By Helen Solomons
Mortimer Cashman Corliss was a true Victorian patriarch, gentleman and government servant who lived in Christchurch for most of his adult life, contributing to the city’s development in communication.
This ‘gent’ was my great grandfather, and was also the eldest son of Mortimer Corliss, a veteran of the New Zealand Wars and Hannah Cashman. Born in the Artillery Barracks in Woolich, London in 1852, he was two years old when his father received orders to sail on the Polar Star to New Zealand.
During a ferocious hurricane in the mid-Atlantic Ocean, a fire broke out in the bowels of the ship. Periously close to being engulfed in flames, Sergeant Mortimer Corliss senior with the other soldiers helped the captain and crew to rig up a water pump through the decks below which temporarily kept the fire at bay. For three days, the one hundred passengers huddled in the cold and rain on deck with no food and water. As darkness fell on their third night, they knew their desparate attempts to keep the fire at bay were useless.
However, as the fire encroached and the deck’s asphalt began to melt, a lone passing ship was sighted on the horizon. Three emergency flares were let off but the ship disappeared and they thought all was lost. However after half an hour, this ship turned and came back to make the most miraculous rescue.
Great suffering followed in the attempt to get the one hundred survivors off the burning ship onto a gauno carrier and back to the safety of land. With nothing to their names, hardly any food or water to go around, the rescuers sailed for over two weeks to the island of St. Helena. They were welcomed warmly by the islanders and managed to eventually sail back to England, eight months later. They were faced with beginning their voyage to New Zealand all over again, about one month later. This time the trip was less eventual. They arrived in the Colony on Christmas Day 1856, and received orders to sail to the garrison at Wanganui.
Living in a garrison later called the rookery, the young Mortimer remembered the attacks on the town by Hau Hau warriors. The family had to be evacuated for safety to Nelson and Auckland on several occassions. After the unrest, Mortimer’s father retired from the army and the family went to live in Wellington and Soames Island during which time Mortimer and his siblings attended secondary school.
After being accepted into a promising cadetship with the Telegraph Department in Dunedin in 1870, Mortimer moved from Wellington to the burgeoning southern city where his brother, Paul was already working for the Stamps (Tax) Department as well as his sister, Mary who had married a well known hotelier.
Mortimer met and married a young woman called Ellen Frances Noonan in 1877. She was a renowned beauty and had emigrated with her family to Dunedin, New Zealand from County Sligo c. 1865. The young couple were soon the proud parents of two little girls, who came in quick succession; Beatrice and Florence.
Mortimer rose through the ranks and in 1881 was promoted to an extremely important position as Head Telegraphist at the newly completed Telegraph and Post Exchange in Cathedral Square.
He and his wife and two little girls moved to a pretty wooden villa with a iron lacework framed verandah on North Belt, just two doors down from Carlton Place (later Stoneyhurst Street). Two more little daughters, called Ellen and Alice, soon followed to make the family, four girls under the age of five.
Life was good for Mortimer and Ellen. With his position in the Square, Mortimer would set off every morning immaculately dressed in a black suit and tie, white shirt bowler hat and walking cane in hand. The older girls were sent to a small private girls’ school in Merivale where they learnt writing, matriculation, French and embroidery.
Tragically their world was turned upside down when the family’s happiness was cruelly marred by the sudden death of Ellen. She had given birth to their fifth child – a son – to much jubilation. But within a day or so, peurpheral fever set in, and in those days there was no antibiotic to treat her infection. Irish Doctor Doyle of Armagh Street had been attending her confinement and it may be said that often, the fever was caused by the doctor’s unsterlised instruments.
Within a day of the birth notice being published in the Lyttelton Times, another notice in the deaths column announced Ellen’s passing with much regret.
Friends were invited to leave the house to accompany the hearse to the Pro-Cathedral on Barbadoes Street. This young mother was buried in the Catholic Section of the Barbadoes Street Cemetery and her widowed mother, Bridget, lived with them to care for her five young grandchildren.
Mortimer continued stoically in his position at the Telegraph Exchange. In those days, it was not uncommon to lose your wife through childbirth or illness.
Seven years later, Mortimer met and married Elizabeth Cronin of Addington. The Corliss’s moved to live closer to her family in Addington. Elizabeth bore Mortimer another seven children. Sadly, his first oldest daughter went to live with her godmother, Aunt Margaret (the sister of Ellen) at the General Store in St. Bathans. His youngest daughter, Alice developed goitre at the age of thirteen. The thyroid was so obstructive it had to be removed but tragically, she died during the operation at Christchurch Hospital. She was laid to rest with her mother, who had past away when she was just one year old, in the Barbadoes Street Cemetery.
Mortimer received a good promotion as Superintendent of the Wanganui Telegraph Exchange in 1907. The family moved to a home on St. John’s Hill overlooking the town where his second famly grew up to adulthood. The older children from first marriage remained in Christchurch (see Telegraph Girls to read about his daughter, Ellen’s life).
Mortimer came from an illustrious colonial family whose members held important government positions. Like many governmental servants, he was portrayed in The Truth as was his brother, Paul Corliss, who was head of the Stamps Department.
During WWI, and with three sons away fighting, Mortimer became ill. He was forced to retire and after a brief illness, died in Wanganui Hospital at the age of 67 years.
Whenever I look upon the Post and Telegraph Exchange in the Square or drive past Barbadoes Street Cemetery, I am reminded of this young couple in their twenties who enjoyed their life in the elegant and beautiful Victorian city. Their story offers an insight into what went on within the walls and streets of this city. Although there was much progress, the joy and tragedy real people experienced are the realities that we prefer to hear as they are so poignant and interesting.
Since the devastating earthquakes, it will be much harder to imagine the ‘old world’ and the people who lived in our lost Victorian central city, so its vital to have these stories written down.
- Photograph taken by Frank J Denton. Corliss family. Tesla Studios :Negatives of Wanganui and district taken by Alfred Martin, Frank Denton and Mark Lampe (Tesla Studios). Ref: 1/1-016626-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
- Source: Alexander Turnbull Collection, N.Z. Truth