Page 1: Biography
Homemaker, community leader
This biography, written by Charlotte Macdonald, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Ellen Silke was born in Ballandooley, County Galway, Ireland, probably some time between 1845 and 1847. She was the daughter of Bridget Cody and her husband, John Silke, who were smallholders. When Ellen Silke was about 12 or 13 years old an event occurred which was to alter the course of her life. According to the story she told her children and grandchildren, she was sitting at her spinning-wheel one evening in her parents' cottage when three young men came to the door. They brought their parents' greeting to the Silkes. At intervals the youngest of the three, John Crowe, who was about 12 years older than Ellen, would say to John Silke, 'What a beautiful daughter you have. I should like to marry her.' The reply was 'She is too young for such a thing to be thought of.' But before he left, the young man's persistence had been rewarded. Ellen's father agreed that he was a suitable match, and she was promised to him. She was not consulted. When Ellen was 18 or 19 Ned Crowe, John's brother, visited their cottage to tell them that John had gone to New Zealand and would send for Ellen.
Not long afterwards, Ellen Silke left her home to emigrate to New Zealand. She was one of several hundred single women from Ireland who received free passages to New Zealand in the late 1860s under a Canterbury provincial government immigration scheme. With Catherine Francis and Mary Broderick, also from Galway, she sailed from London on the Bombay, arriving at Lyttelton on 18 August 1866.
Where Ellen Silke lived and worked in her first 18 months in New Zealand is not known. She is likely to have gone to a position in service. On 24 February 1868 she married John Crowe in the Catholic church in Christchurch.
After their marriage, Ellen and John Crowe lived at Milford, near Temuka. Several of their nine children were born there, including Winifred, Ellen's only daughter. Like many Irish settlers, Ellen Crowe quickly encouraged other family members to join her in New Zealand. She nominated a passage for her younger sister, Mary, who landed at Lyttelton on the Charlotte Gladstone in 1871. Three years later Ellen's mother, Bridget, by now a widow, and the three younger boys in the family, John, Martin and William, sailed to Lyttelton on the Apelles. Another brother, Patrick, followed two years later.
In 1882 Ellen and John Crowe moved from Temuka to Southland, where Ellen's sister, Mary, and her husband, James Kean, were already settled, and acquired a farm property. The land was low-lying and forested and the farm was established only after much clearing, stumping and drain-ploughing. Ellen's brothers also took up farms in the district.
The Silke families were part of the Irish Catholic enclave within Southland's predominantly Scots Presbyterian population. These Irish settlers were bound together by their fierce loyalty, rigid faith and common struggle against adversity. Ellen Crowe was a central figure in her small community. The strength of her personality was evident both in her affections and in her rivalries. She had a reputation throughout the area for kindness and hospitality. As she was unable to read or write, Ellen Crowe kept in contact with friends and relatives by dictating letters to her children and grandchildren. After her husband died in 1914 she lived with her children. She died at her daughter's home in Ōtautau on 24 January 1930.