According to family information Jane Maria Richmond (known as Maria) was born at St Pancras, London, England, on 15 September 1824, the third child and only surviving daughter of Christopher Richmond, barrister of the Middle Temple, and his wife, Maria Wilson. The early death of Christopher Richmond left the family in reduced circumstances and Maria was brought up to shun extravagance. She was formally educated at a school for young ladies at Highgate and informally and most profitably at home. The Richmonds were Unitarians, committed to free thought, high principles and intellectual integrity. Whatever her mother or brothers read, Maria read also.
As a young woman Maria was reserved, her affections centred on her family and her confidences shared in letters to her friend from school days, Margaret Taylor, then living in Dresden. Maria was handsome, and had many admirers, but she was attracted to only one suitor. In this case her family, especially her eldest brother, William, were opposed to the match and Maria deferred to them. Apart from excursions with her brother James or sorties to France and Dresden, she lived a restless life – 'I do nothing useful'. In her letters to Margaret Taylor she occasionally wrote about the uselessness of delicate feminine dependence and the need of more adequate education for women. But she drew back sharply from suggesting that women should become involved in public pursuits.
In October 1850 James and Maria's younger brother Henry emigrated to New Plymouth where relatives, John and Helen Hursthouse, were already living. Their aim was to reconnoitre; if prospects seemed favourable then William, Maria and their mother would follow. Good reports were sent from New Zealand, and as preparation for life on a Taranaki farm Maria went to Cheshire to learn cheese making. James and Henry urged the others to bring people of the right sort out with them. An extended family, a 'nucleus' of their own, was Maria's vision and she saw it realised in 'the mob', her name for the kin group of Richmonds, Atkinsons, Hursthouses and Ronalds who settled together in New Zealand.
On 15 September 1852 William Richmond married Emily Elizabeth Atkinson of Frindsbury, Kent. Two of Emily's brothers, Harry Albert and Arthur Samuel, were also about to emigrate and decided to accompany the Richmonds. The party of 11, including Richmond cousins and Atkinson friends, embarked on the Sir Edward Paget on 9 December 1852, arriving in Auckland on 25 May 1853. Maria, with Harry and Arthur Atkinson, went on to New Plymouth ahead of the others, landing on 18 June 1853.
During the voyage from England Maria Richmond and Arthur Atkinson had come to a private understanding; there was never a formal engagement. Maria was 28 years old, Arthur an uncultivated 'lad' of 19 years. They were married at St Mary's, New Plymouth, on 30 December 1854, shortly after Arthur's 21st birthday. Arthur had received less than a year's schooling, but was highly intelligent, and had a zest for colonial life which suited Maria's outlook. The age gap was crucial to their relationship. Maria took great care never to impose her own opinions. Each preserved some independence and together they achieved a working partnership which in terms of equality was unusual for the age.
At first the whole party lived at close quarters on the small farm, Merton, which James and Henry had established. Setting to rights engaged Maria's attention at first. She worked with an explosive energy, cooking prodigious quantities and relishing the absence of servants. Whenever opportunity offered she enjoyed scrambling along the fern-clad banks of Te Hēnui Stream, and was reputed to be the first Pākehā woman to climb Mt Taranaki. She appreciated the beauty of bush and mountain and, above all, the opportunities for useful employment which Taranaki offered to the whole family. She wrote 'I love Taranaki more every day. I suppose I was born to live here.'
Merton became the halfway house between Beach Cottage in New Plymouth, originally built for William and Emily Richmond, and Hurworth, about seven miles from the town, where members of the mob bought land and built houses.
Maria liked the happy-go-lucky, communal life of Hurworth, particularly after James Richmond returned from a sojourn in Europe with his wife, Mary, an Atkinson cousin, who became Maria's closest friend. Neither of Hurworth's two commercial ventures, a farm produce shop in town and the mail contract between New Plymouth and Wellington, succeeded financially. Maria had a modest private income but ready money was never plentiful.
However, bush farming was not all hard work. Maria and Arthur spent hours reading to each other and during the winter they produced a Hurworth periodical, 'The Aspective Review', which caused members of the mob to be known locally as the 'literary bushmen'. Maria retained an affection for Hurworth long after war had shattered the idyll.
Like most settlers, Maria never questioned the 'right' of converting New Zealand's 'waste' land into private property. Taranaki was hemmed in by bush and ever since Pākehā settlement the cry had been for more land. In the protracted negotiation over the Waitara purchase during William Richmond's term as native minister, Maria denounced in private letters what she regarded as her brother's over-cautious attitude. She was confident that what she interpreted as Māori 'anarchy' would be unable to withstand British law backed by British bayonets.
The settlement at Hurworth was abandoned early in 1860. Most of the men, including Arthur, served in the Taranaki Rifle Volunteers. Some of the women took refuge in Nelson. Maria determined to stay with Arthur and moved into S. P. King's cottage in New Plymouth. The expected decisive British victories did not eventuate. New Plymouth township remained secure but the Māori were in undisputed control of the countryside. Maria's letters expressed exasperation at the mismanagement of the British commanders. Ill health forced first her and then Arthur to leave New Plymouth in mid 1860 for Auckland, where Arthur took a job as an interpreter in the Native Office. On 11 May 1862, after a truce had been established, she, Arthur, her mother and children returned to New Plymouth. All but two of the Hurworth houses had been destroyed in the war, so in July the family moved into Beach Cottage, which was their home until the end of 1867, when they left Taranaki for a new life in Nelson.
While Arthur was variously occupied as a bushranger with the volunteers, as editor of the Taranaki Herald, as a member of the provincial council and the House of Representatives, Maria stayed at Beach Cottage and raised children. Not all were her own. Cramped, unhygienic living conditions in the town during the war years, added to the hazards of childbirth, had taken a heavy toll of children and mothers. Maria was once again the mainstay of the kin group. Mary Richmond's death at Nelson affected her deeply; Arthur was frequently away; she was surrounded by young children, breastfeeding at various times two babies besides her own; she had no reliable household help. With little to stimulate her usually buoyant spirit she felt 'lonelier & flatter than ever before'.
Towards the end of 1867 William Richmond, who had undertaken to help Arthur study law, moved to Nelson as circuit judge. Arthur decided to follow. He arrived at Nelson in December 1867, Maria with her mother and four children in February 1868. In November 1871 Arthur became a partner in a legal firm with C. Y. Fell. The following year he acquired a house called Fairfield, which was later added to, and was to be his and Maria's final home.
Education was now Maria's main concern. She began a school at Fairfield for James and William Richmond's children and her own. Both she and Arthur took a lively interest in Nelson College where their only son, Arthur, achieved academic distinction, and they pressed for a similar institution for girls. When Nelson College for Girls opened in 1883, Fairfield became an open house for college staff. Between 1877 and 1881 Maria was in England and Europe, providing, with Margaret Taylor, a home base for the Richmond–Atkinson children completing their education.
As she grew older Maria rejoiced at 'living in such exciting times when all science and philosophy seem to be bent on searching to the roots of things'. At 69 she spoke at her first public meeting, on the eve of women's suffrage, urging Nelson women to use the franchise. With other family members she was also involved in the temperance movement. Young folk, sunshine, reading and writing were pleasures until her death at Nelson on 29 September 1914. Photographs of family gatherings at Fairfield in the 1890s show her still an erect, dignified figure, surrounded by Hursthouses, Richmonds and Atkinsons of the second and third generations.
Maria Atkinson lives in her letters. She had a cool intellect, a warm heart, and a perceptive eye for the colonial scene. She believed in 'women's rights' but wished some of its advocates had more common sense. She was certain that the next century would see an enormous improvement in the position of women. But she was scarcely a pioneer feminist. She did not argue that women should be free to choose their own paths. She wanted her girls to have a boy's education because it was a better one which would help them in their vocations as wives, mothers, nurses or teachers. She did not question male dominance in society but probed the conventions which prevented women from being useful (one of her favourite words) and fulfilled within the family.