Skip to main content
PAColl-5601 copy

Wil­li­am Barn­ard, Sarah and Mary­ann Rhodes, 1858. Col­oured ambro­type 9copy0, PAColl-5601. Alex­an­der Turn­bull Library.

Here is Wil­li­am Barn­ard Rhodes (1807–78), the richest man in early Wel­ling­ton, pho­to­graphed in 1858 with his first wife Sarah, and Mary­ann, his Māori daugh­ter from an earli­er rela­tion­ship. It is also one of Wellington’s earli­est pho­to­graph­ic por­traits — a hand-tin­ted ambro­type, an early form of pho­to­graphy pop­u­lar in the 1850s. The sit­ting was prob­ably at G H Swan’s Ambro­type Por­trait Stu­dio on Lamb­ton Quay, which had opened for busi­ness in late 1857.

Rhodes was one of the first arrivals in Wel­ling­ton. From his wharf and ware­houses on the Te Aro water­front he built up a busi­ness empire based on imports, exports and canny land spec­u­la­tions. At first he was heav­ily in debt, but in the mid-1840s those dif­fi­culties ended when he won con­tracts to sup­ply meat to the newly arrived Brit­ish troops. By the time of this pho­to­graph he was very wealthy indeed.

Rhodes’ rough edges offen­ded some of the colo­ni­al upper crust. It was almost cer­tainly him that Char­lotte God­ley, wife of the lead­er of the newly formed Can­ter­bury set­tle­ment, mocked in her descrip­tion of one of her dance part­ners at a loc­al ball in a let­ter to her moth­er in June 1850: “a con­tract butcher not one bit too good for his situ­ation… a square, fat, dirty-look­ing man”. But Rhodes was enjoy­ing him­self and surely did not much care what the snob­bish thought. Wealth brought influ­ence. His com­mon touch appealed to many and he became a lead­ing polit­ic­al fig­ure in the town.

Less is known about Sarah. When the couple mar­ried in 1852, she was 18, some 26 years young­er than Rhodes. After many mis­car­riages she died, child­less, in 1862. Rhodes later remar­ried, but there were no fur­ther chil­dren. Mary­ann was his only child, although no one has been able to find out who her Māori moth­er was.

After Rhodes’ death in 1878 there were sev­er­al years of wrangling over his estate before Mary­ann, now a beau­ti­ful young woman, was con­firmed as heir­ess. She mar­ried and moved to Eng­land, where she spent the rest of her life as an upper-class gentlewoman.

It is a Wel­ling­ton story well worth telling. Simon Best’s Fron­ti­ers: a colo­ni­al des­tiny, all about Rhodes and his later des­cend­ants, was pub­lished recently. It’s well researched and a good read. And his­tor­i­an Roberta McIntyre is now delving fur­ther into the lives of Wil­li­am, the Rhodes fam­ily and Maryann’s inher­it­ance. It prom­ises to be a fas­cin­at­ing tale of colo­ni­al class ten­sions, race rela­tions and avarice.


Cap­tion: Wil­li­am Barn­ard, Sarah and Mary­ann Rhodes, 1858. Col­oured ambro­type (copy), PAColl-5601, Alex­an­der Turn­bull Library