Recreational music in 1840s Auckland

When Sarah Mathew, wife of the surveyor Felton Mathew, arrived on the shores of the Waitematā Harbour in 1840, it was to assist her husband in selecting a site for the capital of Aotearoa. Later that year, the couple moved into a tent above the beach of the area we now call Britomart. In a box beside the tent was what Sarah refers to in her diary as “my devoted piano”. Once their house was finished, the piano moved in with her.

Image: Page 22 from Sarah Mathew’s ‘Journal of voyage to New Zealand,
March 2nd 1840 – February 21st 1844’ including her reference to “my devoted piano”.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 79.

Middle-class English gentlewomen of the nineteenth-century were expected to learn the piano and this was adhered to even in the context of their unusual lives in early Auckland. Live music continued to play a large part in the lives of these men and women and the piano was indispensable as an entertainment in the home. More than that, playing the piano well was considered an essential accomplishment for a young woman as it enhanced her charm and desirability as a potential wife.

Image:  Photographer unknown. Portrait of Sarah Mathew, 1860s.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, 7-A11646.

The instruments which came with the settlers were frequently damaged in the long and arduous voyage on a ship and piano tuners and repairers were not amongst the first artisans to arrive. Only with time did the colony grow enough to support the musical tastes of the middle-class colonists. Not many families had grand pianos, so the favourite and very practical choice for the domestic setting was the square pianoforte. The English made excellent examples of this highly portable form of piano and many are still here, enjoying a second life as antiques of value and interest.

Image: Paul Downie. Smith square piano, 1835.

The family of the missionary Henry Williams knew the Mathews in the early days. In the Williams collection of hand-copied music, now held by Auckland Libraries, there are fine examples of the sort of music that the early colonists played. Along with exercises to develop technical facility, there are popular dances, like the Polka and the Waltz, often arranged in medleys, probably for the small-scale dance at home.

Image: Russische polka from Williams Family albums of music. Book 1, 1857.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, Musms 58-1-37.

Many duets for four hands illustrate the fun that two pianists would have had together. Inevitably, there are many hymn tunes for Sunday singing at home or for devotions during the week. Some serious piano study took place also with pieces by Mozart and Beethoven, along with accompaniments to songs which would have been sung in the parlour as entertainments for families when they visited each other.
On Wednesday 6 November 2019, Dr. Polly Sussex presented as part of our HeritageTalks series. She focused on three pioneer missionary women, Maryanne Williams, Sarah Selwyn and Sarah Mathew and discussed the Williams family scrapbooks and other collections of music.

Listen to the track here.

She also presented a concert on a Smith square piano of 1835 on Thursday 7 November 2019 as part of the Thursday Heritage Concerts Spring Series. In this concert, Dr. Polly Sussex performed some of the music from the Henry Williams music scrapbooks along with other music from the collection of Sarah Selwyn. 

Listen to the track here.

Author: Polly Sussex