Page 1: Biography
Hospital matron, servants’ home matron, dressmaker
This biography, written by Jo-Anne Smith, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990. It was updated in January, 2012.
Harriott Overton was born in England, probably in 1821 or 1822, the daughter of Thomas Overton, a labourer. Her mother's name is not recorded and nothing is known of her early life. On 24 December 1839, at Leamington, Warwickshire, she married Joseph Simpson, a smith. They had one child, Elizabeth, born in 1841 or 1842.
On 16 December 1850 Harriott, Joseph and Elizabeth Simpson arrived at Lyttelton, New Zealand, on the Charlotte Jane as assisted immigrants. In the early 1850s Joseph Simpson was attracted to the goldrush in Australia. He left Harriott and Elizabeth behind in Lyttelton. What became of him is not known. It is presumed that he died in Australia, for Harriott Simpson later described herself as a widow.
Harriott Simpson was left to support herself and her daughter. In December 1856 she was appointed matron of Lyttelton hospital, on a salary of £75 a year. She was responsible not only for nursing the patients but also for cooking and cleaning, with the assistance of only one servant. The hospital usually housed about 14 patients. The building had earlier been damaged by fire and was subject to overcrowding. At one stage, in September 1861, patients were accommodated on the hall floor and Harriott Simpson and one of the patients slept in the kitchen. In July 1860 she took charge of four children who had been orphaned and were living at the hospital. This placed an extra burden on her slim resources.
Harriott Simpson remained matron at Lyttelton hospital until February 1862. On 17 March 1862, at Lyttelton, she married David Ritchie, a ship's captain. With her husband at sea for long periods, Harriott Ritchie was often on her own.
In mid 1863 Maria Rye, the founder of the Female Middle Class Emigration Society, came to Canterbury and spoke publicly of the need for a servants' registry. An inaugural committee of Canterbury women met in June to establish a servants' home. Harriott Ritchie was appointed matron of the Christchurch Female Home, which opened in Worcester Street on 25 January 1864. She was paid a salary of £100 a year. The home both functioned as a registry office for female servants and provided accommodation for them. In 1865 a total of 208 women stayed at the home. Applications for servants, however, far exceeded supply. The home also took lying-in cases from the country, and invalids, and ran a needlework service to provide work for the women and to raise funds.
Harriott Ritchie was described as indefatigable in her work for the Christchurch Female Home. The first annual report of the home, printed in the Lyttelton Times, praised her 'excellent management' and 'conscientious discharge of her duties'. It was hoped that the home would become a permanent institution: lack of subscriptions, however, forced it to close in 1868.
Harriott Ritchie had resigned her position in 1867. She is not heard of again until 1877, when she advertised as a dressmaker working from her home on the corner of Armagh Street and East Town Belt. She lived there for the next 30 years, taking in boarders, until her death on 30 September 1907.