Story: Watts Russell, Elizabeth Rose Rebecca

Page 1 - Biography

Watts Russell, Elizabeth Rose Rebecca

1833/1834?–1905

Community leader

This biography was written by Jo-Anne Smith and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 1, 1990

Elizabeth Rose Rebecca Bradshaw is thought to have been born in Ireland, probably in 1833 or 1834, but nothing is known of her background or early life. Probably in 1850, in England, she married John Charles Watts Russell of Staffordshire; there were no children of the marriage. As the fourth son of a wealthy landed family, John Watts Russell decided to seek his fortune in New Zealand. The couple's decision to emigrate may also have been made in part to escape the social censure for his having married beneath his class.

They embarked on the Sir George Seymour in September 1850, with Elizabeth's personal maid, Johanna Wornall, and arrived at Lyttelton on 17 December. Elizabeth Watts Russell had a dramatic introduction to New Zealand. She and John stayed for some weeks on board the Sir George Seymour before moving ashore. Returning from shore to the ship on 5 January, the boat carrying Elizabeth, John and seven others capsized. Elizabeth was able to grasp a rope, but John, thinking that she was in difficulty, attempted to save her. He could not swim, and Elizabeth released her safe hold to go to his aid. They sank twice before they were rescued by a boat lowered from the ship.

The Watts Russells stayed with Charlotte and John Robert Godley at Lyttelton until their own house was built there. In 1851 they moved to a cob house on a 30 acre estate near Riccarton. They named their home Ilam, after the Watts Russell family home in Staffordshire. John Watts Russell's wealth allowed them to employ servants, which left Elizabeth Watts Russell free to participate in the social activities of the Canterbury establishment. She attended parties and balls, regularly went visiting, and gave lavish entertainments. Ilam became one of the main social centres of Christchurch. Elizabeth Watts Russell's vivacity and charm enhanced Ilam's reputation for hospitality. She was considered very attractive, with a fine profile and dark wavy hair. She also became involved in charitable activities, such as fund raising for the Patriotic Fund.

In February 1856 Elizabeth Watts Russell and her husband returned to England. Elizabeth was in poor health, and John was anxious to visit his father. Prior to their departure they auctioned all their furniture and household effects, and leased Ilam. When they returned in January 1858 on the Westminster, accompanied by Elizabeth's sister, Mary Ann Bradshaw, they brought with them a complete set of furniture and over 20,000 bricks to build a new, two-storeyed home.

The new Ilam homestead was built in the style of an English mansion, with eight bedrooms, a conservatory, drawing room and dining room. It was surrounded by 10 acres of pleasure grounds, including a croquet lawn. Despite the difficulty of obtaining servants in the 1860s, Elizabeth Watts Russell continued to entertain and to be active in community affairs. In 1863 she was involved in the establishment of the Christchurch Female Home, a servants' hostel and registry.

The Watts Russells travelled again in the second half of the 1860s, spending some time in France. Ilam was leased in 1866 and John Watts Russell sold many of his properties, indicating that they may not have intended to return. However, in 1871 they came back to Christchurch, where they lived at Cathedral Square until John's death in April 1875. Elizabeth had a window in St Peter's Church, Riccarton, and another in Christchurch Cathedral, dedicated to his memory. The Ilam estate passed to her.

After the death of her sister on 8 August 1875 Elizabeth Watts Russell returned to England. Probably later that year, in England, she married Alfred Richard Creyke, who had been manager of John Watts Russell's station properties, as well as owning land at the Waimakariri. Elizabeth Creyke never returned to New Zealand. After the death of Alfred Creyke in 1893 she had the western porch of Christchurch Cathedral built in his memory. She died at Horsham, Sussex, on 7 October 1905. She left an estate valued at £78,413, but it was through her strength of character, rather than her first husband's wealth, that she had established for herself a place among the Canterbury social élite.