It is the start of the second week of June 1919 and New Zealand’s Prime Minister, William Massey and the Minister of Finance, Sir Joseph Ward, are in Paris awaiting the signing of the Peace Treaty with Germany.
Back home in Christchurch, at the corner of Colombo and Strickland Streets in Beckenham, Rosa Harris’ grocery shop is much like many others scattered throughout Christchurch in the early part of the 1900s.
Rosa, a hard working, efficient but friendly woman, stands behind the counter. She wears a telephone headset over her dark hair, ready to take orders from anyone who telephones 2303. She pauses whilst filling an order for a fashionable customer in a fur stole, just long enough for photographer Steffano Webb to take this photo. At the opposite end of the counter another customer – a working class man with a heavy moustache, his sleeves rolled up – waits to make his purchase of tinned Highlander Condensed Milk from Rosa’s assistant.
A Balancing Act for Success
The dark rings under Rosa’s eyes suggest many hours working behind the counter as well as late nights balancing business and family life. At the age of 41, Rosa has spent the last four years working hard to bring the family business back from the brink of bankruptcy whilst adjusting to life without her husband and father of her two children, now aged 13 and 15.
And she has been successful as the photograph shows.
The shelves are packed from floor to ceiling with the latest food items and essentials. All the product labels have been neatly arranged to face forward on the shelf.
Lining the shelves are Lifebuoy and Sunlight Soap, Colman’s Mustard, Old Dutch Cleanser, bottles of Lea & Perrins, tins of fish, preserved fruit, vegetables and corned beef, shaving brushes for 6d each, large tins of Aulsebrooks biscuits, Shear’s Digestive Rusks, Fairy Cakes, Ajax, malt vinegar, Leslie Salt, Cerebos, Rex Luncheon Cheese, Ambertips Tea, Oak, Bensdorp Cocoa, Radium Polishes, Oatina Rolled Oats, Roma and Bell Teas, Irish Moss, Syrup of Figs, Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, Semolina, Tapioca, Arrowroot, Rice, Bird’s Custard, Bournville Cocoa… and lots more.
The War Is Over
As Rosa pauses for the photograph, elsewhere in Christchurch mothers and wives, with men serving overseas, anxiously await their return.
On board the troopship ‘Maunganui‘, due in Port Chalmers in late June, are 1,128 soldiers, mainly from the South Island. At 34 Carlyle Street, Sydenham, Mrs Louisa Cox has just received word that her 25 year old son, Harold is on board. Prior to his enlistment in the 9th Reinforcements, Sapper Cox had worked as a French furniture polisher and been part of the staff at Christchurch’s Central Fire Station.
Mrs Lydia Green at number 26 Elgin Street, Sydenham, has also received word that her eldest son, Private Alfred Green, is on board the same ship. Her second son William, is also serving in the army as a driver, and son-in-law, Rifleman Wilfred Woodham was wounded in June 1917. Lydia’s husband, Henry, lived long enough to witness the armistice in 1918 but not long enough to see his sons’ return, passing away just before the New Year.
On the same ship is Gunner Robert Mercer, returning home to Annie, his wife of four years at number 358 Selwyn Street. They had been married only two years before Robert embarked for England as a member of the 32nd Reinforcements.
Playing Tonight at the Sydenham Pictures
For those seeking a respite from the worrying and waiting, Will Rogers’ first silent film “Laughing Bill Hyde” is playing this week at the Sydenham Pictures. It’s a tale of an escaped convict with a conscience, who takes up the cause of a beautiful ‘half-breed’ who is being cheated out of her share of a gold mine. Filmed the previous year, its leading actor is Native American cowboy/comedian, Will Rogers, of the Ziegfeld Follies.
But Rosa isn’t waiting for the return of a husband or son. Her children are still too young to have fought and her husband was not alive to have joined the war fervour that swept New Zealand four years earlier.
Rosa May Barnes – Tailoress
Lyttelton born, Rosa Barnes is the daughter of English immigrants who arrived in New Zealand in June 1874. The family went through many trials as early settlers, including the loss of two of their three small children only four days after arrival, from whooping cough contracted during the voyage to New Zealand.
The family moved around a lot in order to find work for Rosa’s father, James, who was a joiner and builder. They moved to Christchurch in 1898, living in Manchester Street, and James continued working in his trade. As a long standing member of the Christchurch Musical Society and the Cathedral Choir, he became well known as a singer and conductor. His musical genes were passed on to his grandson Walter, who, as a lad of nine, gained a choir scholarship to attend Christ’s College Grammar School in 1912.
Rosa worked as a tailoress before marrying Benjamin Walter Harris, a land agent born in Akaroa in 1878. The couple married on 12th March 1903, at the Church of St. Matthew’s in St Albans. A little over six months later their first child, Walter Benjamin, was born. A daughter named Lilian May arrived three years later in 1906.
Benjamin Walter Harris – a troubled man
Benjamin continued to work as a land agent and ran the small family grocery store, which they called ‘The Brick Store”, selling ‘all goods at town prices.’
But by 1914 business was not going well.
Wracked with worry over the business’ finances and concerned he would need to call a meeting of creditors, Benjamin had not been sleeping or eating well, and was keeping his worry very much to himself.
On the night of 24th April, Rosa retired to bed at 11.50 pm, leaving Benjamin to his Friday night stocktaking in the shop. When Rosa awoke the following morning at 6 am, Benjamin was not in bed, nor could she find him anywhere in the house or shop. After noticing a light burning in the storeroom, she went in to find her husband’s lifeless body hanging by a rope from the ceiling.
She immediately went for the doctor and for the help of a family friend, Alfred Napier, who lived around the corner in Baretta Street. Alfred was an engine driver for the Sydenham Borough, and Benjamin’s friend of 12 years. To him fell the task of retrieving his friend’s body, in the process discovering a length of small clothes-line wrapped several times around his neck.
The following years would challenge Rosa’s strength of character. As the country was dragged into the First World War, Rosa wasn’t the only woman to face an uncertain future without a husband and father for her children. Thrust into an unexpected role by the suicide of her husband, Rosa became one of countless women who found the strength to deal with the absence and sometimes permanent loss of their men folk during a time of war.
The Brick Store at 147 Colombo Street
By 1919 Rosa’s shop is a success and as we can seen, the shelves are packed from floor to ceiling with the latest food items and essentials.
Outside the shop, the path is swept clean even though the brickwork has been graffitied and painted over with advertisements for Sunlight and Lifebuoy Soap. The verandah is emblazoned with signage for the popular tea of the day, Moates Tea.
On the Colombo street side of the store, a poster featuring the distinctive figure of Will Rogers, in his lead role as Laughing Bill Hyde, advertises the show at “Sydenham Pictures To-night!“.
Metal kitchenware clutters the window on the Strickland street side of the shop, not frequented enough by potential customers to warrant special attention. The main window, facing onto Colombo Street shows more care, with an arrangement of canned and boxed goods to attract passing shoppers.
Rosa the Business Woman
Although Rosa herself is not waiting the return of anyone from Europe, alongside hanks of home spun wool and hand knits to keep out the winter chills, Union Jack flags are on sale to help celebrate the Allied victory and the return of Christchurch sons and fathers.
A remnant of her husband’s tenure remains on a sign advertising ‘B W Harris‘ as agent for Brown’s Highbury Laundry – this business was set up by Mrs Ellen Brown, at 65 Armagh Street, as far back as 1891. It had grown into a large and successful entity, with a board of directors and a Crown contract to wash military blankets during WWI.
However it is the main sign, crowning the shop, which advertises in large letters that Rosa is now in charge!
- Photographer: Steffano Web. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, ID: 1/1-007488-G
- Will of Benjamin Harris. Archives New Zealand, Christchurch.
- Photographer: Steffano Webb. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library, ID: 1/1-007487-G
- Papers Past: NZ Truth, 7 June 1919, Page 2 Advertisements; Evening Post, 6 June 1928, Personal Matters; Press, 27 April 1914, Casualties
- Christchurch City Libraries:The Star, Tuesday, June 10, 1918; The Star, Monday, April 27, 1914; Christchurch Cemeteries Database
- Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand
- The Will and Probate of Benjamin Harris. Archives New Zealand
Christchurch Electoral Rolls.
- Rootsweb Ansley New Zealand Family Tree