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Introduction to Missionaries, Wives and Roses


 “I am offering a number of new rambler roses which are summer flowering followed by a display of hips which add colour in the late summer to late autumn and provide a useful source of food to our bird population. Instead of identifying them by numbers I have distinguished them by names, taking the opportunity to honour the memory of pioneer women who might otherwise be forgotten.”  
— Ken Nobbs, missionary, nurseryman, rose breeder and writerHelp google and blind readers

It could be argued that women shouldered a greater burden in the name of the Lord than their husbands. They coped with running a home, child bearing, educating and nursing their children and others, as well as ministering when they could. That they did all that in a strange land with strange language, climate, flora, fauna and indigenous inhabitants is a wondrous testament to their fortitude and loyalty.

They coped with outbreaks of disease (whooping cough carried off many of their children), wars between tribes and warfare between missionaries. They were often alone - missionary widows as their husbands travelled widely attending to their work. Duty was paramount and the phrase ‘firmed the will and straightened the back’  has been frequently used to describe their response to their many travails. Interestingly social standing was very important to these women, who would work together when they could, but often appeared intolerant of transgressions. Our country has been served well by their stoicism, determination and faith.

The Church Missionary Society offered the following opinion about the role of the missionary wife
“The primary office of a missionary wife is that of being a helpmeet to her husband. Her life is merged with  his, and both together stand as one to set forward the work of the Lord. This has first to be done within the home, then in sharing and aiding in her husband’s sphere of labour, and beyond that in taking up such further services for the Master as time and strength allows.” Sarah Fairburn  Jane Tomes from the Fairburn family achieves

This book is a double celebration, of the early missionaries, settlers and their wives, and of New Zealander Ken Nobbs who honoured them in his roses. Some of the roses are not named for missionaries or wives, but are simply contemporaneous with the early missionaries, or are named for later settlers. Their stories are all integral to our history.

Over ten years ago Joanne and Norman Knight of Kauri Creek Nursery, Katikati, set about mission impossible when they tried to rescue Nobbs’ roses from extinction. Some were rescued and are available in specialised old rose nurseries, others found their way into rose enthusiasts’ gardens and others are long forgotten, languishing un-named in hedgerows, fields and gardens . Help google and blind readers

In the summer of 2011 I went to the far north to walk in the footsteps of those intrepid missionary/settler women. I wanted to get some sense of the context of their lives, and gather pictures of them and the roses. I found rich plantings of Ken’s roses in gardens in the far north and in his home town of Te Kauwhata displayed along roadway fences. Most were unnamed and it has been a puzzle to read his breeding notes and try to put a name to the picture. Sometimes it was clear, other times I have made an educated guess.


Enjoy this alternative and sweetly scented history.

Ann Chapman