Page 1: Biography
Landowner, businesswoman, matriarch
This biography, written by Colin V. Innes, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Margaret Ralph settled with her husband and children in Waikato, New Zealand, in 1865 and began a pioneering venture that was to influence the region for the next 70 years. She was born at Strabane, County Tyrone, Ireland, probably in 1822 or 1823, the daughter of John Reilly and his wife, Esther Yates or Gates. On 12 November 1837 at Arnee (Arani) in the Madras Presidency, India, Margaret Reilly married Anthony Ralph, a sergeant in the 63rd (West Suffolk) Regiment of Foot. They were to have 12 children, of whom at least four sons died in infancy or youth. In 1849 the couple arrived at Auckland on the Berhampore with their two daughters and three sons.
As military settlers the family took up residence at Onehunga. After the war in Waikato Anthony Ralph and his sons acquired land in the area called Rahui-pokeka, later to be known as Huntly. The family moved there and at first lived in a raupo hut; after a time they established the Coal Mine Hotel. In the early 1870s Margaret Ralph's eldest surviving son, Robert, discovered coal on the Ralph property; not long after, in December 1873, Anthony Ralph died.
Margaret Ralph kept the hotel and, initially with the help of Robert, took over the development of the coalfield. Commercial production began in 1876. On 6 March that year, at Thames, Margaret Ralph married Albert Schlinker, a farmer. In the following years, three of her five daughters gained a substantial financial interest in the coalmining business and purchased large areas of land in the Huntly area. Although she was living in Mangere, Auckland, by 1880, Margaret Schlinker closely supervised their business dealings.
The eldest daughter, Louisa Jane, had been born in 1844 in Bellary, India. She married Lewis Bassiere Harris in Auckland in 1861. He was at that time a painter, and later an ensign in the Waikato Militia. At the conclusion of the Waikato war he received some grants of potential farmland which he hoped to develop. The couple became the proprietors of the Royal Hotel in Hamilton East in 1865, then from around 1870 operated the Delta Hotel in Ngaruawahia. However, Lewis Harris's land development venture failed, and by 1880 they had shifted to the Ralphs' hotel in Huntly to make a fresh start and provide for their growing family.
This time, Louisa Jane Harris took a firm hold of the purse strings and began an extraordinary programme of land acquisition. She was granted the licence of the Huntly Hotel in 1882, and from 1889 to 1914 proceeded to accumulate over 1,100 acres in her own name. The land west of Huntly township, although uncultivated and swampy, had vast deposits of valuable coal. Over a period of time, Louisa Harris secured the mining rights of much of this land for the Ralphs' coalmining enterprise.
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Taupiri her sister Rosanna Esther was equally industrious. Born in Madras, India, probably in 1846, she and her common-law husband, William Henry Mitchell Lovell, decided about 1871 to settle at Taupiri, then a bleak uninhabited locality on the banks of the Waikato River. They built a store and hotel and began to acquire land. Eventually their purchases totalled over 700 acres. They built a substantial hotel in 1885 to create a community centre, but their hopes that the area would prosper were not fulfilled, as settlers moved further south.
William Lovell died prematurely in 1890. As the main beneficiary of his will, Rosanna Lovell, then the mother of seven young children, became a hotel proprietor and substantial landowner. She continued to administer and develop the swampy, scrub-covered land and began a series of sales and purchases of farm properties and small sections, on occasion borrowing heavily to pay for land. Her mother, Margaret Schlinker, who had been appointed chief executrix of William Lovell's will, was involved in some of these deals.
Soon after the turn of the century a third daughter rose to prominence. About 1903 Sarah Margaret Ralph returned to Auckland from Dunedin. She had been born at Auckland in 1857 and as a young woman had entered a convent. She moved north, it seems, to assist her mother and sisters in their business affairs. She became known as the most astute member of the family.
One of her first actions was to look into the affairs of the coalmining enterprise, by then known as Taupiri Coal Mines Limited. She helped safeguard family mining rights and royalties and took a close interest in the company's activities. Her elder brother Robert died in 1905, and she and her younger brother William Joseph Ralph, who was a director of the company, co-signed legal papers. In subsequent years she gifted sections of land for public use in Huntly and provided a furnished school and convent for the local Catholic church. For this, in 1914, she received a papal blessing.
The matriarch of the Ralph family, Margaret Schlinker, died on 6 March 1913 at Ponsonby, Auckland, aged 90 years; her second husband had predeceased her in 1905. Louisa Jane Harris died at Huntly in October 1922, Rosanna Esther Lovell at Taupiri in June 1924, and Sarah Margaret Ralph at Auckland in August 1928. Mother and daughters defied convention by becoming involved in commercial activities. Through judicious purchases of land and shares, they put the family coalmining business on a secure footing. They acquired considerable personal wealth, and made an important contribution to the economic development of Huntly.