Mrs Godley spills the tea

I've been doing quite a bit of research into early Christchurch in some recent blog posts, and each time Charlotte Godley's Letters from Early New Zealand (also available as part of the New Zealand Electronic Text Centre) has proved to be a vital source and mine of fascinating information. She regularly wrote long epistles to her mother in Wales, detailing life in Christchurch and providing insight into the people who lived there. While she may not have been producing a scandal sheet for society to pore over, her writings do bring to mind more than a dollop of Bridgerton (returning to a Netflix near you very soon!) and a scoop of Jane Austen.

Is Charlotte Godley the Lady Whistledown of early Christchurch?

While the height of the ton era was probably over by the early 1850s, high society, social ranking, and events to be seen at still played a big part in people's lives. These ideas inevitably were brought out to New Zealand, and Charlotte gives details of what - and who - was happening. According to a letter of 1 March 1851, early Christchurch was quite the social whirl:

I have often though that our letters from New Zealand described life in very different forms from the imaginings of our friends at home; no roughing, you will say, but balls, band-playings, morning visits, and tea parties!!

 Godley, p175

Although Edward Ward, that other early chronicler, paints a slightly less rosy portrait of the Godley's experience of the fledgling colony:

[Mr] and Mrs Godley have been roughing it in earnest—again much wetted by their leaky roof.

Ward, 14 March 1851

The issue of finding decent servants also followed the Godleys to the antipodes, and perhaps added to them roughing it (eyeroll): 

I am thinking I have not yet said enough about E. Lewis. She is a very nice girl in many ways, so very willing and goodnatured to me, but she is like a good many, not at all particular in her work, and will never even dust the room all over unless you watch her; and really the house is so small and so simply furnished, that she has no wonderfully hard work.

Godley, p 235, 2 Sept 1851

Speculating on matches made (or not)

Charlotte was quite aware of the comings and goings and "matches" that were rumoured to have been made, very much in the manner of the "society papers" of Lady Whistledown.

They keep a sort of open house, at tea time, for young gentlemen, who are very glad, here, to have a respectable place to spend their evenings in, and of course when anyone was seen to go there two or three times, there was directly a report of a wedding,

Godley, 251

[Stuart-Wortley] has had a worse accident [than breaking his collar bone] lately, by proposing to the youngest but one of the Miss Townsends, when I am sure he was not a bit in love, in any good sense, and he never even liked the family, but I need not go into details. He is nineteen, or perhaps just twenty, and she sixteen, so it is pretty silly, without money, or any compensating degree of love. I suspect it will end in nothing.

Godley, 319

Outdoing each other with balls

But let's not worry about how hard the servants are working when you can discuss the ins and out of hosting a ball!

Mrs. Russell now talks of giving a ball herself at Ilam; a bread-and-butter ball, that is to say, without any attempt at a grand supper, champagne, or indeed wine at all. We have been very anxious that some such beginning should be made, because it is really, here, very desirable that there should be occasional meetings; it does people so much good to rub against others; and for the young gentlemen it is a real advantage not to be always alone, or with each other in blue shirts or cigars, and yet, as long as people fancy an expensive supper a necessary part of such meetings, even those who have large enough houses to attempt them cannot afford to incur such an expense often. You can fancy how at each succeeding ball people will try to outdo the last, and so a beginning of the other line will be most desirable. The Ilam ball is intended to set a bright example, and is to take place if all goes well at the next full moon.

Godley, p311, 23 March 1852


Charlotte later reveals this ball was a success, and provides a detailed description of events, some highlights of which are below:

There were about eighty people, and really a quadrille of quite good-looking people.

[The chaplain of the Fatima's] wife was dancing about, declaring she never had laughed so much in her life, but he came grumbling to my husband, with his snuff-box in his hand, that, "the fact was, the Colony was too young for balls".

They began to dance at about nine, and went on, literally, till just daylight, and then the party left in the house had a substantial breakfast, while some mattresses were prepared; and then the ladies went to rest, and Mr. Russell went off to his station, till "setting to rights" was over.

Godley, p323-5, 21 May 1852

Charlotte's sharp observations of social events certainly rival Lady Whistledown, and I imagine if she had produced a scandal sheet it would have sold well!

The mad, the tipsy, and the vulgar

Unsurprisingly, she is also a keen observer of people and their social capital:

I am supposing you have received my last letter, and to know that Mr. Gale is the Manager of the Union Bank of Australia, as established at Lyttelton; who went mad soon after they sailed, and has been gradually recovering here, and is now, on most points, quite sane always. But they are afraid of his losing the appointment, on the strength of which only he was able to marry; and they (Mr. and Mrs. Gale) insist on everyone else thinking him as well as they do themselves.

Godley, p169, 5 February 1851

Poor man.

Of course, tea was as important as making a good marriage - although this team example seems to have been quite boozy:

For tea, here, is a very serious consideration; everyone (except Mr. and Mrs. Russell) dining early; and with dancing, and sitting up, they were all hungry, and a good many spent all the time between each dance in the tea-room. Powles' account of them was very funny. One lady got quite tipsy, and called on me, two or three days afterwards, to tell me how dancing, after so long a pause in gaieties, had made her have hysterics, for the first time in her life. Her husband is a very young Mr. Walker, with very good connections, and a widowed Mother, who engaged a very good cabin for him on board the Sir George Seymour, and then would do nothing more, on finding that he had married very badly; a barmaid or dressmaker.

Godley, p168 5, February 1851

Manners and social mores were, of course, an important consideration.

...hearing the language he used, with oaths between every word, it was out of the question his asking him to come to his house, or into the society of ladies.

Godley, 185-6

Charlotte really shows how, at least to begin with, British attitudes came out with early colonisers, and how they were implemented and sometimes improvised in a colony (the British would have done this a lot...). She is a truly valuable source for this time period in Christchurch, and brings vividly to life the goings on of the populace. Her value may not have been so immediate as Lady Whistledown, but 170 years on her legacy is irreplaceable and her name lives on. 

 Further reading