Story: Newman, Mehetabel
Missionary, letter-writer, teacher, homemaker
This biography was written by Ruth Fry and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990
Mehetabel Newman was baptised on 22 December 1822 at Willoughby, Lincolnshire, England, the daughter of Eleanor Dawson and her husband, Joseph Newman, a small farmer. In 1844 she arrived in New Zealand, and went to live with her sister and brother-in-law, Jane and George Buttle, who were Wesleyan Methodist missionaries stationed at Te Kopua, Waipa, south of Auckland. A brother, Joseph, and two other sisters, Elizabeth Fairburn and Ann Atkin, were also living in New Zealand.
For about 40 years Mehetabel Newman wrote regular letters home to her brother and sister-in-law, William and Sarah Newman, who lived at Louth, Lincolnshire. These letters give insights into life on an inland mission station five or six days' journey from Auckland. They also illustrate the experience of an unmarried woman in middle class colonial society.
Mehetabel Newman shared with Jane Buttle the customary women's work at the mission station: teaching Maori girls to read, write and sew; taking Sunday school; helping to run a large household in an efficient manner; nursing the sick; providing hospitality; and seeing to the daily needs and education of the European children.
She came into contact with Maori families when a poor potato crop in the early 1850s was followed by illness and suffering. Although she gave nursing assistance, she believed the poverty and bad health of the local Maori people justified the segregation of European and Maori children, even for Sunday services. She saw little hope for improvement of living conditions among the Maori people and was disheartened by their apparent lack of interest in missionary teaching. Of the children she wrote, 'they seem incapable of gratitude and you have such difficulty in exciting their feelings or reaching their hearts.'
As an unmarried woman Mehetabel Newman was subject to family criticism and pressure, particularly from her sister-in-law Sarah Newman, when she continued to live with George Buttle and his eight children after he was widowed in 1857. She suffered strain, but stood her ground. Her choice may have been influenced by economic considerations: she had little money of her own and few other opportunities for satisfying employment. Financial dependence was, however, painful to her, and she followed intelligently the state of her own investments.
Between 1857 and 1863 George Buttle took his family back to England. It is probable that Mehetabel Newman accompanied them. By 1863 Buttle had taken up land at Otahuhu, and Mehetabel Newman undertook the customary chores of a woman on the farm. Although she was normally in good health, she attributed chest pains in later life to repetitive butter churning. She interested herself in the family's concerns, particularly her nephews' ventures in flax-growing, goldmining and stockbroking. Any suggestion that she should arrange marriages for them she rejected, but when, on 10 April 1867, her niece Hannah Buttle married the Reverend William Morley, pride and affection went into the wedding preparations. She was called to other family members at times of illness and childbirth and was a welcome visitor at the prosperous Remuera home of her brother, Joseph Newman.
On 31 December 1873 at the Wesley Church, Melbourne, Australia, Mehetabel Newman married George Buttle. He died 6½ months later at Papatoetoe. She married another Wesleyan minister, John Warren, at Auckland on 3 April 1878. Her second husband died in 1883 and in 1891 she gave up her home at Ponsonby and went to live with a nephew, Newman Buttle, at Ohaupo, Waikato. Eventually she returned to England and died at Leeds, Yorkshire, on 8 January 1908. All her life she was devoted to the affairs of the Methodist church: raising money for chapels, organising missionary teas, and seeking to live by the church's teaching.