Monday, August 17, 2009

Destitute cast-offs: supporting women and children in early New Zealand

It’s odd, sometimes, how in looking for one thing, other things crop up as well. I didn’t know I’d uncover the severe marital problems between engineer and architect Charles Sanderson, and his wife Catherine Francis Sanderson.

They were married at Camberwell Church near London on 16 September 1846 (according to evidence brought up in a later court hearing (Southern Cross, 2 May 1870). They apparently separated once in Auckland around 1864. Exactly why isn’t all that clear. Sanderson seems to have thought that Mrs. Sanderson was holding back £1000 which he was entitled to. It sounds almost as if he expected a dowry of £2000 to be part of the marriage, and he’d received only half the amount. From that point on, the situation came under the Destitute Persons Relief Ordinance.

The Destitute Persons Relief Ordinance had been on the books for decades before the Sanderson case. 1846 is the earliest reference I’ve found so far.

“LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL. Thursday, October 15. Present. — All the members. The Council resumed in committee on the Destitute Persons Relief Bill. The Attorney-General suggested that a minimum as well as a maximum sum should be fixed to be paid by fathers for the support of their illegitimate children, and he proposed three shillings for the former and ten shillings for the latter sum. The Governor thought that three shillings was too much; the sum should not be higher than was charged at the Bishop's school, or at the Wesleyan Native Institution. The sums of two shillings and sixpence, and ten shillings were agreed to.”
(New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Strait Guardian, 16 December 1846)

It was passed 20 October 1846. It allowed for the state to enforce support of destitute persons from near relatives, and wives/partners and children (legitimate or not) to be provided for by husbands where they had been abandoned illegally. It was probably New Zealand’s first legislation putting down the regulations for child support. It wasn’t a hard-and-fast means of obtaining financial support for cast-off women and children. Cases of co-habitation before separation had to be proved, marriage certificates (often expensively obtainable only from Britain or elsewhere) produced – and if the man concerned had legged it to somewhere overseas, there was no recourse. Women were also charged under the act, just in case you may think that it was only one gender specific, especially if they’d left their children to their own devices.

Gradually, the incoming social welfare period from the late 19th century would have taken over from the ordinance, but the spirit of the law can still be found in more recent legislation.

Back to the 1860s.

There may have been rumours going around the town about the separated Sandersons. Some in 1866 must have added to the gossip suggestions that a Henry Burwood Saunders from New Zealand who had fathered a child out of wedlock in Australia, only to order the mother to deny it breast milk and let it die (Southern Cross 24 May 1866), was really Charles Sanderson.

To the Editor of the Daily Southern Cross.
Sir, — I shall be exceedingly obliged to any of your readers who will give me such information as may lead to the exposure of those persons who are so industriously manufacturing lies, which they miscall "facts," to bolster up a piece of scandal, set afloat by some very malicious persons, connecting myself with the paragraph in your issue of the 24th May last. There being not the slightest evidence to support the story, which betrayed an utter ignorance of my movements, I contented myself with contradicting it privately. Many persons, not having heard of my contradiction, are under the impression that it is true. May I trespass in your space to say — 1st. That I was not staying at the place named during any portion of April last. 2nd. That I never at any time changed my name or went by the name of Saunders. 3rd. That, if I wanted to change, I should have taken some name less suggestive of that of yours, truly, Charles Sanderson, C.E.
Upper Symonds-street, July 17, 1866.”
(Southern Cross, 17 July 1866)

[Advertisement.] ,
To the Editor of the Daily Southern Cross.
SIR, — I am sorry to be compelled to answer the letter of Charles Sanderson, C.E., which appeared in your issue of to-day, but I have been so unjustly used by him and my family, as having raised this scandal. I publicly deny having done so. On his return from Sydney, instead of paying me justly what he owed me, he said if I did not leave Auckland he should deduct 10s. from my weekly allowance, which he has accordingly done, because the law in New Zealand only allows a maintenance of £1 per week to a wife. I have a letter from Mrs. Agnes McGrath, of Burwood, which I do not wish to publicly put in the newspapers, with the true identity of the parties.
Hobson-street, Auckland, July 17, 1866.
(Southern Cross, 18 July 1866)

To the Editor of the Daily Southern Cross.
SIR, — Referring to the advertisement which Catherine Frances Sanderson was indiscreet enough to insert in your issue of to-day's date, allow me to say that I have always been perfectly ready to meet her before her solicitors, or any respectable person she may choose to appoint, provided she will abide by their decision.
As she will not agree to do this, I must decline a discussion in the public papers, which can serve no good end.
With regard to the last part of her letter, I refer to mine of yesterday's date.
I remain, Sir.
Your obedient servant,
Upper Symonds-street, July 18, 1866.
(Southern Cross, 19 July 1866)

[Advertisement. ]
To the Editor of the Daily Southern Cross.
SIR, — I beg to give a positive and ultimate denial to the letter of my husband, Charles Sanderson, in your issue of this morning. I have begged of him and his mother to be reconciled, and, for the sake of our children, to live quietly and respectably together. "Forgive and forget" is my motto, and my most sincere wish — not revenge and exposure of my husband but if he will not agree to my proposition, I should be glad to have a sufficient maintenance secured to me for my life.
Hobson-street, July 19, 1866.
(Southern Cross, 20 July 1866)

In November 1866, Sanderson had to cough up to merchants owed money by his wife, and made to pay 30s. per week to her in maintenance. In January 1870, Sanderson was charged with wife desertion, but the case was dismissed due to informality of the charges. (Southern Cross, 26 January 1870)

Mrs. Sanderson responded by charging him with a breach of the Destitute Persons Relief Ordinance in April that year, and in May the Magistrates imposed a fine of £5 and costs on Charles Sanderson, and made an order for the payment of 20s. per week to his wife.(a reduction from 1866). Still, he was arrested for not paying Mrs Sanderson her due maintenance in July 1870, and sentenced to two month’s gaol, without hard labour. (Southern Cross, 28 July 1870)

According to a website, Catherine Francis Sanderson outlived her estranged husband by 24 years, never re-marrying after his death, and died of influenza and chronic heart disease in 1895 at the age of 75.


  1. One wonders if, after all that to-ing and fro-ing through the courts and legal people, if she held a candle for him all those years until the end?
    Or it was a case of "once bitten..." ;)

  2. You and I think alike, Jayne. I'm leaning toward the latter possibility, the poor soul.

  3. The Destitute Person's Act was also used to enforce support of an aging parent in a time before state pensions became more widely available. While doing some family research recently, I discovered one of my great grandfathers obtained a court order under the Act in 1889 against two of his brothers to help support their aged father.