Story: Clifford, Annette Mary Eleanor Jane
Clifford, Annette Mary Eleanor Jane
This biography was written by Margaret Lovell-Smith and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000
Annette Mary Eleanor Jane Thomas was born at Akaroa on 5 November 1881, the daughter of John Woodill Thomas, a farmer, and his wife, Eliza Ann Bates. Annette’s father died three months before she was born, and her mother married John Hewitt, a contractor, in 1884. As a child Annette lived at various times with her father’s family and with her mother and stepfather. She attended four different local primary schools; on leaving Wainui School in 1895 she was destined for domestic service.
By 1913 Annette Thomas was a Christchurch ratepayer living in Montreal Street. She gained her LTCL and was working as a music teacher at the time of her marriage to Henry Herbert Clifford, in Christchurch, on 24 July 1915. He had worked as a photographer in Dunedin and Melbourne before joining the Christchurch firm Standish and Preece, and by 1903 he had opened his own studio. He became the city’s leading artist photographer, specialising in portraiture. They had three sons, two of whom died in their early 20s, the eldest while on active service with the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1940.
By the time of her husband’s death in 1949, Annette Clifford and her remaining son had acquired numerous large old houses, which they divided into small flats and let at modest rentals. Their business practices led to several brushes with the law. In 1944 there was a hearing before the Christchurch Land Sales Committee to answer a charge of ‘undue aggregation’ under the Servicemen’s Settlement and Land Sales Act. Ten years later Annette Clifford was fined on three charges of altering premises without obtaining a building permit. A civil claim by the Inland Revenue Department for alleged arrears of income tax originally filed in 1960 was still not settled in 1966. In 1962 she was charged in the Christchurch Magistrate’s Court with wilfully filing false returns of income over a nine-year period, involving a total discrepancy of £238,613. The high-profile case resulted in a conviction and a fine of £100 for each year a false return had been filed. The verdict was later upheld by the Court of Appeal.
The full extent of Clifford’s property is not known. The 1962 court hearing was told that by 1958 she owned, or leased from her son, a total of 47 properties and that between 1950 and 1958 she was receiving rent from up to 550 tenants. An inspection of 18 apartment houses owned by her in 1953 revealed that they contained 220 occupied dwelling units, in which were living 283 adults and 10 children. A city council health inspector told the court that Clifford had been sent a notice of non-compliance with housing improvement regulations for each of the properties. Most of her houses were pre-1920 wooden structures, distinctive for their colourful paintwork.
Annette Clifford became Christchurch’s most prominent landlady, a legend in her own lifetime. A small woman dressed mainly in black, she cycled all over the city to inspect her properties. Many of these were close to the university and were popular with students. Rents were collected at a ticket-box window in her residence at 52 Worcester Street. She was an eccentric and colourful figure who can be seen as both an exploitative property owner and a provider of cheap accommodation. She had a motherly attitude towards her elderly tenants and would remind student tenants of the need to write home and to remember their mothers’ birthdays. She died in Christchurch on 28 April 1968, survived by one son.