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SMITH, WILLIAM

William Absolon Smith (1849 - 1929)

William Absolon Smith, or Absolon, as he was better known, was born on 24 January 1849 in St Martins Street, Wallingford, England. He was educated at the private schools of Oxford and Wallingford. Before coming to New Zealand in 1874 at the age of 24, he worked as a tailor at London's West End for ten years.

He came to New Zealand as an assisted immigrant, paying fourteen pounds, ten, under Captain Kerr in the ship, "Dunfillan". He was one of 158 passengers on board. The ship left England on 24 October, 1873 and arrived in Port Chalmers 15 January, 1874. The journey took 80 days.

Upon arriving in Dunedin, William Absolon Smith travelled with the recently completed railway from Port Chalmers to Dunedin. He was one of 18 000 people that emigrated to the Otago region between 1872 and 1878. This number was greater than in any other New Zealand province at that time. Approximately the same number of people arrived during the gold-rush period a decade earlier. Dunedin was certainly the most prosperous, largest and fastest growing cities at that time. This along with the much noted natural beauty of Dunedin, would have been factors that influenced his decision to come here.

William was consequentially employed as a cutter for Messrs A & T Inglis and then for Mr D.R. Hay, before starting his own business in 1875 as a retail tailor in George Street, where he stayed for 14 years.

1875 was also a significant year for Absolon as he got married to his first wife, Isabella Darling on 5 November, at her father's home in Frederick Street. Isabella was born in Edinburgh and had lived in New Zealand for 5 years prior to their marriage. After their marriage they lived at Filluel Street and had a son, Alexander Darling Smith, who was born in 1877. Unfortunately tragedy struck on 21 December 1878 when Isabella died from tuberculosis.

One year later on 16 January, 1880 William was married to Rebecca Walsham, who was the daughter of Joseph and Frances (Fanny) Walsham. It is highly probable that she may have nursed Isabella when she was ill with tuberculosis and that this is how she and William met. Together they had four sons and three daughters; William Absolon Smith (1881), Rhoebe Leah (1883), Fanny Louisa (1886), Richard Joseph (1888), Isabella Walsham (1890), George Charles (1892) and Frederick Edward (1890).

William Absolon Smith was very proper and very much of the old school when it came to child rearing practices. The children ate by themselves and at a different time to the adults. They were only permitted to speak when they were spoken to or if asked. William was a keen follower of cricket and especially Horse racing. Later in life he would recall with pleasure that he had seen every race that took place in Dunedin for nearly 1/2 Century.

William and his family lived in Stuart Street in 1887 and later in Bath Street. To get an image of the atmosphere of living in the central city in those time one needs to remember that this was a gas lit and horse drawn age. Public transport consisted of trams that were pulled by rows of horses. Street noises would have consisted of the clatter of hooves, the rumble of iron-tyred wheels, the jingling of harnesses and the shouts of the drivers. In many parts of town, sewage was a big problem. The streets were filthy and outbreaks of typhoid were not uncommon. Raw sewage was often poured onto the streets.

The long years of the depression of the 80's and 90's did not greatly harm William's business. In 1889 he moved it to Union Chambers at 67 Princess Street where W.A Smith & Co. employed about 50 people. In 1893 he moved with his family to Vogel Street. By 1886 Auckland had become bigger than Dunedin and the layout of Central Dunedin had assumed the appearance that it has almost retained to this day.

William Absolon was a member of the volunteer fire brigade and won the 'hose peel medal' in 1882. The fire brigade consisted only of volunteers until 1885 and even after that it was, for some time, made up mainly of volunteers. 1900 saw Dunedin's first motorcar and in 1903 the first contingent of men were sent to the Boer war. 1903 also saw the introduction of an electrical tram system and in 1906 the Smith's moved to 22 Lees Street (pictured).

The prosperity of Dunedin, which had gradually declined, improved again with the improvement in world prices and development of the frozen meat and dairy industries. Gold once again became an exciting subject with the dredging boom. These ventures were largely speculative and led to the financial downfall of William Absolon Smith. He invested large sums into one of these gold ventures and as a result lost most of his money, leaving him virtually penniless in the later years of his life. He lived modestly until he died at home in 1929 at the age of 80 years. His wife Rebecca died 8 years later at Dunedin Public Hospital on 3 May 1937, aged 83 years.

Family


William Absolon Smith
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Family

The Smith's residence at 22 Lees Street.
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Family

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