t. 92, Jenny Coleman, Polly Plum, A firm and earnest woman’s advocate, Mary Ann Colclough 1836–1885.

Polly Plum, A firm and earnest woman’s advocate, Mary Ann Colclough 1836–1885 by Jenny Coleman. Dunedin: OUP (2017).
RRP: $39.95.
Pb, 8pp photos, 296pp.
ISBN: 9780947522522475.
Reviewed by Jeni Curtis.

Today in Aotearoa New Zealand we have women in the positions of prime minister, chief justice and governor general, a situation that, in the nineteenth century, women could only dream about. As well, New Zealand is known for the involvement of women in the political arena for well over 100 years. Most New Zealanders would know the name of Kate Sheppard, if only because she is celebrated by being on a banknote. But in this biography of Mary Ann Colclough, Jenny Coleman[1] reminds us that we should not forget women who, from the early days of Pākehā settlement in this country, raised their own voices and the awareness of others to women’s issues and paved the way for women gaining the franchise before the end of the century.

Mary Ann Colclough arrived penniless and alone in Auckland in 1857. She had a lively, intelligent mind and was soon involved in the life of the colony in both education and literary circles. She married Thomas Colclough (pronounced Cokely) in 1860 and had two children. Thomas turned out to be a spendthrift and Mary Ann found it difficult to keep the family together. When Thomas died in 1867, she became the breadwinner.

Born in 1836, Mary Ann had grown up in Clerkenwell, London, where she had the good fortune, at age 15, to attend Queen’s College in Harley Street, an offshoot of the Governesses Benevolent Institution. It had a very wide curriculum, far beyond what was usually taught to girls, and taught through lectures (which Mary Ann attended in the evenings, while working as a governess during the day) and essays, which gave her a training in clear, well-argued prose. As well, she was able to teach and had soon gained her teaching certificate in Auckland and thereafter was employed in schools or ran her own.

Mary Ann was involved in many causes, and expressed her ideas under the penname ‘Polly Plum’ which was soon known in Auckland and throughout the colony, giving voice to her views on women’s issues. She wrote on the need for prison reform, especially the lack of help for young women on release from prison. She provided articles and letters to the editor of the Daily Southern Cross regarding the legal position of women, married women’s property rights, the need for women’s education and political representation. The name ‘Polly Plum’ was suggested to her by Julius Vogel.[2] She gained a following of such influential men, as a well as women, which stood her in good stead to counter the vilification and parodies with which many received her ideas. The public debates surrounding these provide much material for the biography, where private material was scant, and make for lively reading.

Jenny Coleman shows how Mary Ann grew in courage and strength. From the public arena of journalism and the published word, she moved into public lectures, on topics such as women’s education, the right to vote, and ‘the subjection of women’. The lectures were generally well-received, and the audiences included many women, as well as men who came to see the spectacle of a woman speaking in public. To the latter, she wrote, ‘the real grievance must be that there are men who object to women having brains or daring to use them.’ There was a hypocrisy that such men did not see women on stage who sang and acted as immodest, ‘but let a woman once think and be daring enough to give the world the benefit of her thoughts, and great is the indignation of many … ’.

Mary Ann’s busy life took a toll on her health: she was teaching, writing, speaking, bringing up children, managing a household on a small income, as well as involved in charitable works. After 15 years in Auckland she took up a position teaching in the Coromandel. However, in 1874 she had to file for bankruptcy and later that year moved to Melbourne where she struggled with many of the same issues, as well as showing the same tenacity of spirit and need to espouse the cause of women. She returned to New Zealand two years later, and taught in schools in Christchurch. She died and was buried in Picton, in 1885.

Mary Ann Colclough was a remarkable woman. She was at the centre of ‘the Woman Question’, debates that were being promulgated in Britain and the United States, and spreading to the further flung colonies. Mary networked through the nineteenth-century woman’s medium of letters, corresponding not only with women within New Zealand, but also in the United States and Britain. She read widely, wrote two novels, and expressed her ideas with eloquence and rigour. She influenced many girls and women through her innovative teaching methods, realizing the need to provide girls with a thorough education to help them face an adult life full of uncertainties, as she had herself. Yet, while a trailblazer and ‘modern female fanatic’, a woman who went into battle for the plight of working class women, she did so, as so many of her time, with an adherence to middle-class conventions and awareness of social respectability, maintaining that women’s first and highest duty was to their roles as wives and mothers, a feature of her arguments that mollified many who opposed her views.

Jenny Coleman’s biography is thorough and enlightening. We get a real sense of the character of Mary Ann Colclough, as well as an insight into the issues that interested and even incensed colonial society, and how modern many of these were. Mary Ann and other women like her deserve to be better known, and this biography certainly does her justice.

[1] Senior lecturer and Director of Academic Programmes in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University  Te Kunenga Ki Pūrehuroa, Palmerston North.

[2] Vogel had moved to Auckland in 1869 to edit the Daily Southern Cross.


Jeni Curtis is a retired teacher from Christchurch. A graduate of the Hagley Writers School, she writes poetry and short fiction. She has published in literary journals in Aotearoa New Zealand and overseas, and is the secretary of the Canterbury Poets’ Collective, and chairs the takahē Collective.