The late nineteenth century was a time of great change for women in New Zealand, brought on by the tireless advocacy of individuals often juggling complex lives and personal tragedy. One such individual was author Ellen Ellis and in this blog, Paula Legel (Associate Curator, Heritage Publications) details her discovery of Ellis’ rare novel, and the unusual circumstances that drove her to find out more.

A book-shaped riddle

In a role like mine, I get to explore the Heritage Publications Collection regularly when responding to queries or undertaking my own research. I am always surprised at what surfaces from these explorations. A particular interest is provenance: books are important for their content but can also tell us a wider story as an object owned over time.

While searching the fiction section, I recently came across a nondescript volume with no loose paper cover, accompanied by two bound photocopies of the same title.


Everything is possible to will by Ellen Ellis, alongside one of the facsimile copies. AWMM. PZ 3 .E47 More information ›

This was unusual – it’s not common practice to create copies of heritage books that are already kept in a closed-access collection, unless they are of significant value or will be damaged by handling. On the surface, this novel didn’t seem to fit either. The binding on the copies looked relatively new and the volumes stamped ‘reference only’, so unable to be borrowed by researchers. Intrigued, I took a closer look and found little to illuminate apart from a small snippet of provenance hand-written at the top of the half title page in the original copy: ‘J Waymouth, Auckland 1882’.  

Written by Ellen Ellis (1829-1895), Everything is possible to will was published in London in 1882, so J. Waymouth had acquired his copy the same year. An ownership stamp in the book stating ‘Auckland Institute Library, 13 July ’93’ showed that it entered our collection 11 years later, in 1893. The binding is unstable and pages loose, so the book has been well read, indicating that it has been of interest. 

The international combined libraries catalogue OCLC showed that there were very few copies of Ellis’ novel publicly available. Apart from the one held at Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, the novel is in the collections of only five other libraries in New Zealand: the Alexander Turnbull Library, the University libraries of Auckland, Canterbury, and Victoria, and Auckland Libraries. A few copies also exist in libraries internationally: the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Western Reserve Historical Society Library, National Library of Scotland, British Library, Oxford University, Cambridge University and Trinity College, Dublin. 

Why, I wondered, were there so few copies left? Was the print run unusually small, as it’s possible that Ellen would have had to contribute to the printing costs? Or perhaps an accident at the printing works or a delivery to New Zealand lost at sea? It’s also probable that most of the copies were brought out to New Zealand, leaving just a few in the stock of the publisher.

Other questions occurred to me: how did we acquire this novel and who was the donor? Why was it sufficiently important to create to facsimile copies? To find answers, I had to find out more about the author.

Who was Ellen Ellis?

Early chapters established that this novel was classic Victorian self-improvement writing in tone and style, advocating rights within marriage, temperance, and championing the role of women as guides to a moral culture. However, what made Ellis truly radical was that she also openly discussed issues such as birth control, suicide, and divorce, which were scarcely topics of conversation in Victorian middle-class circles.  

My research uncovered a fascinating woman. Born in 1829 near Guildford in Surrey, Ellen Colebrook was the second child of 17 born into a family that followed strict Calvinist-Methodist beliefs¹. From childhood, Ellen demonstrated a strong desire to follow her own path. The education model to which she had access led her to resent the fact that her teachers and consequently her family viewed her as a dunce and uneducable, when she herself knew that she wasn’t dumb, she merely required access to an alternative teaching style.² A limited education coupled with the family’s teetotal, strict religious worldview led to Ellen developing a proscribed understanding of the world. However, her strong sense of self would stand her in good stead in her future, as she lived through significant grief and much change.


A portrait of Ellen Ellis, from Vera Colebrook's Ellen: a biography. DU420.18 COL.

In 1852 at the age of 23, Ellen married Oliver Sidney Ellis. For Ellen, this was no easy decision: she wasn’t that enamoured of marriage, having watched her mother birth 17 children in 20 years, and cherished her personal freedom. Moreover Oliver was a social drinker, which Ellen detested, coming from that strict temperance upbringing. Family pressure prevailed, and she acceded to Oliver’s proposal. Within six years she had three boys, with only two surviving babyhood. John William (known as Willie or JW) and Thomas (or Little Tom) accompanied their parents on emigration to New Zealand in 1859. 

Tragedy, letters, and life in New Zealand

Transcripts of letters Ellen sent to England of their first year in Auckland show that although she was missing her family, she delighted in the new opportunities offered. Coming from a family with servants, she was unused to cooking, washing and gardening, but enjoyed the change and the satisfaction of making do. She soon identified the Church she felt aligned most closely to her beliefs and talked of wanting to attend the Temperance Society.


Ponsonby home of J.W. Ellis' family. Te Awamutu Museum. PH2886.

She was also learning te Reo Māori to be able to trade with local Māori.³ In fact, she ensured that both her boys also learned te Reo Māori, which would influence JW later in life. Thomas tragically died when swept off a ship travelling from New Zealand to England in January 1864, when Ellen was taking the boys to be placed in boarding school. Ellen had now lost two of her three sons – it’s hard to imagine how that would have impacted her world. 

The production and destruction of a novel

Prior to the trip to England, Ellen had submitted at least one letter to the editor of the Daily Southern Cross under the nom de plume ‘A Woman’, and she resumed writing on arriving back in Auckland in 1865. We see her commentary again in the Daily Southern Cross in October 1866. She continues on a wide range of subjects with a focus on temperance until the 1880s, when she increases her commentary on women’s rights. 

Ellen’s self-assurance made her a formidable advocate, and even too radical for one of New Zealand’s most famous feminists Polly Plum (the pen name of Mary Colclough, a feminist activist in the late 1860s and 1870s), who replied to at least one of Ellen’s letters accusing her of being too radical in her condemnation of men.⁴ Ellen also communicated via the newspaper with the Reverend Edger – a proponent of temperance and leader of a liberal non-denominational group in Auckland. Ellen was an energetic correspondent who elicited long debates via the letters column, some of which were shut down by the editor due to the longevity of debate.

It’s no wonder, then, that Ellen resorted to writing a book. Though initially planned as a pamphlet, with the Reverend Edger’s encouragement she embarked on the novel. This was duly published in 1882 at 63 Fleet Street, London, the address of Freethought Publishing Company, Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh’s business. Annie Besant (1847-1933) was an iconic free-thinker in Britain at the time, a theosophist, socialist and promoter of women’s rights among other interests and philosophies. Ellen would have been aware of Annie and her publishing company, possibly concluding it was one of the more likely publishing houses to accept her radical novel. The Company’s catalogue⁵ of 1888 lists Ellen’s novel as “a most useful Temperance story”.

As we know, the books had arrived in New Zealand in 1882. However Ellen didn't swing into book promotion until March 1883, when her husband Oliver died. It is perhaps no coincidence that this was around this time that she begins signing her letters Ellen E. Ellis, discontinuing her public anonymity. The timing seems unfortunate, and her son John (JW or Willie) was not happy. 

The preface to the biography of Ellen’s life, written by Vera Colebrook, provides the biggest clue to the mystery: Vera met a descendant of Ellen’s younger brother Thomas in New Zealand, who related an action by JW that explains why so few copies now exist. This descendant stated “She wrote a book about women’s rights, and had it published… Her son, my cousin Willie, bought up every copy he could get hold of, and I helped him burn them”.⁶ 

We can imagine that feelings on both sides were running high due to grief at Oliver’s death. It is unclear how this action impacted the relationship between mother and son, but Ellen’s life was never the same: her income gradually diminished, and she died in ‘genteel poverty’ in 1895. 

Who was John Waymouth?

The next task was to investigate J. Waymouth, the man whose name is inscribed on the Museum’s copy of Everything is possible to will.


The inscription that prompted the research: who was 'J Waymouth'?

John Waymouth (b. Wales 1821, d. Auckland 1892) migrated to New Zealand in 1859 with his wife Ann (nee Blackman) and six surviving children, with two more added to the brood after arrival. The Waymouth and Ellis families arrived in Auckland the same year, though not on the same ship, and they could have met quite soon after, as new arrivals settling into what was even then a very small town. 

John was a mover-and-shaker and quickly made his mark, becoming an accountant, then Under Secretary of Defense, and an Auckland City Councillor from 1884-1886. A boat designer and yachtsman, he eventually became Commodore of the Auckland Yacht Club. He was active in the temperance movement, being an executive of the New Zealand Alliance and subsequently the Good Templars Lodge and the Masonic Order⁷.

Numerous newspaper reports relating to temperance and Lodges’ attendance records cite attendance or officership of John Waymouth, Oliver Ellis and Samuel Edger. This has them moving in the same circles, and perhaps their wives, too, were socialising or worshiping together. 

A search for John Waymouth in the Museum archives turns up several letters, in particular one describing a donation of books to the Museum Library in 1881⁸. The titles are listed, though not Ellen’s book, as it had yet to be published. But now we know that John Waymouth, who died in 1892, was a member of the Auckland Institute & Museum, and perhaps had a pattern of philanthropy that continued. The accession stamp in Everything is possible to will is from 1893 – could a donation have been made the year after he died?

The mysterious facsimiles

Having established all of these connections, the last question I had was: why create two copies? And who made them? 

This proved difficult to track: when I originally discovered the books, they didn’t have digital records,  though they do show in the original card catalogue. I turned then to staff knowledge and contacted one of our previous Museum Librarians, Ian Thwaites, who has extensive knowledge of the history of the Museum Library.

Ian did know why the facsimiles had been created, because it was he who created them. While Ian was the librarian in the 1970s, a descendent of the family here in New Zealand discovered the Museum held a copy of Everything is possible to will. He met with Ian and was most insistent that the book be destroyed. Alarmed by this and aware of its scarcity, Ian had the facsimiles created and moved the book to the safety of the closed-access collection. 

The discoveries of this investigation made the title of this blog inevitable, as the nondescript volume had quite a story to tell. A story of hardship and sorrow and of intrepid journeys, across physical distance, across cultures and of the development of a Victorian woman’s perspective. Questions have been answered and more have been raised: who were the local Māori Ellen developed a relationship with, to the degree that she and her boys were able to learn te Reo Māori? How did her beliefs impact her son John William’s worldview? Did they affect his life and families? In solving these mysteries, I’ve connected with one of Ellen’s descendants, with whom I will attempt to answer these questions. Stay tuned.



1 Ellen, a biography by Vera Colebrook. The Women’s Press, 1980. Page 15.
2 Ibid. Page 13.
3 Letters from Ellen to her parents. October 13th and December 19th, 1859. Collection of Ana Gray (Ellen’s great granddaughter).
4 Daily Southern Cross, Volume XXVI, Issue 4095, 5 October 1870, Page 2.
5 Catalogue of works sold by the Freethought Publishing Company, 1888.
6 Ellen: a biography by Vera Colebrook. The Women’s Press, 1980. Page [8].
7 New Zealand Herald, Volume XVIII, Issue 6089, 24 May 1881, Page 4.
8 Museum correspondence MUS-1995-38-159.