The Rhodes Family’s 164-year-old wedding dress and waistcoat

The Rhodes Family’s 164-year-old wedding dress and waistcoat

Tuesday 27 Sep 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.

Textile conservator Anne Peranteau prepares William and Sarah Rhodes wedding waistcoat and dress. 27 Sept 2016. Te Papa
Textile conservator Anne Peranteau prepares William and Sarah Rhodes’ wedding waistcoat and dress. 27 Sept 2016. Te Papa

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).

William Rhodes' residence at Wadestown Wellington. Photograph by Edward Smallwood Richards, 1/2-110510-F, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington
William Rhodes’ residence at Wadestown Wellington. Photograph by Edward Smallwood Richards, 1/2-110510-F, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

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.

Sarah Rhodes (nee King), Maryann Rhodes and Williiam Barnard Rhodes, 1858. Copied from an ambrotype lent by Eddie Ryle-Hodges. PA Coll-5601, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington
Sarah Rhodes (nee King), Maryann Rhodes and Williiam Barnard Rhodes, 1858. Copied from an ambrotype lent by Eddie Ryle-Hodges. PA Coll-5601, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

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.

Global connections

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.


  1. In doing my own family research, I learned that William Barnard Rhodes and his four brothers were cousins of my great, great grandfather and his 3 brothers who, with their father, Benjamin Rhodes, brother of the New Zealand Rhodes father, William, came to America in the 1830-1840s. A family story says that 2 of the American brothers went to Australia in search of gold. I often wonder if the made a stop in New Zealand to visit their cousins.

    1. Author

      Thank you for your comment Gerald. I wonder if they did visit New Zealand? All the best for your research.

  2. Mary Ann hired suffragette Emily Wilding Davison as a governess for her children.

  3. Kia ora Katie,

    Fort Buckley in Wadestown was originally part of the Rhodes estate, before the Crown demanded it in the late 19th Century.

    Some interesting stories there, although not related to the Rhodes family!

    1. Kia ora Iain. I confess I’ve just recently moved to Wellington so I had to consult the New Zealand Heritage List to learn a little more about Fort Buckley. What an interesting history it has! There would be some great stories there I’m sure. Many thanks.

  4. If it’s any assistance, one of the family, a retired Royal Navy commander, came across to Belgium for the 90th Commemorations of the Battle of Messines in 2007 which included an exhibition in which William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse VC was one of those featured (although he won his VC for a raid on the Kortrijk rail junction rather than at Messines).

    1. Thank you for sharing this Martin. I’ll have to do a bit more research about the next generation of the family. There are so many interesting stories here!

    2. If I am correct this is where that part of the family became associated via marriage with Belgian royalty?

    3. Darian, Thanks for that – we’ll have a look at it and let you know. We’re busy trying to track down all the old emails and letters from 2006/2007. Not easy 🙂

  5. Sarah Rhodes was the second great aunt of my aunt Carol. William Barnard Rodes was nicknamed ‘the richest man in Wellington’ for a period. Maryann, upon inheriting his fortune, apparently became the richest woman in New Zealand, until she left for England. I’ve done a fair amount of research on the Bush/King/Rhodes side of the family and have an extensive tree online. There’s some interesting characters in there, understatement! There are some nice pictures of the Moorehouses in the Turnbull collection.

    1. Hi Darian. Rupert spoke a little about Sarah King yesterday, and mentioned that she had quite a bit of tragedy in her short life. In their ten year marriage (Sarah died in 1862) she had ten miscarriages, all of which were recorded in the family bible. I’ll be sure to look up those photos in the Turnbull collection. Many thanks!

    1. Hi Ann. Roberta McIntyre has been in contact with a number of descendants, and is drawing on their whakapapa knowledge to furnish her history of William and Mary Ann. At this stage we can’t say for certain who Mary Ann’s mother was but hopefully all will be revealed in Roberta’s book!

    2. Wikipedia shows the Mary Ann Rhodes’ mother was “Otahi, a member of the Taranaki (Tuturu), Ngati Tama, Ngati Ruanui and Te Āti Awa Māori nations in the Wellington area of New Zealand.”
      Mary Ann married her step-mother’s brother Edward Moorhouse and they were the parents of William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse the first airman to be awarded the VC.

    3. Hi Tony. Thank you so much for supplying all of this extra information. It’s a remarkable family history, isn’t it? The Alexander Turnbull Library has a photo of Mary Ann with her sons William and Edward which might be of interest:

      There have been a few different suggestions made about Mary Ann’s mother (In Matters of the Heart: A History of Interracial Marriage in New Zealand, for example, historian Angela Wanhalla identifies her as a Kai Tahu woman named Otahui) but I’m going to leave it to Roberta to tell the whole story. I’ll be waiting very impatiently for the outcome of her research!

  6. BEAUTIFUL outfits.. and the age… reminds me of a lovely waistcoat we have in Carterton belonging to Thomas Moore an early settlers to the area, the waistcoat is dark green brocade from memory.. he came from Isle of Man, to Three Mile Bush which was the first name for the area prior to 1857. I much prefer a wedding dress like this than what they wear today..

    1. Yes, they’re stunning pieces aren’t they? The family have obviously treasured them. You never know – maybe 1850s fashion will have a resurgence?!

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