Mary Maddox was born in England on 14 May 1827, at Much Marcle, near Ledbury, Herefordshire. She was the daughter of Richard Maddox, a shoemaker who later became an accountant or canal company clerk, and his wife, Priscilla Bowket, a former domestic servant. A skilled dressmaker, and a devout Methodist like her parents, Mary Maddox married Charles Hames, a tailor turned Wesleyan school teacher, in the Anglican parish church at Ledbury on Christmas Day 1851. They migrated to New Zealand on the Ironsides, disembarking in Auckland on 25 August 1864. Four sons accompanied them and two daughters were born on their bush farm three miles inland from the head of Pahi River, north-east Kaipara.
The Hames were members of the nonconformist settlement called Albertland, but they came independently; most of the settlers had sailed on three special ships in 1862. Although religious conviction had attracted many to the scheme, on 70,000 acres on the shores of the Kaipara Harbour, the offer of free land was also a strong lure; most of the 3,000 Albertlanders remained in Auckland when they learned that their 40 acre grants were on worthless land. Of those who sighted their allotments fewer than 300 stayed to tackle the bush. The Hames family were among the least well equipped to face this task. The boys, 1, 5, 8 and 11 years old, were not robust; the father was frail, inept in practical matters and handicapped by deafness that had forced him to give up teaching. That the family ventured north, occupied their land – and succeeded – was due in large measure to the energy, resourcefulness and determination of Mary Hames.
When the family set out on foot in winter mud on the bullock track from Riverhead to Helensville, Mary Hames carrying an infant son, the five-year-old with iron callipers on his legs and the older boys struggling with canvas bags, Charles Hames was not unaware of the new chum figure he cut. He later recalled: 'I looked so unlike a back-settler with black cloth coat on, and a chimney pot hat on, …we must have looked a very queer party, likely to provoke pity or laughter.' But Mary, formerly careful to keep up appearances (her sons had always worn gloves) and so inhibited that she used to cross the street rather than meet her fiancé in public, simply stepped behind a bush and cast off her crinoline – permanently.
After a 33 day journey the family reached their destination, only to begin clearing timber on the wrong allotment. They finally built a nikau whare on the correct site but rain leaked on the earth floor and when extra fronds were added the roof began to collapse. About this time Charles suggested they return to Auckland. 'No,' said Mary, 'we've come this far and we'd better stick to it,' a determination fuelled by desire to shield her children from contact with earthy citizens whose conduct had shocked her on board ship and in town. She took one end of the crosscut saw and an acre of light bush was cleared in a year. She made rough porridge and bread – the staple diet for many months – from coarsely ground maize, and contrived 'coffee' by crushing roasted turnips to a powder. Lengthy prayers were said before and after meals, the interval between often being very short.
The family survived only because the mother periodically sought dressmaking and domestic work in Auckland. She returned from these solo expeditions with provisions, tools and other necessities, once earning enough to buy a cow. On one visit the sailboat was becalmed and drifted out through Kaipara Heads, fortunately returning with the change in tide. Twice she was overtaken by darkness on the 30 mile overland trek from Mangawhai and spent the night in the bush. The farm was so isolated that her husband was midwife when the first daughter was born, and the next year neighbours came five miles to set his leg when it was broken by a falling branch. A year later one of the boys set his broken arm. Whatever the difficulties or disasters, Mary Hames's comment was always, 'What a blessing it is no worse.'
The in-calf cow brought a change in fortunes. Despite her husband's opposition Mary Hames made butter and cheese for sale, and as the herd grew, joined in an attempt to export to Australia. A wick in a jar of unsalted butter brought lamplight for the evening lessons both parents gave the children. Twelve years on there was grass to spare for horses: at last the family could join in community, especially church, affairs at Paparoa, the nearest town.
Mary Hames cared for her husband when he became blind in old age and, making her opinions very clear to her daughters-in-law, presided over an extended family that on her death farmed 1,000 acres of rolling pastures she had done so much to develop. After Charles Hames died in 1906, Mary Hames went to live with a daughter in Russell, where she died, aged 91, on 3 April 1919. Today the family farms almost 4,000 acres.