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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 1, 1987

Johanna Maria Caroline Bisley Nee Karsten

Johanna Maria Caroline Bisley Nee Karsten

page 37

Lina, or Carrie, as she was called by her husband, was born in Altoner, near Hamburg in Germany, December 3, 1836. She was the third of six girls, the two older having died in infancy and the sixth being born after the family arrived in Nelson. Lina wrote her memoirs when she was sixty-three, over fifty years after leaving this first home, but her memories are of a large house with a pretty garden. There were a number of journeymen and apprentices in her father's business, which was that of master cabinet maker. It was apparently a comfortable life, with a servant to help her mother, and a French governess for herself.

All this changed, in the space of six weeks, when Lina was six. Her father studied books about New Zealand and determined to emigrate with his family. His wife was not enthusiastic, but believed it her duty to accompany him. His father tried to persuade him to go alone, until he was sure New Zealand was suitable for the family. Having failed to make him change his mind, the grandfather apparently broke off contact.

The Karsten family left Hamburg at Christmas 1842, on the St Pauli and arrived in Nelson June 14, 1843. Their first view of Nelson was that of a complete wilderness. Lina says:

"When we were out in the Bay everyone wanted to know where Nelson was. There was nothing to be seen but bush, hills and scrub, a few tents and some Mauris. No buildings, no place to land, no churches, no roads. There were a few buildings of wood on the Church Hill, and a depot was being built at the back of where the Institute now stands. Most of the people had only tents or whares, with blankets, fern and toitoi, but timber was being prepared for wooden houses. In a few days we landed, and we stayed in a room in the depot."

After a few days in the town, they left with eight other families for the Moutere, where Mr Karsten planned to take up farming. They travelled by whale boat to the Moutere and spent their first night under the trees. Lina describes life in the Moutere as follows:

"We slept on dry fern and a tent made of blankets and the next day went on to where we were going to make our home in the wilderness. Eight families and the three missionarys. They were going to the Mauries but they were going to learn the language first. The first thing was to build some sort of place to live and father and his men built a large place. It had no walls but was like a Mauri whare, a door each end, one end was the bedroom and the other end of the kitchen. It was thatched with rushes and stood on a little rise. The House of the Lord was got ready and the seeds put in the ground for it was spring by this time. The children were taught by the missionarys and church was held in our whare on Sunday as it was the largest. There were several floods in spring. They did not do much damage, but in February 1844 a big flood came and washed everything away except our whare. Being built on a rise saved it, and father kept the trees that came down from knocking it over with a long pole. Our next neighbour had taken the tops off four large pine trees and built a sort of house on them, and when it rained he took his family, wife and two children and a goat up and pulled the ladder up and was safe. His name was Mauson. He was a gardener. When the flood was over my father was tired of farming and he had had enough of New Zealand. As for my poor mother, being so sickly she felt the hardships very much.

"We had been there seven months and all the labour and expense was gone, washed away by the flood, so father walked to Nelson and left mother and us children with very little food. There were a few fowls left and mother killed one and cooked it for us. It took father nearly a week to go to Nelson and back for there were no roads, only tracks.

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It was on a Sunday night mother expected him back, and she took us a little way through the bush to meet him. It got dark and he did not come so we had to turn back. We had not had much to eat that day and he was going to bring some bread and other things that he could carry. We were very disappointed and cried a good deal. We had not been in bed long before he came and we got up and had bread and butter. It was lovely, I remember it now how nice it was. We did not expect the butter for it was five shillings a pound in those days. Father had bought a house for fourteen shillings, and we were going to Nelson to live. One morning before daylight we were taken out of bed and dressed to walk some miles to the beach where a boat was going to be ready to take us back to Nelson."

The town seemed more attractive this time. Lina continues:

"Nelson had improved, there were a good many wooden houses built and there was a shop Mr Campbell had opened. Mr Bird had a butchers shop where the old jam factory now stands and things were beginning to look better for the eight months we had been away. We were glad to get back. So when we landed our things were taken on a Bullock cart to the shanty father had bought. It was one room, walls mud, roof thatched, floor bricks, one small window and a chimney, quite a Palace after the Hut at the Moutere. The only trouble was the floor was full of fleas. We could not sleep for them so mother boiled kettles of water and poured on the bricks and so made the place clean.

"We lived in that place for a good many years. There were four houses built all in a row and father bought them all as the people who owned them left. One family went to Motueka and some of their children are there now. A number of the settlers left and went to Adelaide. Father wanted to go but mother would not go. She said she had come to the end of the world and she thought that was enough…. Soon after this father got work at ship building. Mr Strong, a Quaker had some small boats built to trade to Tasmania and gave a good many men work. He did not pay them money, but opened a store and they had to take their earnings out, all but a few shillings a week.

"That was about the happiest time of my life. I went to school, for in April (18)44 the Nelson School Society opened the old Brick School, both for religious and secular education. All the children in Nelson in those days went to that school and learned to read and write…. One Sunday school was just over when a man came into town and brought word that a number of Mauries were coming to kill us all. The Church Hill had been made secure so all the mothers and children wre ordered to go up there, and the men who had been drilled were to go and meet the natives…. The report proved not to be true. The Mauris were going fishing so the men came back about three in the morning and we all went home to bed. I remember that some of our mothers shed a great many tears that night."

The family suffered much from illness. The mother was never strong and she died, after a few days' illness, when Lina was nine. She had three younger sisters. Wilhelmina died of the quinsy while still small, and another sister died some time later, leaving just Lina and Dorah, whose full name was Johanna Dorothea Friederike.

Life became very difficult for Lina after her mother's death. She described herself as mischievous. A tomboy, who frequently argued with her father. She would not stay at school when sent there.

Her own health was not good and she writes:

"Soon after this I had a very severe illness. I was about 13 years old when one day I was very warm and the river was just behind the house so I had a bath, hot as I was. A day or two after I was full of pain and the Dr was sent for. He said I had got rhumatic fever very badly. I suffered dreadful pain. The neighbours were very kind to me, nursing me and sitting up with me for some time as my life was despaired of. When I began to get a page 39little better one Sunday some of the girls in my class in the Sunday School came. They got me up and put me in father's chair before a large fire and I fainted. They were very much scared and went for a neighbour Mrs Mathur. She put me back to bed and sent for the doctor and I suppose 1 had a relapse for I was ill for a long time after. When I did get up I had to have crutches to walk with for my left leg was useless. It was six months before I could get about again, and what 1 had suffered had quieted me down. For years after that illness, indeed all my life, I have suffered more or less through it. But it did me good and while I lay weak and helpless I thought of many things in my past life and was sorry for my wild ways. After a while I got the use of my leg but I was never as strong as I was before."

On her recovery, Mrs C. Elliott asked her to become her servant. She lived with Mrs Elliott for four months. She was a much needed friend to her and taught her to be a good housekeeper and to sew. Another illness brought this to an end and Una returned home with a bad cough.

Her father took up work at Happy Valley. He had built a house in Waimea Road, where the girls lived. He came home at weekends and paid the bills. From time to time, there was a housekeeper and, at other times, they looked after themselves. When her father announced his intention to remarry, Lina said she could not live with a step-mother and she took a position with a Mr Jenkins. She lived in and did the sewing. Another bout of illness followed: "There were some very severe earthquakes in Nelson and prayer meetings were being held in all the churches for everybody was very frightened. The earth was very seldom still for more than a fortnight and some of the shakes were very severe. I attended the meetings the first week and took the measles from a young girl by whom I sat. When they were out on my arms a heavy earthquake came, and I got out of bed and ran and took cold and was soon very ill. My father was sent for and when I was better he took me home.

"While I was ill he had come back to town to live, the partnership having come to an unlucky end and all his money gone. I was scarcely well when father and one of my sisters, Dorah, and my stepmother's little girl and myself were taken very ill with dysentery. For eleven weeks I was at death's door. Father was over five weeks ill and the little girl died. My sister did not have it so bad but I got a relapse and was very ill. My father would not Iet any of the Christians who had become my friends see me. He told me all this trouble had come upon us because of me, although people were dying all around us of the same complaint and the Lord in mercy had permitted us to survive, all but the little children."

Mr Jenkins had taken her to church with him and she had made some new friends there. She experienced a conversion and became much happier. Her father was not so pleased, because it meant she was turning her back on the Lutheran Church, to become a Baptist. They had been part of the early Lutheran community in the Moutere and had travelled out on the St Pauli with the Lutheran missionaries, and briefly had been housed in a building which was to be used as the Lutheran church in Nelson.

With the help of a friend, who spoke on her behalf, Lina eventually received her father's consent to this change. She describe it as a very important event in her life, but she did not always remain a Baptist. In turn she joined Methodist, Open Brethren and Methodist again.

Lina had started to receive offers of marriage when she was fifteen, but she did not marry until she was twentyeight. She was married by a Wesleyan minister to Joseph Herbert Bisley, a baker, of Waimea Road on July 27, 1864. The couple adopted her husband's niece and brought her up. Joseph Bisley died, after nine years of marriage, from typhoid fever. Lina's father Mr J. C. M. Karsten had died at his home in Coll-ingwood Street in 1870.

page 40
Mrs J. M. C. Bisley. Tyree Collection NPM.

Mrs J. M. C. Bisley. Tyree Collection NPM.

Lina had money troubles at the time of her husband's death. She took a job, as housekeeper to Mr Charles Harley, a brewer. She worked for him for fifteen years. When Mr Harley died, he left her a cottage to live in and an income of $40 per year. She was very grateful to Mr Harley for this, as she was now in her fifties. The cottage was probably in Collingwood Street.

Lina wrote her memoirs in 1899 and added a further note in 1911, by which time she was seventyfour. She died on May 13, 1917. Her story illustrates many of the difficulties experienced by women who came to Nelson in the nineteenth century, from the other side of the world.


Bisley, J. M. C. An Autobiography. Ms. Nelson Provincial Museum.