When Wanganui High School teacher Tony Woodbury told his seventh form class they would study New Zealand history that year, Catherine Bishop remembers that the whole class groaned.

But Mr Woodbury won her over. He took the class for a field trip through Taranaki, visiting Tawhiti Museum and marae, and she was gripped by the province's colourful history. She went on to study history at Victoria University. She did a masters degree in Australia and lived in England for eight years. Now she's a historian with a PhD and lives in Sydney with her partner and two children.

She works in teaching and research across three universities, but has had time to turn her PhD thesis about colonial businesswomen into a book.

Minding Her Own Business: Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney was published by NewSouth Publishing and launched in Sydney in October. Dr Bishop is pleased she now has a chance to talk about it in her home town, at Paige's Book Gallery.


She chose colonial women as her subject because gender and race always "pop out" for her when she reads historic accounts. She'll ask what the women were doing, and says that has always produced a new slant on a usual story. Her book is a collection of "nice popular" stories, with photographs of buildings and people. It's not an academic tome and Dr Bishop's mother, Janet, who lives in Whanganui, loved it.

Some of the businesswomen are milliners, dressmakers and the owners of boarding houses - usual occupations for the time. Others have shadier pursuits: one is a clairvoyant physician who diagnoses illnesses from a distance for a pound, another runs a successful plumbing business.

There are cab owners, ironmongers, pawnbrokers, an umbrella maker and lots of publicans.

"They had such a lot to contend with. Most of them were not educated well, and they were told the domestic life was what they should be doing. But in reality to survive they had to earn money. They had to have something," she said.

- The book event is at 5pm tomorrow with wine and nibbles, and 10 per cent of proceeds will be donated to the Whanganui Women's Network. RSVP to Paige's Book Gallery, 348 9095.