Sarah Louise Mathew was born into an exceptionally literate London household in 1805. Her older brother, George, wrote poetry and was a good friend of John Keats, who dedicated some of his early poems to Sarah's sisters. From a young age Sarah was an avid reader. Her journals of the 1840s are composed with greater literary flair than the sketchy diaries kept by other migrants to New Zealand in this period.
Sarah was engaged to her cousin, Felton Mathew, a few months before surveying work took him to New South Wales in 1829. She sailed to join him in the Australian colony in 1831, and they were married in Sydney in January 1832. Though blighted by the sadness of all their children being stillborn, theirs was a close union. Sarah accompanied Felton on many of his field trips (often across rugged terrain) and acted as his secretary, preparing copies of his reports.
She followed Felton to New Zealand in March 1840 and during the next few years recorded her impressions of the budding settlement of Auckland, where she was at the hub of the social life. After Felton died on a voyage back to England in 1847, she continued home alone, but she returned to Auckland in 1858 to supervise her property interests, leaving again in 1861, this time permanently. She died at Tonbridge, Kent, in 1890.
The journals, letters and sketchbooks of Felton and Sarah Mathew now housed in the Library were obtained in 1938 from descendants of the Mathew family by James Rutherford, professor of history at Auckland University College , who presented an annotated selection in his 1940 book The Founding of New Zealand. ‘They are of value and interest,’ Rutherford comments in his preface, ‘because they are intensely human documents, full of little daily incidents, shrewd comments on persons and events, expressions happy or petulant of the hopes and fears of the moment, all of which gives a vividness and vitality to the story so often missing in more deliberate historical writing.’ He aptly describes Sarah as ‘a very charming and intelligent lady, who possessed something which was not evident in her husband – a keen sense of humour’.