Page 1: Biography
Founding mother, community leader
This biography, written by Graham M. Miller and John M. Park, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
According to family information, Jane McIlraith was born at Auchenflower, Ayrshire, Scotland, on 21 April 1823, the eldest child of Agnes Caldwell and her husband, James McIlraith. Auchenflower, 'field of flowers', lay in the valley of the river Stinchar. The McIlraith family had farmed there for 400 years. There were five other children, two of them dying young. When Jane was nine, her mother died. Her father later remarried and four more sons were born. Jane went at the age of six to the local school, then at twelve to a school at Laggan, two miles away. Finally she attended an institution for the education of young ladies in Edinburgh, boarding with the 'lady principal'.
It was at a picnic at Knockdolian, near Auchenflower, that Jane first met John Deans, her future husband, and his brother William. When John decided to take up farming as a career, his father arranged that he should live in the household of James McIlraith, who owned Auchenflower farm and two other properties. In later life Jane admitted that she did not approve of this arrangement and resolved to hate the boarder. However, Jane and John formed a close attachment, and Jane recalled the two years of John's stay as the happiest of her life. They did not become engaged, as Jane felt she could not agree to marry a man living under the same roof. John left the farm in September 1841 to study farming elsewhere. Early in 1842 he followed his brother William to New Zealand. Jane was not to see him for 10 years.
John intended to farm at Nelson but soon, with William, took up land on the Port Cooper Plains, later Canterbury Plains. It seems that Jane did not correspond with John, but in July 1850 he received permission from her father to marry her. Jane refused to sail to New Zealand for her marriage, and apparently declined a suggestion that she might travel under the escort of the bishop designate, the Reverend Thomas Jackson. John, therefore, a few months after the loss of his brother William at sea, prepared to return to Scotland, sailing from Wellington on 1 January 1852. The wedding took place on 15 September of that year at Riccarton, Ayrshire, Scotland. Time was found to have separate portraits of Jane and John painted before they sailed on 12 October on board the Minerva, arriving at Lyttelton on 2 February 1853.
Jane was already pregnant when she arrived to live in the farm cottage, which still stands today. Here her only child, John, was born on 6 August 1853. The baby was baptised in October at a service conducted in a carpenter's workshop by a visiting Scots Presbyterian minister, the Reverend John Moir. Jane recalled later that she trembled for her baby in the arms of her husband, who was by then very ill. John Deans senior had caught a chill crossing the Panama isthmus on his way to Scotland, and later developed tuberculosis. He died in Jane's arms on 23 June 1854.
Jane Deans was left alone in a new land with her baby son. For some months John had discussed with Jane what she might do after his death. She could have returned to Scotland had she wished, but she did not. She was one of the three trustees of the estate of the infant John, and made the welfare of the child and the management of the estate until his majority in 1874 her main concerns.
Three of her half-brothers, James, Hugh and George McIlraith, came out in 1856 to assist her, and her cousin Douglas Graham managed the Riccarton farm from June 1854. Within the 10 acres set apart for her at Riccarton under the terms of her husband's will, she made a fine avenue of trees, many of which remain. John Deans senior's wish for the preservation of the native bush was faithfully observed by Jane Deans and successive generations.
Jane Deans was active in promoting the establishment of a 'Scotch Church', which was called St Andrew's and opened in February 1857. She also helped in the formation of a Presbyterian academy within the parish and supported the acquisition of land for a Presbyterian cemetery. Throughout her life she was a staunch member of the Presbyterian community.
Jane Deans's son John predeceased her in 1902. He had married Catherine Park in 1879 and from this union there were 12 children, of whom 9 survived to adulthood. It was to these grandchildren that Jane addressed her memoirs, first published privately in 1923. Jane Deans died at Riccarton on 19 January 1911, a remarkable survivor from early Canterbury and a faithful servant of her family's interests throughout her life.