Volume 9

Margaret Weir and James McGowan

Jo Blackford

James McGowan's public life in Thames is fairly well known, first as a shopkeeper, then as Mayor, later as Member of Parliament, Minister of Mines and of Justice in the Seddon cabinet, and near the end of his life, as a member of the Legislative Council. When he passed away suddenly in 1912 he was eulogized in the local newspapers for his public service but, of his private life, it was only noted that he was a single man, never married, and that his only living relative was a sister, Elizabeth (1). That last part was not true, however. James McGowan had a daughter, born just before he moved to the Thames, and I am one of her great-great granddaughters.

James McGowan, third from left. Group on board the ship Corinthic, upon the return of William Hall-Jones in 1908. From left to right: John Andrew Millar, Robert McNab, James McGowan, William Hall-Jones, John George Findlay, George Fowlds. Photograph taken by Sydney Charles Smith.
Source:Alexander Turnball Library

James McGowan left Ireland at the age of 24 on the ship 'Liverpool' and arrived in Auckland on March 5th, 1866. It was in Auckland that he met Margaret Weir, a Scottish woman a few years younger than him. They may have met through Margaret's older brother James Weir, who was a draper operating a shop in Auckland at the same time as James McGowan was running a bakery there, according to family stories (2). However they met, they began a relationship, and on May 5th, 1869 a baby girl was born to Margaret and named after her. The birth certificate (3) listed her mother's name as Margaret McGowan, formerly Weir, and her father as James McGowan, a labourer, who we believe, based on other evidence, was the man who would later become Mayor of Thames. No record of a marriage between Margaret and James exists, nor should there be one, because Margaret Weir was already married to a Mr. John McClearie back in Scotland (4). We have no idea why she left him and moved half way around the world without him. The marriage must certainly have been unhappy in some way to justify such an extreme parting as this. But there is no evidence that they ever divorced. Margaret had several relationships with other men while her Scottish husband was still alive, but she did not marry again until well after his 1879 death.

The only known photo of Margaret Weir. Margaret Weir's mother Allan Pearson Weir probably had this photo taken to give to Margaret or her brother James Weir to take
with them when they emigrated to
New Zealand, c.1860s.

James McGowan, James Weir and his family, and Margaret Weir and baby Margaret McGowan (who was known as Maggie) all moved to the Thames soon after the baby's birth. So far we haven't found any record of their passage, so it's impossible to determine which of the family stories is true - whether Margaret traveled with James McGowan and their daughter, or if she accompanied her brother James Weir and his family when they moved. There is no evidence of a continuing romantic relationship between Margaret and James in the Thames, although it's probable that they saw each other often around town, and that James was able to see his daughter grow up.

A family story asks why James McGowan never married, and supposes it was because he always loved Margaret Weir. If that was true, his love does not appear to have been reciprocated. Margaret Weir had five more children by three different men in the years after her first daughter, Maggie, was born. We do, however, have to keep in mind that Margaret would not have had access to any kind of birth control, and we have no way of knowing the nature of these relationships, or if they even were relationships in any real sense.

Thomas Oats (Jr) (standing) and William Oats (seated) at William's wedding to Alice Sophia Hale, 1897.

Her first partner, Thomas Oats, was a gold miner, who may possibly have employed Margaret as a housekeeper (5). I hope that Margaret entered into this relationship willingly and was not taken advantage of but, as a single woman with a child, she must surely have been very vulnerable and short on options. Margaret and Thomas had two sons, Thomas Oats, and William Watts Oats, born in 1874 and 1876 respectively (6, 7). William's father is not recorded on his birth certificate, but in court proceedings in 1882 William is surnamed Oats. In 1881 Margaret Weir had another daughter, Mary Ada, whose father Joseph or Josephus Craig, another miner, was not named on her birth certificate (8), but was named in a newspaper item in June 1882 about a court appearance for failing to provide for his child (9). This relationship seems to have been very short-lived, perhaps only long enough to conceive a child. It seems that they came to an agreement, but less than 2 months later, Margaret appeared in the court section of the Thames newspaper again, asking for her young sons Thomas and William Oats to be brought up in the Thames Orphanage (10). The article described the boys as 'incorrigible youngsters' she could not control, nor afford to support, and to her 'immoral mode of living' which the Relieving Officer cited as the reason for his refusal to grant her charitable aid. He 'referred her to the men who had brought her into difficulties, and who should be made to support her.' The whereabouts of Thomas Oats was uncertain. By this time, the newspaper says, her daughter Maggie McGowan was 13 years old, and in service, living and working away from home. The boys were taken into the orphanage, leaving Margaret with only baby Mary Ada to provide for. In 1885, six years after the death of her husband back in Scotland, Margaret Weir married William Inns (11), a miner, and about 5 months later gave birth to a daughter, Helen (Nellie), and then the following year to a son, John Wilcox, before William's death in 1890 (12).

Margaret's children by William Inns: John Wilcox Inns and Nellie/Ellen Inns.

It doesn't appear that James McGowan had much to do with Margaret Weir during this time. I can't imagine that he could have been supporting Margaret and her children if she was claiming charitable aid and going to court to ask for assistance. I'm sure she would have done anything to avoid her personal business being made public, especially knowing how sensitive this side of my family were to 'shame' of any kind, so she must have been in dire straits. We have no way of knowing if James had contact with his daughter or if he provided any support for her, but I imagine he would have, at least until she was old enough to work. It seems to have been the expected thing and, back when he was a grocer, James McGowan had been reputed to be generous and helpful to people who were in difficulties (13).

One of Maggie's grandchildren, Beverley, believed that James had wanted to marry Margaret, and that Maggie had known that her father would have married her mother, had her mother been willing. Maggie felt that she had lived with the shame of her illegitimacy her whole life and that it wouldn't have made that much difference if her parents had married (14). She had been 8 years old when John McClearie died, and by that time had 2 younger brothers.

Did Margaret want to marry James? Perhaps she felt that she had "fallen" too far to be a wife to James, who was a well known grocer and was beginning to make a name for himself in local politics. It seems reasonable to assume that he would have been subject to a lot of gossip if he'd married Margaret and that it would have hurt his political career. Maybe not marrying James is actually proof that she cared for him enough to protect him from her bad reputation. It seems a little strange that she wouldn't have taken him up on his offer of marriage, had it been made, to save herself and her children from a very tough life. Many people I've spoken to have reminded me that single mothers at this time had very few options, so why wouldn't she have taken James up on his offer? It seems to me that marrying James would have greatly improved her life, and that of her children. So I really don't know.

Margaret (Maggie) McGowan and her daughters: Agnes, Florence, and
Margaret (seated), 1895.

Descendants down two lines, from Mary Ada, and from Maggie's daughter Agnes, believe that Margaret and James were in love and had an enduring connection, but there's simply no hard evidence to back that feeling up. The closest we come to evidence is an article about James in the Auckland Observer newspaper in 1907, written by 'The Aucklander Abroad' who says of his friend James McGowan:

'Popular man with the ladies, James, and yet he never married. Alas, another example of blighted early affection, and mistaken fidelity to the first love.' (15)

Perhaps it was Margaret who was that first love.

What we can prove, however, is that James McGowan set aside a generous inheritance of £150 for his daughter, by now married to Richard Sutcliffe with a family of her own. Unfortunately, he didn't state his relationship to her in the will, just naming her as 'Margaret Sutcliffe (nee McGowan, nee Weir)', but the document (16) is the most reliable proof we have that the 'James McGowan, labourer' listed as father on Maggie's birth certificate was indeed James McGowan, Mayor, MP, and Minister.

James left most of his property to his sister Elizabeth Browne. When she died the following year she left her property to be shared between her daughters, Bessie Jane Mogford, Lulu Cranswick, and Emily Simpson (17), but they subsequently decided that Maggie should have that part of her father's property which Elizabeth had left to them. They seem to have signed over to her two houses on three sections of land at the corner of Queen and Williamson Streets in Thames. Maggie and her husband Richard Sutcliffe moved their family into the larger of the houses and were able to let out the smaller cottage, improving their financial situation (18). There is no evidence that we have been able to find of contact between the Browne family and Maggie McGowan, but clearly the familial connection must have been known to them, to have been so generous towards the Sutcliffes. Williamson Street appears on documents as the family's address in the years following (19), and it was there that Maggie's daughter Agnes lived until she married the 'boy' across the street. It was there that my nana stayed with her grandparents during the lean years her parents experienced in the 1920s.

The property on Williamson St that James McGowan left to his sister Elizabeth,
which was subsequently passed to Margaret McGowan.
left: the big house after the flood 1917, right: late 1930s.

'Mother', as Margaret Weir was known to her grandchildren, passed away in 1913 at the age of about 69, of bowel cancer (20). This came a year after James McGowan's sudden death at age 72, recorded officially as 'syncope', which I understand to mean fainting dead away -- presumably a massive heart attack (21). James had asked his daughter Maggie to meet him some time before this, but as she was leaving Mother Margaret told her, 'You can't go to see him in that old hat', so she didn't go. Before she had another chance to meet James, Maggie's son Victor came home with the news that 'old man McGowan dropped dead in the dunny!' (22) which must have come as a terrible shock to his mother. I wonder if anyone ever told the lad that 'old man McGowan' was actually his grandfather.

In 1905, when he was Minister of Mines and Justice, The Hon. James McGowan opened the Carnegie Library which is now the home of The Treasury.


  • A great debt of gratitude is owed to the late B.G. (Beverley Glee) Smith who compiled all of her family history research into an unpublished book called 'Fresh Fields'. I obtained a copy from her daughter Sue, and a copy will be added to The Treasury collection. Wherever possible I have verified her information with primary sources, but much of the anecdotal material comes from her work, some of which was based on memories shared by her mother Agnes Sutcliffe, who was the last of Maggie's children to leave home.
  • Chris Sutcliffe, descendant of Mary Ada Inns, also provided links to evidence, photos, and thoughts about the nature of Margaret and James's relationship.


  1. Obituaries of James McGowan in NZ papers, including:
    HE DIES SUDDENLY FROM HEART FAILURE. The Colonist, Volume LIV, Issue 13411, 8 May 1912. On Paperspast.
    THE HON. JAMES McGOWAN. M.L.C., Press, Volume XLVIII, Issue 14349, 8 May 1912. On Paperspast.
  2. Fresh Fields, by B.G. Smith, p.27.
  3. Births (CR) New Zealand, Auckland. 5 May 1869. McGOWAN, Margaret. 1869/13545. NZ Births, Deaths and Marriages, printout.
  4. Marriages (CR) Scotland. Kilmarnock, Ayr. 20 Nov 1863. McCLEARIE, John and WEIR, Margaret. Statutory Marriages 597/00 0169. Accessed: 29 August 2016.
  5. Sutcliffe/Dabb family tree, on Ancestry.com.
  6. Births (CR) New Zealand, Shortland, Thames. 5 Apr 1874. OATS, Thomas. 1874/14638. NZ Births, Deaths and Marriages, printout.
  7. Births (CR) New Zealand, Thames. Waiotahi, Thames. 27 Jan 1876. WEIR, William. 1876/534. NZ Births, Deaths and Marriages, printout.
  8. Births (CR) New Zealand, Thames. 17 Nov 1881. McCLEARY, Mary. 1881/16093. NZ Births, Deaths and Marriages, printout.
  9. CABLE MESSAGES.,Thames Advertiser, Volume XIV, Issue 4341, 3 June 1882.
  10. POLICE COURT.-Yesterday.,Thames Advertiser, Volume XIV, Issue 4381, 25 July 1882 On Paperspast.
  11. Marriages (CR) New Zealand. Thames. 13 Jul 1885. McCLEARY, Margaret and INNS, William. 1885/2082. NZ Births, Deaths and Marriages, printout.
  12. Births (CR) New Zealand. INNS, Ellen: 1886/1422, INNS, John Wilcox: 1887/5266. NZ Births, Deaths and Marriages Online. (printouts not viewed),
  13. B.G. Smith, Fresh Fields, p34.
  14. B.G. Smith, Fresh Fields, p.28.
  15. The Aucklander Abroad. Observer, 2 December 1907, Supplement, page 12: A Christmas Soliloquy
  16. The will of James McGowan. New Zealand, Archives New Zealand, Probate Records, 1843-1998, database with images on FamilySearch 15 October 2015, Auckland Court Probate records 1912 P8486/12-P8518/12, image 28 of 395; Archives New Zealand, Auckland Regional Office.
  17. The Will of Elizabeth Browne. New Zealand, Archives New Zealand, Probate Records, 1843-1998," database with images, on FamilySearch. 27 April 2016), Hamilton Court Probate records 1912-1913 P252-P274, image 222 of 247; Archives New Zealand, Auckland Regional Office.
  18. B.G. Smith, Fresh Fields, p.60
  19. Evidence of Williamson St residence (on Maggie's son, Vic's military records) Military records. SUTCLIFFE, Richard James Albert Victor - WW1 90378 - Army R7822880. AABK, 18805, W553, 84/0110889, Archives New Zealand, National Office, Wellington. Accessed online: 29 August 2016.
  20. Deaths (CR), New Zealand, Thames. 2 Nov 1913. INNS, Margaret Elizabeth. 1913/8347. NZ Births, Deaths and Marriages, printout.
  21. Deaths (CR), New Zealand, Thames. 7 May 1912. McGOWAN, James. 1912/745. NZ Births, Deaths and Marriages, printout.
  22. B.G. Smith, Fresh Fields, p59.


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