Mary Ann Colclough – Polly Plum

Mary Ann Colclough – Polly Plum

Mary Ann Colclough – Polly Plum (1836–1885).

In the early 1870s Mary Ann Colclough was a household name – famous as an outspoken women’s rights advocate. She gave public lectures in Auckland, Thames, Ngāruawāhia and Hamilton. She advocated temperance and improved treatment of women prisoners and prostitutes, becoming involved in their rehabilitation.

Polly Plum article on Papers Past

She wrote newspaper articles under the nom de plume ‘Polly Plum’. ‘What Women Want’ was published in the New Zealand Herald on 31 July 1871. Mary Ann Colclough was particularly focused on the position of married women in New Zealand, who had no independent legal status, and no control over property or guardianship of their children. She spoke from bitter personal experience: because of her own husband's ruinous use of her earnings, bailiffs had stripped the family residence down to bare floorboards. I was the breadwinner,' she wrote, 'whilst he had all the breadwinner's powers and privileges.'

Mary Ann Colclough had arrived in New Zealand in 1859. Aged 25, she married Thomas Caesar Colclough, a farmer 30 years her senior, in 1861. They had a daughter and a son, but when Thomas Colclough died in 1867, she had to support the family on her own. A well-qualified and experienced teacher, she ran her own school for girls in Auckland.

Colclough argued that women were entitled to education, careers and the vote. While the roles of wife and mother were very important, it was absurd to educate girls purely for domestic life. Self-reliance and self-help were the keys. The law should not discriminate against women – who should not be subject to legislation they had no part in making.

Men and women reacted with outrage or applause. Opponents ridiculed and patronised her, charged her with improper conduct, and condemned her on biblical grounds. But many cheered. Her lectures drew enthusiastic audiences and women supporters were surprisingly outspoken.

In late 1874, while living in Melbourne, an even more radical Mary Ann Colclough attacked the institution of marriage itself. The Australian press was harsh in its opposition to her ideas. She soon returned to New Zealand and disappeared from public view. She died in Picton on 7 March 1885, aged 49, a month after fracturing a leg and an arm in an accident.

Colclough was a highly controversial public figure for only a few years, but she jolted the people of Auckland by challenging contemporary assumptions about woman's place in New Zealand society.

Adapted from a DNZB article by Judy Malone. See the DNZB entry on Mary Ann Colclough.

Further reading

Jenny Coleman. Polly Plum. A firm and earnest women’s advocate. Mary Ann Colclough 1836–1885, Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2017

Explore more stories about women's activism in New Zealand


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