Story: Meech, Matilda

Page 1 - Meech, Matilda

Meech, Matilda

1825?–1907

Shopkeeper, businesswoman

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

Matilda Fisher was baptised at Rochester, Kent, England, on 12 June 1825. She was the daughter of James Fisher, a fishmonger, and his wife, Sarah. On 3 May 1846 she married bargeman John James Sancto; they had four daughters and a son. In the summer of 1852 John Sancto was retailing beer, and by June 1854 he was victualler at the Crown Tap in the High Street, Rochester. Soon after, he emigrated to New Zealand.

Matilda set off on the Grasmere on 7 January 1855 with her third child, to join her husband in Wellington. A paying passenger, she landed on 4 May at Port Cooper (Lyttelton). She then caught the steamer Zingari on 19 May, bound for a Wellington still shaking after the January earthquake. The Sanctos lived on The Beach at Lambton Quay. Their only son was born in July 1857.

In February 1859 John Sancto was on the Young Greek, captained by Nicholas Carey, which was lost at sea while returning from Porangahau with a load of wool. That winter a fourth daughter was born to the widowed Matilda Sancto. By 1864 she had opened a fruit shop and general store on Lambton Quay and in 1865 was also situated at Clyde Quay, opposite the new Bathing House. These salt-water baths, owned by T. W. Standwell and S. S. Downes, were on the foreshore near Oriental Bay. They were 165 feet long by 73 feet wide, of paling construction, and were tidal. On 29 February 1868, at the house of Francis Buck in Tory Street, Matilda Sancto married shipwright Henry Meech, who had built the baths.

Henry Meech had learnt his trade at Portsmouth docks. He was carpenter's crew on the Buffalo, which, after bringing colonists to Adelaide, came to the Bay of Islands in 1837 for kauri spars. On his return to Portsmouth he married and emigrated to Port Nicholson (Wellington) on the Oriental in January 1840. His first wife died in 1866.

After his second marriage Henry Meech continued to work as a shipwright, and by 1870 his boatbuilding yard was at Te Aro pa. However, at some stage he took charge of the salt-water baths. Matilda gave up her Lambton Quay shop to help her husband run the new business. Sporty young men rowed over from the town if it was not too choppy, or walked round to bathe in Meech's baths. A red flag was hoisted during gentlemen's hours and a blue flag during ladies' hours.

For a time the family, including children from previous marriages and a daughter born to Henry and Matilda in 1869, lived nearby, in a house built on stilts partly over the water. Matilda appears to have retained control of her own financial affairs: in 1882 she owned £550 in property, her husband £480.

Henry Meech died in 1885. Matilda Meech continued to operate the baths and became a well-known personality in Wellington. In 1891 she made news by taking Wellington City Council to court for polluting her baths with refuse from their destructor plant. She won the case and was awarded £200. On 10 August 1907 she died at Clyde Quay, Wellington. She is buried in Karori cemetery.