A Wedding in 1861

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.


The 1861 wedding dress. Ref: 1968.13.1

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


A quilt is a bed covering, typically made of padding enclosed between layers of fabric stitched into place. It is usually decorative, but its primary purpose is for warmth. Not all quilts, however, are created equal. At the Whanganui Regional Museum there are several quilts in the textile collection, from the utilitarian to the richly embellished, and some in-between. A quilt reflects its creator: her financial circumstances, design and needlework talents and the availability of resources.

1. Salt bag quilt

 Salt bag and wool wisp quilt of the 1930s. WRM ref: 2007.73.1

One of the simplest in the collection, showing the maker’s thrifty use of what she had on-hand, is a modest, rustic, single quilt made from cotton salt bags filled with wisps of sheep fleece, materials readily available at no cost. The names of the salt companies are still readable on some of the bags. This was made around the 1930s, during the Depression era. Although it is simple, it would have been very warm.

2. Woven wool pieces quilt

 Woven woollen fabrics patchwork quilt. WRM ref: TH.568

A patchwork quilt is made of small pieces of cloth in different designs, colours and textures, sewn together. One example in the collection is a double quilt comprising rectangles of woven woollen fabrics sewn in a random pattern. The squares are whip-stitched by hand, and each seam is then embroidered in feather stitch in wools of various colours. This quilt has no backing, obviously intentional, as all edges have been finished; binding is usually the last step in completing a quilt.

A third quilt is made entirely of plain and flowered cotton scraps pieced in a traditional “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” hexagonal pattern, backed with cotton printed with small blue flowers. It was made by Ann Jackson of Market Harborough, Leicester, England. This quilt was later lined and brought to New Zealand by Ann Jackson’s great granddaughter. “Grandmother’s Flower Garden” was one of the most popular patterns of the 1830s-1840s, as it not only displayed design talent, but also because the large number of pieces demonstrated the skill of the needle worker. This quilt has over 300 individual pieces, all whip-stitched together by hand and would have taken months to create.

3. English method quilt

 Patchwork quilt made using the English paper method. WRM ref: 1970.3

A more opulent 19th century quilt used pieces of silk, velvet, taffeta and corduroy in an elongated hexagon pattern called the “Cathedral Window”. It was made using the English paper method, where fabrics are tacked onto paper shapes to stabilise them, before being sewn together. Once the piece has been finished the paper is removed.

This quilt is unfinished and has no backing, which enables us to see the piecing method and how it was assembled. The tacking and backing papers are still in place. Examination of the papers reveals that the sewer used old handwritten letters, a leaflet from a piano and organ tuner and a paper label from a shop in Liverpool, England, called Bon Marché. Founded in 1878, Bon Marché was modelled on its famous namesake in Paris and featured French fashions, perfumes and accessories, so it is possible this quilt had its beginnings in Liverpool.

One of the outcomes from researching the quilts in this article is that there is little or no specific information about their owners, when they were made or who they were made for. In the museums of today, when items are assessed for inclusion in the collection, staff collect as much information about them as possible, and keep this data on permanent record. Imagine the stories these quilts could tell if they could only speak!


Kathy Greensides is Collection Assistant at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Meanderings through the wardrobe

Meanderings through the wardrobe

In the tradition of Narnia, interim museum manager Debra Elgar takes us on a trip through the wardrobe. The room is called the textile store. Not a particularly glamorous name for a place where wearable history is racked, drawered and hung, silent witnesses to past lives and historic body odour.

“We get given hundreds of things, and textiles is one of them. Clothing, it’s amazing, from 18-something-or-other to T-shirts of the ’70s with ‘Make love not war’ in screenprint,” says Debra.  “So all of those have a home here. Anything from outerwear to some prehistoric underwear, which looks nothing like the sort of thing that you’d buy in Farmers today.” So we gazed at drawers, bloomers and vests that once adorned the well-to-do, underneath many layers of seemly other garments, of course. Debra says that most of the museum’s young visitors find the garments unrecognisable. The thong is not a patch on the bloomers … no, a patch would be much bigger.

There’s a christening gown on a rack, and it looks almost new.  Everything is cared for in a temperature controlled environment and delicate items are carefully wrapped in acid-free tissue and handled only with cotton gloves.

“My interest in the textile room,” says Debra, ”is, firstly, my mother-in-law is involved heavily in costuming. She is the wardrobe mistress for Amdram Theatre. They have an enormous textile room there. So there is a sort of a family connection. My mother was always a sewer but I have absolutely no sewing skills whatsoever, so for me, I’m in awe of these amazing creations.”

We moved to a rack of gowns, mostly, from where Debra extracted a thick, heavy, ancient, old gold bronze-coloured gown of the 19th century. Made of shot silk, the bodice and skirt are detachable. Debra pointed out the width of the waist and remarked how small the clothing of yesteryear was. She says corsetry made a difference, but in fact the people were a lot smaller (slimmer). She showed me the stitching, done by hand, of course, which allowed for unpicking to wash pieces separately before sewing it back together again. Mind you, it’s so hard to get good help these days.

“These are not just gowns,” says Debra, “These are creations. These were the outer garments that were worn by wealthy people. These were not the garments of the commoners. By and large, the garments of the common people haven’t survived; they’ve been used up. They became rags, they were cut down for children’s clothing, that sort of thing. So what we get is the very exquisite and rather expensive thing.  Of course, the textile room is an absolute gem for Wanganui because, aside from my personal interest, we have a fashion and design school here at UCOL.”

As we browsed through the gowns, marvelling at the workmanship and quality, it became more apparent that Debra’s observations about the size of our foremothers was correct. Even today’s modern teens would struggle to fit into these gowns, especially if the obligatory layers of engineering (corsetry and petticoats) were included underneath. The obvious cost of the garments meant they once belonged to people of wealth and importance, ladies who were seen at all the best places in Wanganui, wearing their finest apparel and accessories.

Debra showed me a very blue wedding gown. I’ve never seen so much blue in one garment, even though the wearer was evidently tiny. There would be an interesting story there, if only we knew it. Why blue? Why not white? Or cream? Who was she? Was it a second marriage? Was she colour blind?

Debra sees the textile room as part of the history of a lot of Wanganui women. There are dressing gowns, ‘tea’ gowns, evening gowns, wedding dresses, costume jackets.  There is men’s clothing too, naturally – trousers, jackets, hats, boots – everything suitable for an evening at the snooker tables in the Wanganui Club. We are lucky that families have thought to save these clothes and pass them on to the museum.

Debra’s parents were teachers. She has lived all over New Zealand. She was educated at Wairarapa College, an unusual beast in that it was a co-ed boarding school. She went nursing after school and “enjoyed the challenge and the excitement that went with it”, before moving into health management. Now she uses her considerable expertise to mind businesses and organisations that need looking after during times of change or transition. Hence her position as museum interim manager. So Debra Elgar, wife of Amdram president Geoff Campbell, daughter-in-law of Ray and Marion Campbell of Amdram’s wardrobe and costume department, we know your weakness – fine clothing. Thanks for sharing your passion and some finely wrought textile treasures from the past.


Original article appeared in the Wanganui Midweek in January 2011.  Reproduced with permission from the Publishers.