McNabb). As well as being 'Picton's Own Correspondent' for the Marlborough Express - a fairly pedestrian journalistic gig that consisted of her largely reporting on the comings and goings of her own children for several decades, Kate also wrote stories for national papers. I have read a few of them. They are not at all good by today's standards but do maintain a certain Victorian sensibility which would have had mass appeal.

Her depiction of a decent Irish brogue stretches all conversational reality to beyond tolerable limits. Daughter of a Scots father and Irish mother, Kate arrived in Nelson on the 5th of February 1843 aboard the 'Indus' along with her parents and six siblings, one of whom was born on the journey out to start a new life. She was just five years old. Here she is at 22, if the date on this photo is correct, the year before she married John Allen (he was later to become the local magistrate, coroner and warden of mines for the district) and well before the birth of her nine children. Below is an advertisement for a Christmas Annual supplement that Katherine contributed to in 1895. Her youngest daughter Belle was 13 by then and Kate herself would have been 57. In later years Belle supposedly illustrated for early school journals, so the story goes.

In an age of limited expectations for women, remarkably, Kate was working away solidly at what she loved to do or at least where she felt her strengths lay. Certainly, she had the financial and moral support of her husband. Having a clutch of servants also didn't hurt. To have a creative life at all was probably somewhat unusual even amongst the educated classes of the time. Without knowing it, Kate laid the groundwork for her family not yet born. Her very large collection of descendants includes several artists and writers and at least one poet. I'm still searching for more of her published work and hoping along the way I'll get to know her a little better. In some small way it is nice to find a kindred spirit in the traces of her left behind. More than anything she reminds me that words are living things - forged in the moment and then cast adrift into the future, without any knowledge of where they may eventually land.

bottom of page