Story: Godley, Charlotte

Page 1 - Biography

Godley, Charlotte

1821–1907

Letter-writer, community leader

This biography was written by Beryl Hughes and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

According to family information Charlotte Griffith Wynne was born in 1821, probably at Voelas, Denbighshire, North Wales. Her father, Charles Wynne Griffith Wynne, grandson of the third Earl of Aylesford, had assumed the name of his mother, a Welsh heiress. Charlotte Godley's mother was Sara, daughter of the Reverend Henry Hildyard of Stokesley, Yorkshire. After a conventional upper class upbringing she married John Robert Godley on 29 September 1846 at Voelas, and, on his being appointed resident chief agent of the Canterbury Association, sailed on the Lady Nugent with him and their only son, John Arthur (later first Baron Kilbracken).

Leaving London in December 1849 the Godleys reached New Zealand on 25 March 1850. After calling briefly at Port Chalmers in Otago and Port Cooper (Lyttelton), the Godleys spent six months in Wellington. They lived from December 1850 until December 1852 in Canterbury, at Lyttelton and Riccarton. Rose, the first of their four daughters, was born shortly before they left New Zealand.

As the wife of one of the leading men in the new colony Charlotte Godley exerted a gentle yet firm influence on those she met, always upholding what she believed to be proper standards of behaviour. More important, her letters to her mother, later published, give an invaluable picture – sensitive, sharp, witty – of the challenges, discomforts and pleasures of life in the very early days of the colonial settlement.

Charlotte Godley's technique of writing letters was 'to tell what you are doing, and the little things that go on every day, which will make them imagine your life out here'. So she described, among other topics, local Maori people, food, social outings, earthquakes, prices and clothes ('bright colours are quite "the go" here', she wrote of Wellington fashions). She also complained of the servant problem, which she called 'one of the great miseries of human life in N.Z.'

Her brief stay in New Zealand did not alter her upper class outlook, but she always appreciated the country's advantages, in particular the climate, which improved her husband's indifferent health. She considered the social scene in a detached and rather amused way: 'There is as much etiquette about visiting, and so on, at Dunedin as I ever saw anywhere at home'. Her letters show her powers of observation and good sense, as well as her emotional reticence. She had a talent for description, exemplified in her account of Henry Petre: 'He is immensely tall and thin and looks like a set of fire irons badly hung together'.

Charlotte Godley, who appears to have been more approachable than her husband, took a full part in colonial social life. She supported her husband in his work and helped with his correspondence. As a member of the Church of England she was particularly interested in plans for the Anglican church in New Zealand and in meeting the clergy.

A portrait and a photograph of Charlotte Godley in later life are reproduced with her collected letters. Both representations show her to be dignified and distinguished in appearance, with finely made features. She died in London on 3 January 1907, after a widowhood of more than 40 years, keenly interested in New Zealand to the end.