In 1957, Miss Meta Harrison bequeathed a collection of clothing and accessories to the Whanganui Regional Museum.
Miss Harrison lived at 89 Wicksteed St, just opposite the back of the current museum building. The small trip that the clothing made across the road from the Harrison's house started another chapter in their very long history, which is entwined with the history of Whanganui and Fordell.
The first dress is a regency style, empire line, silk gown. It is handmade, as sewing machines were not invented at the time.
It was very likely made for a Henrietta Peterson. Henrietta was born on 25 August 1809 in Wakefield, Yorkshire, England. At the age of 21, on 10 February 1831, at the All Saints church in Wakefield, she married Henry Shafto Harrison, probably wearing this dress.
Henry Shafto Harrison, who was listed as a gentleman on his children's baptismal certificates, was one of the original purchasers of the ballots of land in Whanganui offered by the New Zealand Company.
The dress, Henry Shafto, Henrietta and three of their children arrived in New Zealand in April 1840. Henrietta and the children stayed in Wellington while Henry walked to Whanganui to inspect his purchase. He found that the land he had purchased included a lake, which he named "Virginia Waters".
By 1844, the Harrison family had moved to Whanganui and built a house at Rotokawau. During the 1847 disturbances with local Māori, the Harrisons were ordered into town by the militia, which then burnt their house down so it could not be used as a strategic position by toa Māori (warriors). The Harrisons never rebuilt at Rotokawau. Henry sent his family to Lower Hutt and his only surviving son Henry Nevinson, at the time, to school in England. Henrietta never returned to Whanganui. She became very ill and died in Lower Hutt on 14 April 1853 at the age of 43.
The rest of the Harrisons, however, did return to Whanganui. In 1855, Henry remarried. His wife, Christina Kate Fletcher, was known as Kate. In the same year, he purchased 3647 acres of land, which he called Warrengate Hill (after the ancestral home of Henrietta). Part of the farm, when the No 2 Line road was put through, was sold by Henry for sections to make the Warrengate Village, which was later renamed Fordell. In 1856, Henry Nevison Harrison returned from his school in England to assist his father with breaking in the farmland. In 1858, the farm's homestead caught on fire when only Kate was home. She suffered burns but survived. A new homestead was built, and life continued for the Harrisons.
When Henry Shafto gave up farming, the farm was broken up into smaller lots for each of his children. He and Kate moved into Wicksteed St in Whanganui.
Henry Shafto Harrison is remembered as the first president of the Wanganui Jockey Club, a position he held from 1864 until his death in 1892. He was also the founder of Fordell, he named Virginia Lake and Harrison St was named for him.
The second dress is made of watered silk. Louisa Maria Ross, born on 6 March 1844 in Wellington, probably wore this dress when she married Henry Nevison Harrison on 23 January 1867. Together Henry and Louisa had nine children between 1868 and 1884, farming at One Tree Hill on Warrengate Rd, part of what was the Warrengate Hill farm, where they bred horses. Henry followed in his father's footsteps and became Stewart for the Wanganui Jockey Club. In later life, he was patron of the club. Like her mother-in-law, Louisa did not make old bones and died at aged 41 on 26 December 1885.
Meta Harrison was the fifth child of Louisa and Henry Nevison. She was born on 24 November 1875 in Whanganui and was only 10 when her mother died. After attending boarding school, Meta lived with her father and looked after his household. He later sold his farm and moved into Wicksteed St. Henry Nevison died in1922, aged 84. Meta continued to live in the house and care for these beautiful dresses until her death on 7 April 1957. The house no longer remains as it was demolished and replaced by the large concrete Departmental Building in 1981. The legacy of the Harrison family, however, remains in Whanganui.
• Trish Nugent-Lyne is the collection manager at the Whanganui Regional Museum.