Tuesday 27th September was an exciting day for the History team, as we welcomed descendants of prominent nineteenth-century Wellington entrepreneur William Barnard Rhodes and accepted two remarkable items into our collection. Rhodes’ great, great, great grandson Rupert Ryle-Hodges travelled from England to present to Te Papa a silk brocade wedding dress and waistcoat, worn by Rhodes and his bride Sarah King at their 1852 wedding. These will be the oldest items of wedding attire worn in New Zealand in our collection, and are a rare example of matching men’s’ and women’s’ wedding garments (below).
The Rhodes Family
Brad Patterson writes in his biography of William Barnard Rhodes that ‘in an age of grasping opportunism Rhodes was one of the most successful of graspers.’ Settling in New Zealand in 1839, Rhodes was able to take advantage of economic opportunities available in the young colony to amass a significant fortune, investing in land and stock while also acting as a financier and insurance agent. By 1853 he was being called ‘the millionaire of Wellington,’ and at the time of his death in 1878 had an estate worth approximately three million pounds, including a stately home at Wadestown (below).
Prior to his 1852 marriage to Sarah King, Rhodes had a customary marriage with a Maori woman who had iwi connections to the greater Wellington region. This union gave him his only child, Mary Ann, who inherited the bulk of the estate after his death in 1878. Both Sarah King and William’s third wife Sarah Anne Moorhouse treated Mary Ann as an adopted daughter, and the wedding garments gifted to Te Papa have been treasured and cared for by Mary Ann’s descendants in England for more than a century.
A Serendipitous Discovery
It was historian Roberta McIntyre who first made contact with Rhodes’ descendants as part of her research into the Rhodes family and Williams’ relationship with Mary Ann. Roberta found an interview with Mary Ann’s great grandson Eddie Ryle-Hodges, published in the Evening Post in 1984, which chronicled his journey from England and the search for his antipodean ancestors. Subsequently Eddie donated a number of family records to the Alexander Turnbull Library, including a copy of the photo below.
The Evening Post interview led Roberta to family correspondence in the archives, and from there she was able to compile a list of some of Mary Ann’s other descendants. It was quite by chance, however, that some time later she happened to see one of those descendants listed in the credits of a television show she was watching! with the help of author Simon Best she made contact with Eddie’s son Rupert Ryle-Hodges, and upon hearing that the family still had the wedding garments and wanted to donate them to a New Zealand institution Roberta contacted Te Papa on their behalf.
As curators our job is to tell the stories of the objects in our collection, linking New Zealand’s’ material culture to people and places both in the past and the present. These beautiful garments provide tangible evidence of contemporary connections that span the globe, and also allow us to tell interesting new stories about the colonial New Zealand family. We are thrilled to be accepting them into our dress collection, and are delighted to have some of Rhodes’ descendants here to mark the occasion.
- You can read more about Roberta’s project here: http://www.victoria.ac.nz/stout-centre/research-opportunities/residents/current-residents
- For more information about William Barnard Rhodes, see Brad Patterson’s biography on the Te Ara website: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1r7/rhodes-william-barnard
Blog by Katie Cooper, Curator History