Page 1: Biography
Burgess, Georgina Jane
Hotel-keeper, midwife, postmistress
This biography, written by Noel Crawford, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Georgina Jane Gilbert was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, probably some time between 1836 and 1841, to Jane Currie and her husband, James Gilbert, a tailor. The family emigrated to New Zealand about 1844.
On 22 November 1858 Georgina married John Burgess at Kaiapoi in North Canterbury. From the record of the marriage it is evident that Georgina could write but her husband could not. Two years later John was a bullock driver, serving runs in the Mackenzie Country. It had been only four years since the start of runholding in this area.
Burke Pass was a corridor through which most travellers to and from the Mackenzie Country passed. James Noonan was granted a licence for a hotel at the foot of the pass in 1861, but he was drowned in the nearby Tengawai River before he could open his hotel. Later that year John and Georgina Burgess took over the hotel, around which grew the village of Burke Pass. Until the railway terminus was established further down country at Fairlie, Burke Pass was the main settlement in the Mackenzie Country.
Georgina Burgess had two children when she arrived at the Burke Pass hotel. She eventually had six children: five boys and a girl. Her busy life at the isolated hotel rarely enabled her and her family to travel to the civilisation of larger towns. Thus her children had limited contact with the outside world; initially they met only the men who called at the hotel. When her oldest child first saw a woman alighting from a dray outside the hotel he at once ran to his mother saying, 'Mother, mother, there is a man out here with your clothes on!'
Georgina Burgess was responsible for cooking and housekeeping at the hotel. As many as 30 bullock drivers in a day were supplied with meals by her. She was a popular and capable woman and the hotel soon became the focal point of the community. The busiest day of the year was the annual meeting of the Mackenzie Caledonian Society, when locals and competitors from afar gathered for sports on the green in front of the hotel.
In addition to her other practical skills, Georgina Burgess was a highly skilled midwife, and in this capacity she travelled considerable distances. In 1869 a woman at Haldon station became very ill during labour. Late at night the station owner 'drove to Pass for Mrs Burgess', under whose care the mother and baby were soon well. She also occasionally took the place of a doctor in cases of sickness or accident.
The Burgess family, who belonged to the Church of England, appear to have recognised the importance of religious observance in creating a sense of community. In 1871 John Burgess donated a piece of land near the hotel for a church. On it the interdenominational St Patrick's Church was opened in 1872.
In 1868 the first post office at Burke Pass opened. John Burgess was appointed part-time postmaster in that year; he may have held the position until 1878. It is likely that Georgina Burgess assisted him in his duties. He was reappointed in April 1884 and resigned in October 1885. During this period he also took responsibility for mail contracts between Albury and Burke Pass. He died at Burke Pass on 10 September 1887 at the age of 47, after a lengthy illness.
Georgina Burgess remained at Burke Pass and between January 1890 and October 1894 she was part-time postmistress there, on a salary of £11 a year. She died on 10 January 1904 at her daughter's home at Cricklewood, near Fairlie. Both she and her husband are buried in the Burke Pass cemetery.