Ellen Elizabeth Ellis

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Ellen Elizabeth Ellis
Ellen Ellis.jpg
Born Ellen Elizabeth Colebrook
probably 14 March 1829
Died 17 April 1895
Resting place Symonds Street Cemetery
Genre Feminist
Notable works Everything is Possible to Will 1882
Spouse Oliver Sidney Ellis
Children John William Ellis

Ellen Elizabeth Ellis (14 March 1829[1] – 17 April 1895) was a New Zealand feminist and writer.[2] She was born at 106 High St, Guildford, moved to Great Tangley Manor in 1852 and to New Zealand in 1859.[3]

Early life[edit]

Ellen Elizabeth Colebrook was baptised on 3 May 1829 at Holy Trinity Church, the 2nd of 17 children (9 girls and 8 boys) of Mary Ann May and William Colebrook, who was a butcher. Their household also included 6 young nephews and nieces, taken in after they were orphaned in a cholera epidemic in London.

She went to school with her 3 eldest sisters, Sarah, Emily, and Elizabeth, but was expelled when she was 13.[3] In her 1882 book 'Everything is Possible to Will',[4] published by Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh's Freethought Publishing,[5] she noted how few teachers can tell apart the child who “can learn but will not,” and the child “who would learn but cannot”.[3]

In 1847, when they were 19, 18, 17 and 16, the eldest sisters opened a school, for children aged 4 to 13, next to the Royal Grammar School. The 1851 census listed Ellen as the milliner, her elder sister Sarah the schoolmistress, and Emily and Elizabeth as governesses.

They rented Great Tangley Manor in 1852, with William as tenant farmer. Ellen remembered the “home in the woods,” in her book calling it the “large rambling antiquated place...suggestive of ghosts and goblins”.[3]

Under family pressure, Ellen married Oliver Sidney Ellis on 21 September 1852. He had boarded at 105 High St, whilst an apprentice builder. He had been born in 1828 to John Ellis and Rebecca Nash, the youngest of 13, and was a strict Calvinist-Methodist .[3]


They had 3 sons, John William (1853-1918), Sidney Alexander (1856-1857) and Sidney Thomas (1858-1864). On 31 March 1859, Ellen and her family, together with her 19-year old brother, Tom Colebrook, and her 18-year old cousin, John Drew Colebrook, sailed to New Zealand. They'd been told their 3rd son's health might improve in a warmer climate. Her husband preferred India, but she was concerned at reports of uprisings. They arrived in Auckland on 16 July 1859. They were poor during their first few years in Auckland.[3] She went to Governor Thomas Gore Browne's peace conference at Kohimarama in 1860 and wrote in support of Māori interests.[1] Ellen encouraged her sons to learn Māori and play with Māori children, so that John became an interpreter, then a teacher.[3]

With the outbreak of further war in 1863, Ellen and her two sons sailed on the Ida Zieglar, a ship regularly voyaging between Auckland and London,[6] in January 1864, but on 8 March her 6-year old drowned when he slipped through the ship's railings, despite attempts to save him. Whilst in England, her brother-in-law, James Ellis, encouraged her to express her opinions by writing a pamphlet on the unfair treatment of women. She returned in February 1865, leaving John at a boarding-school.[3]


After returning she attended the non-denominational church services of Reverend Samuel Edger and he too encouraged her writing and self-education. By 1869 she was campaigning against the Contagious Diseases Act and raised an 1,100-signature petition. In June 1871 Rev. Edger wrote: “it is one of woman’s rights...that she should enjoy an education as thorough in quality as that which is thought necessary for men.” In May 1882 Ellen gave a long speech at his leaving ceremony.[3]

Although her 1882 book was advertised as a temperance novel, it also called for equality for women, fair rights for Māori, for birth control, to ban the corset, for unsectarian Christianity and to teach the Māori language in schools. It wasn't widely read as her son, businessman John William Ellis, considered his late father to be an occasional drinker,[3] rather than a drunkard, and burnt all the copies of the novel he could find.[5]

Ellen died of bronchitis[3] on the 17 April 1895 at Ponsonby Rd, Auckland.[7]


  1. ^ a b Taonga, New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage Te Manatu. "Ellis, Ellen Elizabeth". teara.govt.nz. Retrieved 2018-02-10. 
  2. ^ McLeod, Aorewa. "Ellen Elizabeth Ellis". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 23 April 2017. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "II. An Overview of the Life of Ellen Ellis — "A sad life bravely endured for honour's sake"22 | NZETC". nzetc.victoria.ac.nz. Retrieved 2018-02-10. 
  4. ^ ""everything Is Possible to Will."". New Zealand Herald. 1883-03-22. p. 5. Retrieved 2018-02-11. 
  5. ^ a b "Introduction — "[W]oman is slowly beginning to realise her power"". nzetc.victoria.ac.nz. Retrieved 2018-02-11. 
  6. ^ "The Ida Zeigler". nzetc.victoria.ac.nz. Retrieved 2018-02-11. 
  7. ^ "Deaths". Auckland Star. 1895-04-18. p. 4. Retrieved 2018-02-11.