Not all those who signed the suffrage petition in Palmerston North were from the more affluent section of society. Emma Belk (nee Dutton) was listed as a ‘grocer’ in the 1893 Wise’s Directory, as she helped run her son Matthew’s small grocery shop in Main Street Palmerston North. Emma was born in 1820 so she was 73 and a widow when she signed the petition. Married at the age of 20 to James Duncan Belk, she gave birth to 14 children, five of whom died in childhood. Eight of the surviving children and five grandchildren came with Emma and her husband James Duncan Belk when they migrated to New Zealand as part of the Emigrants’ and Colonists’ Aid Corporation scheme in 1873. By this time Emma was 53. The three generation family of 16 was among the first group to arrive in Feilding in January 1874. Feilding was then a swampy, mosquito-ridden clearing in the bush, with no accommodation for the settler party, which included babies. The story is that the seven men in the advance party were so appalled by the site that they demanded to be taken back to Palmerston North, but the driver of the bullock team which brought them took off on his horse, leaving them stranded. James Belk was described as a mariner on his marriage certificate, later as a tanner, and as a farmer on migration records, and the family appear to have had a precarious existence – a Feilding property owned by James Belk was pulled down because he was unable to pay the rent. James and Emma eventually moved to Palmerston North, probably in the early 1880s, and this is where James died in 1889 and Emma is recorded as helping with her son’s shop. She died in 1901. The story of Emma Belk and her immediate family is not one of prosperity or prominence, and there is a sense of hardship inscribed upon the grim countenance in her photograph.
Margaret Tennant 22.9.2018