Lights and Shadows of Colonial Life

Author(s): Sarah Amelia Courage

History | Don McMillan








In Lights and Shadows of Colonial Life Sarah Amelia Courage writes of her own experiences immigrating from England to New Zealand with her husband Frank and their baby in 1864. They stayed in Lyttelton and then Christchurch until Frank bought a farm near Leithfield in North Canterbury. Apart from a trip back 'Home' (to England) the author lived on the farm until 1899. The book gives a valuable insight into the daily life of the well-off landowners and their wives in early rural Canterbury.


Lights and Shadows of Colonial Life was probably written in about 1990 as the subtitle of the book is Twenty-six Years in Canterbury, New Zealand. The author is given as Sarah Amelia Courage, ('A Settler's Wife'). It was first published about 1896 and a second annotated edition was published in 1976.


Mrs Courage states that the book is based on a diary written for friends in England. The diaries regrettably have not survived. She writes in chapter IX of the book, "The diary was a source of great comfort to me; I looked upon it as a confidential friend, wherein I could describe my pleasures and sorrows, with observations on my friends and acquaintances which struck me at the time."


This is a good description of the subject matter in the book. Her comments on her friends and neighbours make her characters more vivid and amusing and the reported conversations highlight the descriptions - which are often rather uncomplimentary. Mrs Courage thought she had disguised their identities by using pseudonyms. However the accounts of events were so accurate a picture of what had actually happened that the people portrayed recognised themselves and their relatives.


Eighteen copies were printed and bound by Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, Christchurch, with photographs and other illustrations mounted as a frontispiece and on nine extra leaves. Nine of these copies seem to have been destroyed because the people described (or their relatives) objected to the author's comments. Some of the surviving copies are without the illustrations. One copy is held in the Canterbury Museum Library and two in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington. Family members have two copies. L. G. D. Acland's copy was lost in a fire in 1924. The remaining copies have not been traced.


I had the good fortune of being lent by chance a copy of the second annotated edition published in 1976. There are four sheets of illustrations including thirteen photos, including Frank and Sarah Courage, early buildings in Christchurch and Leithfield (which she called Milltown), houses where the Courage family lived and views of the landscape. The introduction and notes give interesting background material and throw light on the pseudonyms used in the story.


The Courage family lived in two different houses in their years farming. The houses, the gardens and the access route through bush beside a stream are clearly described in the context of dealings with servants, maintaining the gardens, and making trips to visit neighbours, attend church services or join in local activities.


Mrs Courage, who was barely twenty when she moved to the farm, found her new life rather lonely as her husband (whose pseudonym is Fred) would often be away from Monday to Saturday working on the farm, and her only company would be the baby and the maid. Getting and keeping suitable servants was difficult and she writes at length about them and their peculiarities. Her love of reading both prose and poetry helped her to fill her days. Each of the thirty eight chapters is headed with a quotation from sources as varied as a Scotch song, the poetry of Robert Burns, Dr Johnson's "The Idler", Thomas Hood's poetry (clearly a favourite), Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew", "Hamlet" and "The Merchant of Venice", Longfellow's poetry and the Bible.


She took great delight in their occasional trips to Christchurch and comments on travel (includ3ing her first trip by a Cobb & Co coach), transport of goods, hotel accommodation, shopping and church services in the growing town.


There are a few references to traumatic events – the Shadows of their life. She describes storms, floods, a fire in the kitchen at night when she had a baby two weeks old, and a coach accident in which Fred was injured. There are very few references to her five children, four of whom were born in New Zealand. Her first child, born in England, is always referred to just as 'the baby'. These omissions are no doubt in the interests of anonymity.


The overall impression of farm life is of mainly happy years – the Lights of their life.. Her easily flowing style of writing, her sense of humour and her gift for choosing interesting details ensure that most readers will find that Lights and Shadows of Colonial Life offers an enjoyable way to gain a picture of rural life for those who were well-educated and comfortably off in North Canterbury in the second half of the nineteenth century.


Very good copy


Product Information

General Fields

  • : 0723304645
  • : Whitcoulls Ltd
  • : Whitcoulls Ltd
  • : books

Special Fields

  • : Sarah Amelia Courage
  • : Hardback
  • : 250
  • : B&W photos