One of the many colourful characters I came across during my research for The Only Living Lady Parachutist was a local Whanganui identity known as Granny Dalton. She doesn’t feature in the novel, but when Leila Adair made a balloon ascent from the Whanganui Racecourse, Granny Dalton was living in a shack nearby. Feisty, independent, and illiterate – did the balloon scare the bejaysus out of her or was it a thing of wonder as it sailed over her humble abode?
Granny Dalton was born Bridget Walsh in Kilkenny, Ireland in 1823. She arrived in New Zealand with her daughter, Ellen, as an assisted immigrant on the Woodlark in 1874. The voyage took 105 days and must have been horrendous as 18 of the 323 passengers died during the voyage, all of them children, many from scarlet fever.
In reports in the AJHR, Julius Vogel describes the conduct of the single women on the Woodlark as drunken, dissipated and immoral. ‘Some of the worst of the passengers were selected by a Mrs Howard at Waterford, and the conduct, both during the voyage and since their arrival here, of some of the single women, or rather married women who have left their husbands and come out to the Colony as single women, would lead to the inference that they must have been picked up off the streets without any regard to their habits and mode of life.’
Bridget’s husband, John Dalton, arrived separately and they settled in Whanganui in a house on the corner of Bolton Row and Harrison Street. In 1878, twelve-year-old Joseph Neary stole one of Bridget Dalton’s white ducks and sold it for two shillings. His claim, that he did not know the duck belonged to Mrs Dalton, did not convince the magistrate and Joseph was sentenced to six strokes of the birch from the gaoler. (Wanganui Herald 5 June 1878).
In January 1880, two women were charged with assault when they punched Bridget Dalton, and then six months later Bridget herself was charged with being drunk and disorderly. On being asked to plead, Bridget indignantly denied the charge, causing considerable amusement in Court with her rich Irish accent. She was fined 10s or, if she couldn’t pay, the alternative was 48 hours in gaol. (Wanganui Herald 26 July 1880).
Bridget’s fortunes took a catastrophic turn for the worse when her husband disappeared and she was robbed of her savings.
Throughout the 1880s, Bridget’s daughter (known as Ellen Cotter) was often in trouble with the law; vagrancy, drunkenness, and theft were some of the charges brought against her. It appears she made her living as a prostitute and at times had a tempestuous relationship with her mother.
In 1884, Granny Dalton and her menagerie of cats, ducks and a goat moved to the Gaol Reserve at the end of Taupo Quay. The police searched her previous home after rumours that her husband had been buried under the floorboards – nothing was found.
Three more of Granny’s ducks were stolen and (as she put it) ‘murdered’ the next year and four boys pelted stones at her ducks, killing or wounding fifteen in June 1891. Compensation was paid but when asked if she was satisfied Granny replied in loud voice “No I am not. I wouldn’t part with me ducks. I love me ducks.” (Wanganui Herald 19 June 1891)
Granny was forced to move again to a cottage near the racecourse but her accommodation burnt down several times during the 1890s, usually caused by burning logs rolling from her fire. She was becoming increasingly feeble and when she went missing in 1895, police feared the worst. Granny was found a week later in a woolshed near Kai Iwi wet, hungry, and very weak. After a few stints in the Jubilee Home, she always returned to her shanty made of kerosene tins, sacking, and scavenged timber until the Collegiate School fundraised to rebuild her cottage. “God bless ye all” she cried when she was given the key.
In 1902 Granny went to live with her daughter in Masterton (Ellen had married Stephen Maskrey in 1894) and died there a year later. The Wanganui Herald published this obituary on 6 April 1903:
The death is announced at Masterton of an old lady whose figure for the last thirty years was as familiar to residents of Wanganui, as her dress of later years was quaint. We refer to old Grannie Dalton who passed away on Saturday afternoon at the residence of her daughter, at the advanced age of 80. Grannie possessed many peculiar characteristics, none perhaps more striking than her love of liberty and independence. She preferred a life of solitude and freedom in a rude cabin among the sandhills and toi tois and fern to the more hospitable refuge afforded in the Old People’s Home at Aramoho. Grannie had many kind friends in Wanganui, and always had a good word to say for the College boys—”Gad bless em”—who erected a hut for her after she was burned out. Some of the Convent Sisters were equally solicitous for the old body’s welfare, and paid regular weekly visits to her abode, which they tidied and cleaned up, as “Grannie” seemed to have a particular aversion to the look of water and soap—about her only failing. She was of remarkable physique, and up to quite recently carried loads on her back in her long tramp through the sand that would have staggered many a strong man. Requiescat in pace.