Story: Taylor, Sophia Louisa

Page 1 - Taylor, Sophia Louisa

Taylor, Sophia Louisa

1847–1930

Hostess, suffragist, landowner

This biography was written by Jan Harris and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Sophia Louisa Davis was born in Kaitaia, New Zealand, on 2 July 1847, the third daughter of Mary Ann Cryer and her husband, John Davis, a private tutor to the missionary Matthews and Puckey families. John Davis was dismissed by William Puckey in 1855 and the family moved to Auckland. Little is known of Sophia's early life, and it is assumed that she was educated by her father, who had had the usual classical education and was interested in drama, art and music.

On 6 June 1865, at St Mary's Church, Parnell, Sophia married a widower, Allan Kerr Taylor of Alberton, Mount Albert. He was a considerable landowner, with income from land sales and company investment, and a provincial councillor. Allan and Sophia Taylor had six daughters and four sons; two of the daughters died in childhood.

Alberton, which was enlarged from a substantial farmhouse to a mansion in the 1870s, was noted for its hospitality. The family was very active in the local Anglican Church of St Luke; Sophia taught in the Sunday school for 46 years, and she and her daughters sang in the choir. They also performed locally in plays and concerts. From the late 1880s the family began to be known as the Kerr Taylors, or Kerr-Taylors, evidently to distinguish themselves from their many Taylor cousins, although Sophia always signed legal documents as Sophia Louisa Taylor. She seems to have been very conscious of the family's social position. She was a domineering mother who thought nobody good enough for her daughters, although she was disappointed when they did not marry.

In April 1890 Allan Taylor died suddenly and it was discovered that there was a £4,000 mortgage on the estate, which was valued at over £20,000 and attracted heavy death duties. New Zealand was in the middle of a depression and land and shares were worth little. Sophia, who had been shielded from her husband's business affairs, survived through the sale of land and investments, but the family's standard of living was reduced. However, she still took part in the social life of Auckland's élite, and in addition to her new role as manager of a large estate began to take part in public life.

In 1892 Sophia Taylor became a member of the first committee of the Auckland branch of the Women's Franchise League. She moved resolutions and made forceful and witty speeches in favour of the franchise. She was also associated with the Auckland branch of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, although she apparently opposed prohibition and may well have joined the union to take part in its franchise department. She supported the franchise movement for the practical – if somewhat conservative – reasons that women had to obey laws and pay taxes just as men did. She did not, however, think that women should stand for Parliament. Like many other socially prominent women, she supported the Auckland Tailoresses' Union; but, like them, she held firm ideas on class and would probably not have supported a similar union for domestic servants, whose work made their employers' public lives possible.

Strikingly attractive, energetic, intelligent and forthright, Sophia Taylor continued to speak and write on a variety of topics after women's suffrage had been achieved. She denounced the single-tax movement in 1905, and opposed the introduction of opossums 'to provide sport for lazy townspeople when they take their holiday in the country'. She regarded herself as a farmer, as she derived income from the sale of flowers, fruit and vegetables, and eggs from her prize poultry.

After the First World War Sophia Taylor lived quietly at Alberton with her three unmarried daughters. In later life she dressed in black, or purple or mauve on special occasions. In 1916 she sold 16 acres of the estate as the site for Mount Albert Grammar School. She spent the last years of her life in a wheelchair after a stroke, dying at Alberton, her home for 65 years, on 24 January 1930. Alberton continued to be run by her daughters until the last one died in 1972, bequeathing the house to the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.