Story: Fraser, Margaret
Domestic servant, letter-writer
This biography was written by Charlotte Macdonald and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993
Margaret Fraser, better known as Maggie, was born at Ordhead, near Inveravon, Banffshire, Scotland, on 11 December 1866. She was the youngest of six children of Margaret Spence and her husband, John Fraser, a master tailor. The family lived on a small croft where they kept a few animals.
Maggie was taught to read and write, but prospects for a young woman in north-east Scotland in the 1880s did not extend beyond poorly paid positions in household or farm service. By contrast, the press often described attractive opportunities in the colonies. Two of Maggie's brothers, Alexander (known as Alick or Sandy) and James, left for New Zealand in the early or mid 1880s. In December 1887 Maggie and another brother, John, followed them, sailing from Plymouth on the Ionic as assisted immigrants. They made their farewells expecting that other members of the family would join them.
Maggie Fraser stayed first with Alick in Sydenham, Christchurch, before going to work as a general servant to the Carmichael family at Loburn in North Canterbury. She chose this position because the family were Scots. Maggie stayed there for almost a year and was treated generously. She attended Presbyterian service with the family once a fortnight, noting that there were almost as many dogs as people present. In a letter of April 1888 she described her situation: 'I would like fine to stay here if they gave me my wages up to £40 or even £36 a year any how it is a good deal better than at home as I have no more work here than I had at Kinermony and have more than double the pay.' Her wage was raised from £30 to £36 after three months' satisfactory service.
Maggie returned to Alick's house in early 1889, chiefly because she expected her sister Charlotte and Alick's wife, Annie, and their son to arrive from Scotland in the autumn. She set about putting Alick's bachelor establishment to rights and preparing jams and preserves. But Charlotte and Annie did not come to New Zealand that year, nor – despite Maggie's sustained hopes – in later years.
For 12 years Maggie Fraser worked in domestic service in both Canterbury and Wellington. As an experienced and well-recommended domestic she had no difficulty in finding positions. During this time her ties with home and family remained strong and, indeed, grew more important. Her brothers James and John married during these years and had children. Alick reluctantly accepted the dissolution of his marriage, moving first to Masterton and later to Australia. Maggie remained single; her home was no more than the room in her current employer's house. Between periods in service she continued to assist her brothers, staying with James's family on at least two occasions at the time of her sister-in-law's confinements, and nursing Alick when he contracted typhoid fever in 1897.
From the time she left Scotland Maggie was a prolific correspondent, writing regularly to family and friends in Banffshire. At first her letters coaxed her family to join her in New Zealand. When this possibility faded, she continued to forward news of family members in New Zealand and sums of money saved from her wages. In 1894 she sent £25 to enable the family dwelling at Inveravon to be re-roofed. Her letters from this time present a rare record of the life of a woman in domestic service in late nineteenth century New Zealand.
In 1899 Maggie Fraser met William (Bill) Crawford Johnston; they married at Palmerston North on 14 April the following year. Bill Johnston, who had emigrated to New Zealand from Ireland, acquired a farm at Awahuri, near Palmerston North. The couple settled there, Maggie planting the orchard and helping with the farm work. She had four children: three sons and a daughter, Margaret (also known as Maggie). The marriage was not always an easy one; Bill Johnston was renowned for his fiery temper.
In 1926 Maggie and Bill (who had for many years been totally deaf) retired to Rotorua where Maggie found relief for her rheumatism in the thermal waters. In 1940, soon after Bill Johnston's death, Maggie was joined by her widowed daughter and five children. Mother and daughter together ran the household and cared for the children until Maggie Johnston died on 31 August 1951.