Isabella DilworthIsabella Dilworth

Ulster beginnings

Isabella Dilworth was born Isabella Hall in 1828, the third child of eight children born to Thomas and Isabella (nee Stephenson) Hall,.  The Hall family farmed at Mt Prospect in Aghalee, a small village near Belfast, County Antrim, Ireland.  It was here that Isabella grew up and received her education. John was the eldest being born in 1823, Thomas 1825, George 1826, Isabella 1828, William 1830, Robert 1832, Anna 1835 and Edward 1837. All but George emigrated to New Zealand and the Hall family were destined to have a significant influence on the Dilworth legacy. Of George, who was baptized George Stephenson Hall we have no record. It may be that he decided not to migrate to New Zealand with the rest of the family, being old enough at the time to look after himself, or it could be that he died at a young age, which so often happened in times past.

There are limited records of the Ulster connection of the Hall family. Records suggest that Isabella’s father Thomas died in 1845.  Her mother would have been left with a young and large family. Times were harsh for the farming community in Ireland, and though the district was not as badly affected by the potato famine as some districts, it would have been a struggle Isabella snr. Records show that Mt Prospect was sold around the time of  Thomas Hall’s death.  According to the traditions of the time, the estate would have passed on to the eldest son, John.

Time to Migrate

Migration was a fact of life for the Irish at the time. The Great Famine was the last straw for many who literally packed their bags and headed for the United States of America, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.  It seems likely that the Hall family had to seriously consider their options.  A decision was made for the eldest son, John, to migrate to New Zealand in 1846 to assess the situation. We do not know why New Zealand was chosen over the more popular North America.  Though there was the whole family to consider, John would have been a reasonably wealthy man from the sale of Mt Prospect.

On arrival in Auckland John gained work working as a shop assistant in Shortland Street at the age of 23.  There is no specific reference to the arrival of John Hall.  The only record is that there is a record of a Mr Hall having arrived on the Terror at the beginning of January 1846.  It can be assumed that John Hall reported back to his mother and family that New Zealand was indeed to his liking and that they should come out and join him.

Again, the specific arrival details are sketchy.  The best information suggests that Mrs Hall arrived in Auckland in March 1848 with her all her children, including Isabella, on the boat Elora.  At the time Thomas was 23, Isabella 19, William 18, Robert 16, Anna 13 and Edward 11.

The  Halls of Otahuhu

By 1848 John Hall had moved to Otahuhu where he took over the ownership of the only general store in the district. The store was on 30 acres of land and its position was later to become known as Hall’s Corner.  Otahuhu had been designated a Fencible Settlement for the protection of the Auckland township from dissident Maori.  Seventy three Fencible soldiers, with the wives and families, arrived at Otahuhu in May 1848, shortly after the Hall’s arrived.

Until her marriage Isabella helped her mother  to look after the house and family in the family home in Otahuhu.  William and Robert later moved on to taking up farming at Mangere.

The Dilworth-Hall Connection

It was the farming connection, no doubt added to by their  common Ulster bond, that was to link the Hall family with James Dilworth.  William and Robert became members of the Agricultural and Pastoral Association and competed at shows. It would be here that James Dilworth would have been impressed by the young Hall brothers. It is reported that the young Robert Hall was considered by Logan Campbell to be one of the best farm managers. In later years Robert was to become the farm manager of the  considerable Logan Campbell farm, as well as being farm manager for the Dilworth farm after James’ death in 1894.

Marriage Vows

Farming and the Ulster connection brought the two families together into a relationship that was to last a lifetime.  It was inevitable that a friendship would develop between James Dilworth and Isabella Hall.  On12 July 1853, at the home of John Hall in Otahuhu, Isabella Hall and James Dilworth were married.

Though there was a 14 year age gap, Isabella, being 24, and James 38, it was a partnership that saw the couple being among the prominent citizens of Auckland.  Little has been written of Isabella Dilworth so we have only glimpses of the person that she undoubtedly was. It is typical of the period that the wife works quietly in the background.

Lady of Society

With the Dilworths being prominent citizens Isabella would have been hostess to a number of gatherings at the Dilworth homestead, though it is reported that they were not frequent entertainers.  Gilbert Pearce reports her as a welcoming host and her Victoria sponges being favourably commented on.  Isabella has been described as being well organized and well read. George MacMurray recalled Isabella Dilworth as being a lady who inspired a degree of awe with her literary mind and her strength of character. James ensured that Isabella was well looked after.  They had only been married three years when in 1856 James provided Isabella with an Irish jaunting car, a light two wheeled carriage, with lavish upholstery and harnesses which could carry four passengers, specially imported from Belfast. 

It is well known that James and Isabella were concerned about the future of their estate on their death. It was not until later years that James began to consider the possibility of using his wealth to provide for the education of boys whose families were in straitened circumstances.  Though James consulted with the Rev’d George MacMurray, and indeed encouraged him move to New Zealand from Australia, it was his brother in law that he chose as chair of the Trust. There would have been much discussion between James, Isabella, Robert and Robert’s son-in-law William Beatty.

The Dilworth Trust

On James death in 1894 Isabella became one of the Trustees of the newly formed Dilworth Trust Board.  Her younger brother, Robert, became the first Chairman.  The early days of the Dilworth Trust were not without its challenges.  James Dilworth had been very specific and prescriptive in the detail of the Trust management.  Among other things it had to generate a certain level of income before the school opened. A major setback was the requirement by the then government that the Trust pay death duties, an issue which was challenged all the way to the Privy Council before it was overturned.  Sadly, valuable land had to be sold to pay the duties and the cost of the appeals, further delaying the opening of the school

Isabella Dilworth was clearly anxious that her husband’s wishes be fulfilled without delay.  It was her suggestion to her fellow Trustees that she vacate the substantial homestead and live in a more modest home to enable the building to become the school. It was 12 March 1906 that the school opened with a roll of eight boys. It was small beginnings but the start of a hugely successful journey.

Though in her late seventies Isabella was very much part of the school in those early days. Perhaps the words of Bert Callwell, the first enrolled boy encapsulates all that Isabella stood for:

I have never forgotten Mrs Dilworth. I have seen a lot of happy people in my life, but never anyone happier than she was at the time, on seeing the school opened.  She was there to greet us. She was radiant….. There were eight of us at the school and she looked on us all as her sons.  There were times when people referred to us as charity cases but Mrs Dilworth would have none of that.  She always insisted;  “These are my children”

The Hall Family Connection

Whilst it was James Dilworth’s dream to establish such a magnificent foundation, it was the Halls that saw the plan put into action.  Isabella, together with her brother Robert ensured that the dream was carried to fruition.  The Rev’d William Beatty and Vicar of St Mark’s,  married to his eldest daughter Elizabeth, was one of the original Trustees.  This meant three of the original Trustees had a direct family connection.  The family connection continued with Robert Hall’s son James being appointed a Trustee from  1910 to 1918.