Jane Maria Atkinson was the first recorded European woman to stand on the summit of Mount Taranaki. But Maria (as she preferred to be called) was only there as a result of being taken along as the group cook. Her husband Arthur Atkinson had asked her to join a family group attempting the summit, Maria would be responsible for cooking an evening meal for the company.
The party included future prime minister (Sir Harry Atkinson) and future superintendent of Taranaki (Henry Richmond). Other party members were Edward Patten and boys Charles and Calvert Wilson. They set out from Hurworth on Carrington Road, where the Richmond’s and Atkinson’s farmed, late in February 1855.
Although an avid journal keeper Maria wrote only a few notes in her diary about her mountain climb: "the celebrated mountain expedition on which alone my hopes of fame rest!" It seems the climb was easier than writing about the event. "The ascent of Mount Egmont I have attempted to describe, but it is a most difficult subject and if I covered quires of paper I should still fail in giving you a notion of it... on the 7th of March we stood on his snowy head."
The only surviving account of the climb was a reminiscence given years later by Charlie Wilson to the Taranaki Herald. But he mentioned precious little about the only woman on the trip. "We started out laden with swags of provisions and rugs along the Paritutu Line for upper Mangorei. From thence we cut a line through dense, untouched and primevil bush, in a direct south east course, for Egmont."
The going was slow, as the group had adopted a system of leaving their swags with Maria at the camp and head off into the bush for the day, with a compass and axes, to cut a track, returning in the early evening to a cooked dinner. Maria had to cook the meals in a camp oven over an open fire, the provisions were added to by the occasional pigeon shot by the men. Dry firewood was collected from the surrounding bush. "The line cutters, after dining plentifully, if not luxuriously, each picked up his load, and all, including Mrs Atkinson, journeyed on the extremity of the line which had been cut, there camping for the night" recalled Charles.
At this rate the climbers moved at a snail’s pace - an average of two to three kilometres a day. It took them a week to reach the eastern spur of the Waiongona Gorge, near the present Mountain House, the last camp before the summit attempt. "We descended in the early morning of the 8th March, 1855, into Waiongona's rocky defile, marching slowly on to the head of the gorge… We proceeded over the flower-sprinkled, mossy slopes of the mountain, past boulders and stony prominences, through feet deep of loose shingly shale, direct for the eastern peak of Egmont, till arriving just below the cindery and scoriac rocks of the summit, which looked as if they could not do otherwise than topple over us."
In Egmont, a story of a mountain Arthur Scanlan says Jane Maria was climbing in a pair of handmade canvas dungarees, making her journey a lot easier than if she had to tramp in the woman's attire of a long street dress and corset. If so, then Jane Maria was a pioneer in more ways than one - half a century later women were still criticised for climbing in dresses that had been shortened.
The party climbed to the peak where they wrote their names on a piece of paper and left them in a bottle. "All was still on the summit, except the distant murmur of the surf on the shore, and the fitful sighing of the winds among the mountain's riven peaks."
They wound their way down to the bivouac in the scrub below. "A fine view of smoking Ngaruahoe, together with the snowy heights of Ruapehu, was obtained. A thunder shower was also witnessed, the lightening seen, and the roll of the thunder heard far below us. In the morning following the ascent a number of the company left the wild and silent solitudes of the mountain for the civilised haunts of men once more, everyone at the time convinced that the ascending route we took was the easiest to be found on Egmont, and that it ought to be styled the ‘ladies' ascent’.”
Jane Maria Atkinson and her family later moved to Wellington, then on to Nelson, where she died aged 90 in 1914.
Porter, F. (1989). Born to New Zealand: a biography of Jane Maria Atkinson. Wellington: Allen and Unwin Port Nicholson Press.
Rawson, D. H. (1989). The first European ascent of Mt Egmont by Ernst Dieffenbach & James Heberly, December 1839. New Plymouth: Distibuted by Mountain and Tramping Clubs of Taranaki.
Scanlan, A.B. (1961). Egmont, the story of a mountain. Wellington: A.H & A.W Reed.
Puke Ariki Heritage Collection: Jane Maria AtkinsonLink
Please do not reproduce these images without permission from Puke Ariki.
Contact us for more information or you can order images online here.