Mary Elizabeth Philpott, the daughter of a gardener, was born in Hawkhurst, Kent, England, probably in 1812 or 1813. She married Stephen Small on 17 October 1841 in London, and about 1849, with her husband and three children, William, Mary Ann and John, emigrated to New South Wales, Australia. Three more children, Archibald, James and Emma, were born in the Berrima district. Stephen Small treated his family badly. While he was away droving, Mary Elizabeth Small took her children to Sydney and obtained a passage to New Zealand on the Armenian, chartered by John Cracroft Wilson. The elder daughter, Mary Ann, was left to follow later. The family arrived in Lyttelton on 7 April 1859.
To avoid detection by her husband Mary Elizabeth Small assumed the name of Phipps. Work was offered on Wilson's Cashmere run, but conditions were unsatisfactory and the family trekked across the Port Hills to an abandoned cob cottage at Governors Bay. At first they had to live off the land; but by good fortune the soil was perfectly suited to horticulture, and vegetables carried to Lyttelton by the boys found a ready market. Berry bushes and fruit trees were planted next.
While neighbouring settlers were attempting to grow wheat and barley, Mary Elizabeth Small began grazing cattle on the nearby tussock slopes. During the Westland goldrushes some of these cattle were stolen, whereupon she decided to profit from the lucrative goldfields market. In 1864, with her 15-year-old son, Archie, she successfully drove a herd over the Harper Pass.
In 1867, when the eldest son, William, was due to be married, the family resumed the name of Small, although the orchard and garden continued to be associated with the name Phipps. Communications with Lyttelton improved markedly after 1875 when the bridle track was replaced by a road suitable for coaches. Later, steam launches began running regular trips and holiday excursions. The growing popularity of Governors Bay as a holiday resort made it possible to sell produce direct from the orchard and garden which were handy to both road and jetty.
By 1870 Mary Elizabeth Small was able to buy her cob cottage, and in 1876 nearly an acre of the land was bought in the name of Archibald Small. This was subdivided; James Small built himself a substantial cottage of cob on one side of the short road leading to the beach, and some time later a good house of totara and matai was built for his mother on the other side. The latter property was in the name of Mary Elizabeth Small's daughter, Mary Ann Small, perhaps to ensure that Stephen Small could not claim it; however, he did not come to New Zealand.
Mary Elizabeth Small lived to the age of 95; she died at Governors Bay on 23 May 1908 and was buried in the churchyard of St Cuthbert's. She was remembered by her grandchildren as a small woman with curly auburn hair, fond of trinkets and lace. She was much given to singing old ballads as she went about the house, and had a sympathetic nature and a wealth of commonsense expressions. In times when a lone woman with dependent children had to find her own way in the world, she stood out for her courage, determination and clear-sighted enterprise.