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Sampler tells story of 19th century girls

DSC3416 1 31 August 2019 1840 x 1818

The Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust collection is privileged to have amongst its many treasures, several marking samplers, dated between 1808 –1877. Marking samplers are not beautiful: they were not intended to be an item of value and so there was no need to make them attractive nor invest more than the minimum amount of linen and thread (both of which were expensive) in their making. They served a dual purpose: the sampler taught the beginner basic embroidery techniques as well as re-enforced the alphabet and numbers learnt at school. These delicate-looking naïve pieces of embroidery deceive the eye appearing plain, even nondescript. Poignantly each one tells us a story, bringing to life the seldom-heard voices of children living in the nineteenth century.

Imagine a young child, head bent, under the light of a candle or window, a frown of intense concentration furrowing their brow, as small fingers poised, struggle to grasp the valuable needle and carefully making the crosses required for the pattern.

By the work of the needle we are inadvertently drawn into the young child’s world, as each sampler provides a name, date when it was completed, a verse (Biblical or moral), and perhaps a school or place name. From this piece-meal information, it is sometimes possible to extend our knowledge and find information about the child and their family.

These prized pieces of embroidery do not have a wide range of stitches nor do they show a great deal of mastery of technique. They were purely a teaching tool to introduce the novice to the joys of embroidery and as an expectation for marriage. Sewing clothes, linens, and mending were routine household tasks that every newly married young woman would have in her repertoire of skills.

All of the marking samplers housed in the Museum’s collection, bar one, were stitched by young girls while living in England, aged 11 years and under. Obviously treasured, each piece of embroidery was brought to Aotearoa, New Zealand by the owner or close relative.

The odd one out, references directly to Hawke’s Bay. Annie Maria Corbin, born 15 February 1865 in Havelock North to parents William and Jane Corbin, meticulously stitched the sampler. At some stage, the family moved to Taradale where they became very involved in All Saints Anglican Church. Her father, a carpenter, served for several years as parishioner’s warden.

When Annie completed stitching her sampler in 1876, she was just 11 years old. Like all marking samplers, Annie’s work concentrated on letters and numbers with limited pictorial or textural elements. Worked in cross-stitch using monochrome thread, the sampler was well planned and the geometric patterns, used as defining lines, were given equal weight.

The verse she included is a line from the Bible, Proverbs 15.3:“The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.” The message behind these words was that the omnipresent God was everywhere watching your behaviour. As with all the verses on marking samplers, it was stitched close to the bottom: it proclaimed the maker’s virtue, the value of education, and most importantly obedience to one’s parents and God.

At the young age of 13, Annie became a pupil teacher at Napier District School. She worked there for three years, and then went on to study at Wellington Training College for one and a half years to become a fully qualified teacher. At the Training College prize-giving in January 1886, Annie was awarded the distinction of “highest classification”.

Once her training was completed, Annie was appointed Second Master at Waipawa School in March 1886. The Hawke’s Bay Herald newspaper wrote, very tongue in cheek, that no doubt she “could ‘master’ the youngsters.” Two years later, Annie attained the position of Assistant Mistress at Taradale School. Here, she remained until her marriage at Taradale’s All Saints Anglican Church, to farmer James Harris on 4 April 1891.

Marriage, in those days, dictated that Annie had to leave her employment as a teacher and focus her attention on supporting her husband and maintaining a home-life. The couple spent the remainder of their lives in the Taradale - Meeanee area. Annie died in 1953 and is interred next to her husband in the Taradale cemetery. 

Each marking sampler in the collection can be viewed as a social document, regardless of whether we know much about the child behind the stitching. Touchingly these fragments of embroidered cloth are sometimes all there is to record the otherwise often undocumented life of these young girls.


  • The New Zealand International Film Festival (NZIFF) is now showing in the MTG Century Theatre. This year’s festival runs until the 15 September. Tickets available now through Ticketek and at MTG.
  • Last chance to see. Project Banaba exhibition closes after tomorrow, Sunday 1 September. Free entry.
  • Behind the scenes tour - The written word: celebrating Māori Language Week, Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori 2019. Tuesday 10 September 12-1pm. SOLD OUT.
  • Exhibition tour – join Curator Māori, Te Hira Henderson, for a guided tour of Tēnei Tonu and Turuturu followed by an introductory te reo Māori lesson to celebrate Māori Language Week, Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori. Tuesday 10 & Thursday 12 September 4:30-6pm. Free event, koha appreciated. Registrations open soon on Eventfinda.
  • Public Art Walking Tour. Join one of our staff for a lunch time walk discussing highlights of Napier City’s public art works. Wednesday 11 September 12-1pm. Free event, meet in MTG foyer.
  • Exhibition tour – join Curator Māori, Te Hira Henderson, for a guided tour of Tēnei Tonu. Thursday 12 September 12-1pm. Free event, meet in MTG foyer. 

Image Caption: Annie Maria Corbin's marking sampler


3 September 2019

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