The earliest dated wedding dress in the Whanganui Regional Museum collection was donated in 1968. As with many past donations to the Museum, the information provided at the time was very limited. Apart from the donor’s name and address, the only other information provided on the receipt was a very rudimentary description of the dress: “One wedding frock (blue checked) worn in 1861”. No information was given as to where the dress had come from, who had made or worn it, or what journey it had gone through to make it into the Museum’s collection.
Although little of the dress’s history or provenance was communicated, there is no doubt that it was a treasured and well cared for item of clothing. The dress is in very good condition, considering it is over 150 years old and would have gone through several generations. It shows very little wear and only a little fading.
From looking at the style of the dress the date given on the receipt seemed very plausible. The high neckline, dropped shoulders, narrow boned waist, very full bell-shaped skirt, under which numerous petticoats or a crinoline would have been worn, and the pagoda sleeves all fit the style of the early 1860s. The construction, a mix of machine and hand-sewing, fit in with the technology that was available. The fabric, a silk taffeta lined with a brown Holland cloth, also supported the theory that the date given could well be correct.
So who was the woman that had worn this dress to her wedding in 1861? Finding the answer to this question involved many hours of trekking through ancestry sites, reviewing birth, death and marriage certificates, looking through electoral rolls and passenger lists to find the one branch of the donor’s family that had a wedding in 1861.
Where did the dress start its journey? The answer was in Gibraltar where, in 1861, 26 year old Olivia Costa married a 30 year old Scottish-born, British soldier named William Wallace. Olivia was born in Gibraltar, the daughter of Thomas Costa, a Master Mariner, and a woman whose name is unfortunately not recorded. As a Master Mariner Costa could easily have purchased the fabric for the dress at any of the trading ports through Europe.
William and Olivia had two children, William Thomas in 1862 and Annie Theresa in 1864. By the time their daughter was born (Annie is the grandmother of the donor of the dress) they are recorded as living in Canada West, America. At an unknown time they must have shifted to Tyrone in Northern Ireland because when they migrated to New Zealand in 1876, their nationality is recorded as Tyrone. They left for New Zealand on 26 June 1876 from the port of Glasgow and arrived in New Zealand on 23 September 1876 at the port of Otago. The family lived at Blueskin Bay, Waitati, north of Dunedin, where they settled into a life of farming. A relative of the Wallace’s who was a contemporary of Olivia, recorded in their family history that she was a “dark fascinating woman who was a good cook”. Olivia, William and William Thomas are all buried in the Waitati Cemetery.
Annie married James Sutherland, a farmer from Canterbury and they had two sons. The elder, Robert Alexander Wallace Sutherland, married Dorothy Agnes Ashwell of Whanganui whose family was associated with the setting up of Virginia Lake. Robert and Dorothy had a daughter who, while living in Whanganui in 1968, came into the Museum and donated the wedding dress of which we now know so much more.
Trish Nugent-Lyne is the Collection Manager at Whanganui Regional Museum