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Sheet No: 1

Biography contributed by Debbie McCauley

Emily Townsend (nee Wallis) (1863-1914)

Emily Wallis was born in Wellington on 23 August 1863, the first child of John and Eliza Wallis (nee Hart). Emily’s parents were married in Wellington on 13 January 1863 and would have 12 children in total. The family moved to Christchurch in the early 1880s.

Emily was 16 years old and a pupil teacher at Colombo Road School in Christchurch when she became pregnant to a fellow student. Her daughter, Esther, was born on 8 October 1879. Records of the Canterbury Hospital Board (Female Refuge Diary 1879) record:

8 October 1879 - Emily Wallis ill with fever. E. Wallis left the Refuge Sep 7th [November 7th] to go as Housemaid to Mrs Heywood at £20 a year. Her child has been adopted by some friends. Since the adoption of her child her parents have received her. Remarks: This was a very sad case, the girl being only 16 - and the father 19, a lad attending the school where she was a pupil teacher. She had parents living at Opawa who were in great distress at the discovery of their daughter's condition, but their small home and large family prevented the possibility of her being confined at home.

The first adoption must have fallen through as Esther was actually raised by her grandparents, John and Eliza. Eventually caring for Esther as well as their other children, as well as living in a small home, became too much for the couple. On 22 April 1890, Minnie Dean adopted 10-year-old Esther who moved to The Larches in Winton to live with Minnie and her husband Charles. According to Rawle (1997), ‘In 1890, with Charles's consent, she [Minnie] adopted Esther Wallis to assist with looking after the children’ (p. 9). John and Eliza’s 12th and last child was born at Opawa in Christchurch on 15 May 1891. In 1892, Minnie registered Esther Wallis Dean at Winton School.

Emily was a signatory to the Women’s Suffrage Petition presented to Parliament in 1893 (Sheet No. 1). Her mother Eliza’s signature appears at the bottom of Sheet 532. Eliza was a suffragist and friend of Kate Sheppard’s. Emily’s signature appears directly underneath Kate Sheppard’s, both of Clyde Road in Riccarton, Christchurch. It appears that Emily was living with and working as a maid for Kate and her husband from around 1893 to 1896. The signatory below Emily, Janet Manson, is also from Clyde Road, and appears to have been working for the Sheppard’s as a maid also. The Petition led to the Electoral Act and New Zealand becoming the first self-governing country in the world to grant women the right to vote. Emily was surely one of more than 90,000 women who voted for the first time on 28 November 1893. 

Charles and Minnie Dean were arrested in 1895 after police investigations unearthed the bodies of two babies and a skeleton in their garden. ‘When Dean was arrested she had six children in her care, including Esther. All were content and healthy, if poorly dressed and living in squalor’ (Sell, 2009, p. 68). Esther was 15 years old when she became a witness at Minnie Dean’s trial for infanticide. Found guilty of murder on 21 June 1895, Minnie was hanged at Invercargill gaol on 12 August 1895. She remains the only woman executed in New Zealand.

On 1 June 1901, Emily married widower Abraham Henry Townsend. Abraham was 63 at the time, and Emily aged 37. Abraham’s first wife was Mary Ann (nee Bond) who died on 7 June 1891 and was buried in Addington Cemetery (Plot 2016B). This first marriage produced seven children, but Abraham and Emily did not have any children together. Abraham died at the age of 75 on 12 June 1913 and was buried in Addington Cemetery on 14 June 1913 (Plot 206A).

Emily was aged 48 on 6 March 1914 when she died at the residence of her stepson in Linwood, Christchurch. She left her estate to her stepson and her death entry is blank in the space for age and sex of living issue. Emily was buried in Addington Cemetery on 8 March 1914 (Plot 216C).


1893 Woman’s Suffrage Petition - Emily Wallis. Sheet No: 1, Riccarton, Christchurch (NZHIstory).

1893 Woman’s Suffrage Petition - Eliza Wallis. Sheet No: 532, Opawa, Christchurch (NZHistory).

Births, Deaths and Marriages Online (New Zealand).

Christchurch Cemetery Records Online

Frances Moss: Great granddaughter of Eliza Wallis (nee Hart) (personal communication, 17 April 2013, 2014 & 2018).

Hood, L. (1994). Minnie Dean: Her life and crimes. Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin.

Rawle, J. (1997). Minnie Dean: A Hundred Years of Memory. Christchurch New Zealand: Orca Publishing. (pp. 9, 17-20, 39-42, 45-46)

Sell, Bronwyn (2009). Law Breakers and Mischief Makers: 50 Notorious New Zealanders.

Click on sheet number to see the 1893 petition sheet this signature appeared on. Digital copies of the sheets supplied by Archives New Zealand.

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