Record Type
Person/Corporate Type
Date Born/Est
13 May 1831
Date Died/Ceased
26 Jul 1909
Place Of Birth
Glasgow/Scotland/United Kingdom
Place Of Death
New Zealand
Biographical Display
Mary Jane Gilfillan was born on the 13th of May 1831 in Glasgow, Scotland, to her parents Sarah Murray and John Gilfillan. John Gilfillan formerly worked as Professor of Painting at Andersonian University in Glasgow (1825-40), working as a colonial artist during his time in New Zealand. Mary Jane's mother passed away in 1837 and her father remarried in 1838 to Mary Bridges. The Gilfillan family moved to Whanganui in 1842 and lived on an isolated section in Matarawa. Mary Jane survived an attack on her family’s home by a group of Māori youth from the upper Whanganui River, on 18 April 1847. Her father received a neck wound but then escaped for help, believing he was the only likely victim. Upon his return with a number of Pūtiki Māori and mounted police, he found his wife Mary dead, along with three of their other children, Elizabeth, Francis and Adam. The Gilfillan house was burned and left in ruins. Two of the younger Gilfillan children, Sarah and John, managed to escape. Mary Jane was found with a severe wound in her forehead, holding her baby sister Agnes. Agnes and John's baby grandson Alexander, also present at the attack, passed away later that year.

The story of the attack at the Gilfillan homestead has been memorialised in numerous publications. A pamphlet entitled ‘Wanganui In Early Days. – An Unforgotten Tragedy’, empathizes with Mary Jane's experience:

“Through what a long and dreadful night must that poor girl have passed! The flames of her home lighting up her place of refuge, and the bodies of her mother and the children around her, and the dread that the savage murderers might at any moment return and complete their work!”

At the time, the attack on the Gilfillan family also triggered outright conflict between opposing Whanganui Māori. It is believed the shooting of Hapurona Ngārangi two days earlier on the Calliope instigated the attack on the Gilfillans. Ngārangi had been working for an officer in the Royal Navy when he was accidentally shot by midshipman H. E. Crozier. The six youth who attacked the Gilfillans, aged 14-19, were relatives of Ngārangi and the attack allegedly considered utu for his injury. However, according to testimony from the missionary Richard Taylor, the Gilfillans were not originally the group’s target. After the attack, Pūtiki rangatira Hoani Hīpango went up river and apprehended five members of the group who had attacked the Gilfillans. The accused were Te Ura Wiri, Te Ware Kuti, Te Awa Uri and E Taka. These four were charged with murder and hanged on the 26th of April. Despite his proclaimed innocence, the youngest of the group, Puputai, was sentenced to ‘transportation for life’, according to the Wanganui Herald (1909). Ngāti Hāua Te Rangi rangatira, Te Mamaku, subsequently attacked Whanganui with a force of 300 the following month. Although historical accounts pay much attention to the Gilfillan attack, these provide little mention of the individuals Mary Jane, Sarah, John Gilfillan junior, or to the fourteen year old Puputai who was punished by association.

After the attack at Matarawa, Mary Jane and her younger siblings Sarah and John, moved to Sydney with their father John. They stayed there until after his death in 1864, emigrating to Whanganui some time in the 1870s. John junior tragically drowned in Lake Rotorua on May 27th 1875 at 35 years of age. The sisters spent time at the Lambhill residence at Warrengate, built by their elder sister Georgianna and her husband Dr. James Allison. They stayed there with their nephew Alexander, named after his brother who had passed away as a baby. Another resident at Lamb Hill, Beatrice Davis, recalled that Mary Jane retold the story of the attack at Matarawa each night. After her nephew left Lambhill, John Russell , Beatrice’s husband, gave Mary Jane a section on Seddon Street. Mary Jane Gilfillan passed away on July 26th 1909 at age 79 in New Zealand.

External Sources:

"Gilfillan killings near Whanganui", URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Dec-2016

"The Gilfillan farm at Matarawa", URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 25-Jun-2014

"The Gilfillan Massacre", Wanganui Herald, Volume 44, Issue 12833, 28 July 1909.

"The Matarawa killings", URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 25-Jun-2014

Bevan, T., "Reminiscences of an Old Colonist: Wanganui In Early Days – An Unforgotten Tragedy", The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout, Volume 79, 1911, URL:

Bowman, I., Burr, V., and Cable, N., "Lambhill Homestead", Built Heritage Inventory, URL: (Whanganui District Council – Te Kaunihera a Rohe o Whanganui), Opus, 2012.

Lythgoe, Darrin, "Mary Jane Gilfillan", 1820 Settler Genealogies and Other Information, URL: (The Next Generation of Genealogy Sitebuilding), 2001-2018.

Platts, Una, "Gilfillan, John Alexander 1793-1863", Nineteenth Century New Zealand Artists: A Guide & Handbook, Christchurch, N.Z.,: Avon Fine Prints Limited, 1980, URL:


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