Everything is Possible to Will
II. An Overview of the Life of Ellen Ellis — "A sad life bravely endured for honour's sake"22
II. An Overview of the Life of Ellen Ellis
"A sad life bravely endured for honour's sake"22
Advertised as “A Story of Real Life,”23 Ellen Ellis’s life parallels almost exactly that of Zee’s ‘fictional’ experience. Ellen Elizabeth Ellis (née Colebrook), baptised on the 3 May 1829 in the Holy Trinity Church in Guildford, was the second child of Mary Ann May and her husband, William Colebrook.24 Mary and William went on to have a total of seventeen children together within twenty years.25 With nine girls and eight boys of their own, as well as six young nephews and nieces taken in after they were orphaned in a cholera epidemic in London,26 Ellis described her mother’s life as a “slow martyrdom” (10). William Colebrook, a butcher by trade, later worked as a tenant farmer and layman once the family moved to Great Tangley Manor.27 Described by his son John as an ‘upright’ man of honest character, he lived an austere life ruled by his “dark theology.”28 His strict Calvinist-Methodist religion taught the belief that only certain people were chosen by God for ultimate salvation, and that there was an inborn depravity found in all human beings in consequence of the ‘Fall.’29 All of their children, Ellis included, were taught to testify their religion to all in the hope of saving souls. Ellis’s moralistic and sanctimonious writing stems from such an upbringing.
Ellis depicted her childhood as lonely, despite her large number of siblings. She had no “girlish love of babies,” and struggled to relate to her siblings, finding herself the “butt of her quick-witted sisters” (11). Along with her three closest sisters in age: Sarah, Emily, and Elizabeth,30 Ellis attended a school for 'Young Ladies.' Although her sisters thrived in the strict school environment, Ellis struggled to learn despite dedicated study, and the matrons dismissed her from school at age thirteen. In Everything is Possible to Will, Ellis laments how few teachers can tell apart the child who “can learn but will not,” and the child “who would learn but cannot,” still feeling decades later a bitterness towards her teachers for what she perceived as poor teaching (9). In later life, Ellis successfully taught herself through a program of self-education.
In 1847, when the four eldest Colebrook girls were nineteen, eighteen, seventeen and sixteen, they decided to open up a school in order to earn a living. In the 1851 census Ellis is listed as the milliner of the school, her elder sister Sarah the schoolmistress, and Emily and Elizabeth the governesses.31 Their pupils ranged in age from four till thirteen, and included a few of their younger sisters and cousins. Their school sat next to the Royal Grammar School. Down the road, only one door over from the family home, Oliver Sidney Ellis boarded at 105 High Street while training as an apprentice builder.32
Oliver Sidney (known as ‘Sidney’ to Ellis)33 was born in 1828 to John Ellis and Rebecca Nash, the youngest of thirteen.34 Although Ellis originally admired Oliver because he possessed an “intellect equal to her need” (42), she was afraid to accept his persistent proposal of marriage because she felt she neither loved him, nor trusted him. Eventually accepting after pressure from her family, the couple married on the 21st September 1852.35 The marriage between two such incompatible personalities quickly crumbled. According to Vera Colebrook, Oliver was of an easy-going and sociable character, whereas Ellis was reserved and serious. Ellis enjoyed socialising, but only in small family gatherings, whereas Oliver despised his own family, and preferred to socialise within his large circle of friends.36 Oliver also believed in the superiority of men, and held the conventional masculine belief that women were not to be trusted with money, or hold their own opinions.37 Their religions clashed, as Oliver attended services with the Church of England, but in early marriage Ellis only ever attended those strictly within her family sect. The couple’s most contentious difference, however, lay in one of alcohol: whereas Oliver was a social drinker, Ellis, having grown up in a teetotaller household, believed that even the tiniest sip of alcohol made one an alcoholic.38
Despite the marital disharmony, the couple had three sons: John William Ellis (William, or ‘Willie’), born in 1853; Sidney Alexander (Alec), born in 1856; and Sidney Thomas (known as ‘Little Tom’ in order to distinguish him from Ellis’s brother, Tom) born in 1858.39 Alec, delicate from birth, failed to thrive, and Ellis found to her dismay that she did not have the milk to breastfeed him.40 He tragically died in July 1857, resulting in a period Ellis called her “poison-delirium,” in which she contemplated poisoning both herself and Oliver, the idea derived from the public trial of Madeleine Smith (88).41 After Little Tom’s birth, Ellis struggled again to provide milk for her son, and soon fell into a deep depression that concluded in her being taken home to Great Tangley Manor to be cared for by her parents. According to Colebrook, Ellen Ellis cemented her decision not to have a large family during this convalescent visit - indeed, she decided she would not have any more children, and that Oliver could not force her to.42
On the 31st March 1859, Ellen Ellis, along with Oliver, John William, Little Tom, Tom Colebrook (Ellis’s nineteen-year old brother) and John Drew Colebrook (Ellis’s eighteen-year old cousin) began their long journey to New Zealand on the Whirlwind. 43 Ellis and Oliver decided to emigrate for three reasons: to benefit frail Little Tom, whose illness had culminated in a dangerous “congestion of the lungs” which they were told may be cured in a warmer climate (98); Oliver hoped to save his marriage and remove Ellis from the strict teetotal Colebrook influence, and Ellis herself wished to escape their social circle due to the embarrassment and anger the gossip about her marital disharmony caused her.44 Although Oliver preferred they emigrate to India, Ellis fought against the reports of uprisings, and they agreed to settle in New Zealand. The 105 day voyage ended in Auckland on the 16th July 1859. The Daily Southern Cross reported that the Whirlwind :“made a good passage under most disadvantageous circumstances,” and that the weather had been of the “worst” throughout.45 The difficult journey to their new home would only be the first step in the colonial challenge.
The Ellis family’s first few years in Auckland involved sleeping on sacks stuffed with fern, learning how to live without servant help, building a flourishing garden with seeds brought over from Great Tangley, Oliver founding a house speculation business, and Ellis struggling to make friends among the colonial woman, but instead finding friendship with local Māori who lived in a nearby ‘rookery.’ Ellis enjoyed the manual labour required of her new colonial role, and wrote home that the: “freedom from restraints and hateful conventionalities of the Old World life are to me delightful [...] I constantly see here that a woman may be a perfect servant, and a perfect lady, at the same time.”46 She encouraged her sons to learn Māori and play with the Māori children, and William in particular picked the language up without difficulty, becoming at first interpreter, then teacher to both sides.47
Due to the outbreak of the New Zealand Land Wars in the early 1860s, Ellis’s family urged her to return to England until the wars should come to an end. In January 1864 Ellis and her two sons returned to England on the Ida Zieglar without Oliver. On the 8th March 1864, Little Tom, aged only six years old, drowned when the Ida Zieglar tilted and he slipped out through a gap in the railings.48 Although attempts were made to save him, they were not successful. The passage in the novel is a moving one, as Ellis records her pain decades later over the unbearable loss of her youngest son whose death she felt she could have prevented. Part of the novel is indeed a eulogy to Little Tom, as Ellis lingers over innocent conversations she had with ‘Piri,’ and exalts him as a child of ‘pure’ character, universally adored.
Ellis spent a year in England in deep mourning, ultimately returning to New Zealand on the Empress in February 1865, leaving John William behind at boarding-school. As tragic as the voyage had been, the England visit did plant the seed for Ellis’s later writing. Her brother-in-law, James Ellis (the only man who ever “[stirred] to its depths her strong woman’s heart”)49 encouraged Ellis to write a pamphlet on the unfair treatment of women, after being impressed by her opinions on the subject (192). Once in New Zealand, she received further encouragement from her new friend and intellectual model, the Reverend Samuel Edger.
The Reverend Samuel Edger encouraged Ellis’s writing and self-education. Edger emigrated from London in 1862 and eventually settled with his family in Auckland, where he held regular non-denominational church services which Ellis attended in the late 1860s and throughout the 1870s.50 Oliver also attended the services, and the couple worshipped together for the first time. Edger likely encouraged Ellis to ease the intensity of her strong opinions by writing letters to the Editor, as he also wrote prolifically to local Auckland newspapers. In June 1871 he wrote: “it is one of woman’s rights [...] that she should enjoy an education as thorough in quality as that which is thought necessary for men.”51 Edger was a vital intellectual and literary model for Ellis, and their friendship encouraged her publishing desires.
In 1882, perhaps buoyed by the success of knowing her novel was to be published, Ellis was particularly publically active. In May 1882 she gave a long public speech at Reverend Edger’s leaving ceremony, in which she was ruled as being “out of order” due to her controversial topics.52 Apparently notorious for long-winded speeches and being a societal “black sheep,”53 Ellis caused further public offence when she campaigned strongly against the Contagious Diseases Act. In August she attended and spoke at a women’s only meeting where she was silenced with a sharp reprimand from the host, who “emphatically stated” that such a topic could not be discussed in polite society.54 Ellis could not be swayed, however, and continued to organise and host meetings to discuss the Act. She shared information she had received from the National Association in London, and even created a petition which garnered over 1100 signatures from women in Auckland.55 However, the City Council of Auckland refused her petition and sent her an answering letter to state: “that the subject is one which it is undesirable to explain in all its disgusting details to the public.”56 Ellis’s own disgust and disappointment at such a response after a year-long campaign is only to be imagined.
Already attending church together under Reverend Edger, Oliver and Ellis’s relationship improved further once Oliver, brought low by severe gout and epilepsy, agreed to pledge abstinence to the Good Templar Society. The Good Templars were committed to banishing alcohol “by removing the vice itself,” and by bringing those “who have fallen, or are in danger of falling [...] into a position of safety, pledged and assisted to abstain.”57 For the rest of his life, Oliver actively involved himself with the Good Templar society, and even served multiple times as the Right Worthy Grand Secretary.58 Oliver died on the 12th March 1883, and obituaries recorded him as a “prominent teetotaller” in Auckland, and an “active member of the Good Templar order.”59 Always unconventional, Ellis declared in Oliver’s death-notice that there ought to be “no mourning,”60 a move which received praise, rather than censure, in local news.61 In his will Oliver left Ellis only “plates linen china,” for their real estate and the “residue of any personal estate” was bequeathed to John William, who had returned from England after finishing school.62 Oliver listed his son, brother-in-law Thomas Colebrook, and a friend as executors of his will, ignoring Ellis.
There remains little evidence of Ellis’s life between 1883 and 1895. She appears to have travelled back to England after Oliver’s death, but returned to New Zealand in September 1885.63 It is likely that Ellis fought publicly for the vote in the early 1890s, particularly within the Women’s Franchise League. On the 5th July 1892, a “Mrs Ellis” gave a speech to a “crowded to the doors” Auckland Opera House alongside eight other women, a speech which carries her sanctimonious tone, self-deprecating style, evangelical themes, and calls for not only the need for political equality between the sexes, but moral equality.64 “Mrs Ellis” states that every “true, intelligent woman” would choose to vote, and that women had “carried the ‘Eve’ burden long enough, and had now a right to an equal position with men.”65 The same Mrs Ellis attended multiple meetings of the Franchise in 1892, and was appointed to the Executive Committee.66 If this is indeed Ellen Ellis, then she worked together with such women as Lizzie Frost Rattray and Amey Daldy to help bring about votes for women, and would have experienced the jubilation in 1893 when they were finally successful.
Ellen Elizabeth Ellis died on the 17th April 1895 from bronchitis, at the age of sixty-six, and is buried in Symonds Historic Cemetery in Auckland.67 She left no will,68 and received only a small notice as to the time of her funeral in the newspapers, with no obituary accorded to her.69
22 "Everything is Possible to Will." New Zealand Herald.22 March 1883: 5.
23 "A Book for Temperance Socities." London Times. 28 November 1883: 14. Times Digital Archive 1785-1985.
24 "Surrey, England, Church of England Baptisms, 1813-1912." Ancestry.com. FHL Film Number: 991750.
25 Colebrook, 8.
26 Colebrook, 16.
27 The Colebrook family originally lived at 106 High Street, Guildford, where William worked as a butcher. In 1852, however, the family rented and relocated to the large Great Tangley Manor, with William acting as tenant farmer. Great Tangley Manor is now a Grade I Historic Property in Britain, and is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited house in the United Kingdom. It existed in the Domesday Book in 1086 as a royal hunting lodge, allegedly later King John’s, and has continued to be inhabited since. Currently it is a privately-owned historic holiday house available for large groups to rent, and in July 2016 it celebrated its 1000th anniversary. Ellen Ellis remembered the house fondly in Everything is Possible to Will, writing an eulogy to the “home in the woods,” which she called the “large rambling antiquated place [...] suggestive of ghosts and goblins” (96). See: “Luxurious Grade 11th Century Moated Manor House,” Great Tangley Manor
28 John Colebrook qtd in Colebrook, 16.
29 Colebrook, 15.
30 "1841 Census: City of Guildford, Parish Saint Mary." Ancestry.com. H0107/1082/3.
The four eldest Colebrook girls wrote regular diaries, and an unpublished manuscript called "The Four Sisters" by Gladys Standford, based on the four sisters' letters and diaries, is held in the Surrey History Centre Archives (Ref. 1717/3a).
31 "1851 Census." Ancestry.com [Ellen Elizabeth Colebrook].
32 "1851 Census." Ancestry.com[Oliver Sidney Ellis].
33 Ellen Ellis. "'I Must Make My Letters Shorter': A Letter by Ellen Ellis, Auckland, 1859." Auckland-Waikato Historical Journal 59.1 (1991): 26.
34 "England, Select Births and Christenings, 1538-1975." Ancestry.com. FHL Film Number 815934.
35 "Saint Mary, Islington: Register of Marriages." Ancestry.com. London Metropolitan Archives, P83/MRY1, Item 1218.
36 Colebrook,, 39.
37 Ibid, 30.
38 Ibid, 55.
39 "England and Wales, FreeBMD Birth Index, 1837-1915." Ancestry.com.[John William Ellis; Sidney Alexander Ellis; Sideney Thomas Colebrook Ellis].
40 Colebrook, 60.
41 Madeleine Smith (an infamous Glasgow socialite) was accused, but never convicted, of having killed her lover by poisoning him. Her widely-publicised trial, with letters read from both Smith and her lover, kept newspaper readers enraptured throughout 1857 and 1858, including Ellen Ellis. See: William Knox. Lives of Scottish Women: Women and Scottish Society 1800-1980 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2006): 52-67.
42 Colebrook, 61.
44 Colebrook, 65-6.
46 Ellen Ellis qtd in Colebrook, 90.
47 In his adult life, John William Ellis’s skill in the Māori language became vital to his career, as he rose from working as a storekeeper and trader to become the most trusted confidant of King Tāwhiao in the closed King Country [“Obituary.” Waikato Times 6 August 1918: 4.]. He later founded and acted as chairman to the successful timber milling firm Ellis and Burnand Ltd. In later life he also became the Mayor of Hamilton, and a Member of the British Empire for his patriotic efforts during the First World War. According to his obituary, his funeral procession was the: “longest ever seen in the district,” with over 60 cars, and “among those present were several representative members of the native race, with whom the late Mr Ellis was exceedingly popular.” Except for burning her books, Ellen Ellis would have surely been proud of her son’s success and widely respected “kindliness of character, and unostentatious generosity” [“Mr J. W. Ellis, M. B. E.” Waikato Times 16 March 1918, 5.].
49 See Colebrook 137-9. James Ellis’s sudden death in 1867 at the age of 55 certainly affected Ellen greatly, as his is the only death mentioned in the novel apart from her son’s (neither her parents nor two brothers who died during, or previous to, the writing of the novel are mentioned). In Everything is Possible to Will she describes how she still “holds [James’s] love in everlasting remembrance” (192) and she calls him her “best beloved” (191). It is possible that his death was the catalyst in her efforts to begin writing publically, both to the newspapers and towards her novel.
50 Reverend Samuel Edger was a famous and controversial public figure in colonial Auckland society, but today is mostly remembered for his daughter Kate Edger, who became the first woman in the British Empire to qualify with a Bachelor of Arts in 1877. A well-known liberal who advocated many social causes, Reverend Edger prominently fought for the abolition of capital punishment, supported equal rights for women, and campaigned for prohibition. His obituary in 1882 records: “Perhaps Auckland had no stouter champion of Good Templarism and total abstinence principles than Mr Edger, and he was ever ready to give his service and the aid of his pen for the cause of temperance reform.” [“Death of the Rev. Samuel Edger.” New Zealand Herald 6 October 1882: 5.]
52 Ellis's speech included condemning the British Government for its treatment of Ireland, discussing the fate of "distressed" Jews, and praise for Charles Bradlaugh, whom "she considered the man of the age" ["Farewell Meeting to Rev. S. Edgers, B.A." Auckland Star. 18 May 1882: 6.]. A week later, the Auckland Observer contained a biting remark on Ellis in its opinion column: "Does Mrs O.S. Ellis rehearse her speches to her husband before their delivery in public? If so, we pity him," critical of the fact that her speech was too long and "there were too many subjects to summarize" ["Personal" Observer. 27 May 1882: 166].
The Contagious Diseases Act gave authorities the power to arrest, detain, and physically examine women suspected of having sexually transmitted diseases, and the act was supposedly meant to “exercise a beneficial effect upon the morals of the district.” Aimed at limiting the spread of venereal disease, the act only gave further power and legal license to men over women. The Act was not repealed in New Zealand until 1910.
57 R.N. Adams. The Origin and History of Good Templary (Dunedin: H. Wise and Company, 1876).
58 “Grand Lodge, I.O.G.T.” Auckland Star. 12 January 1877: 2.
61 A correspondent replied to the notice in the Bruce Herald , exclaiming that the notice: “is in all respects the most sensible thing of its kind we ever saw [...] mourning may be as sincere in white, or even in red garments, as in black.” [Bruce Herald. 30 March 1883: 3.].
62 "New Zealand, Archives New Zealand, Probate Records, 1843-1998." FamilySearch Probate Records Online. Archives New Zealand, Auckland Regional Office. Probate record: 1883 P1121/83-P1150/83.142-147.
63 Both the Nelson Colonist and the Auckland Star recorded that Ellis met with a "bad accident" upon landing in Nelson after a "visit to England," when "either she slipped or put her foot through a broken plank." The result was: "that both bones of the leg was [Sic] broken, and these having been successfully set, the lady insisted on proceeding home by the steamer." [New Zealand Herald. 4 September 1885: 4.]
67 The Symonds Cemetery closed to burials in 1886, but those who held existing family plots could be buried there. This suggests Ellen Ellis is buried with Oliver (although only Ellis’s grave is noted in the Auckland City Council Database). [“Deaths.” New Zealand Herald. 19 April 1895: 1.]
68 John William Ellis wrote to the Supreme Court in the matter of Ellen Ellis’s estate: “I have made careful and diligent search for a will made by [Ellen Elizabeth Ellis] but I have been unable to find any such document and I [therefore] believe that she died without having made a will.” He recorded that her estate totalled one hundred and seventy pounds - the sum consisting of interest in a freehold property under agreement for sale, and articles of clothing and personal effects [Probate Record Number 2040. MS. Page 225/6 of Probate Records 1895 P2016/95-P2040/95].
69 Ellen Ellis received a simple death notice on the 18th and 19th April 1895, but no obituary. Her notice read: “Ellis. - On April 17, at her residence, Ponsonby Road, Ellen Elizabeth Ellis; aged 66 years. The funeral will leave her late residence for Symonds-street Cemetery to-morrow (Friday), at 3.30pm.” [“Deaths.” New Zealand Herald. 19 April 1895: 4]