Mary Jane Milne – Businesswoman, Retailer and Co-founder of Milne and Choyce
Mary Jane Milne was born in County Tyrone, Ireland, in 16 September 1840. Her family left Ireland in July 1863 and sailed on the Queen of the Mersey from Gravesend, London, on 1 August; they arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, on 26 November 1863.
The Milnes found a house at 1 Park Road, Grafton, which they rented from the Wesley Mission and Educational Trust Board. This property was leased in Mary Jane’s name, not her parents’ names, for nearly 40 years.
She immediately found work as head milliner with David Graham who had a soft-goods emporium. She gained knowledge of merchandising, marketing, banking and the tastes and expectations of prospective customers.
Early in 1867, despite the economic recession in Auckland, Mary Jane bought into a millinery and drapery business with her sister, Charlotte, with a shop situated on the corner of Wyndham and Albert streets. They bought the business from Mr and Mrs Wilson but it was better known as “Mrs C Lowson’s”. Elizabeth Lowson had been a milliner from before 1849: her shop was so renowned that the Milnes referred to their business as ‘late Mrs Lowson’s’ for some years.
The uphill location and considerable competition meant a slow start and some delay in paying off the financial commitment to the former owners, but the business gradually built up. In 1874 they moved to larger premises at Cheapside House on the corner of Queen and Wellesley streets. The sisters took over the stock and goodwill of draper Berry Cass who was relocating to Christchurch.
That same year, on 29 August 1874, her sister Charlotte Milne married Henry Charles Choyce, a buyer in Archibald Clark and Sons. In 1876 the sisters’ firm became known as Milne and Choyce when Henry joined Mary Jane as a business partner. The firm at first concentrated on fashion, variety and quality in all items of drapery. Dressmaking was an especial service offered and the shop provided employment for a large staff. Mary Jane, with her experience, knowledge and flair, went on several buying trips to England and Europe to place orders for the most fashionable stock.
In 1901 Milne and Choyce became a public company with Choyce as managing director. Mary Jane Milne was not on the board, but she remained active until her retirement in March 1908. She held a large shareholding and remained influential in the business all her life. From time to time the premises were rebuilt and enlarged; by 1909 Milne and Choyce had moved to a central position in Queen Street.
All her working life Mary Jane Milne drove daily to the shop in a horse and gig from her home in Park Road, until she took the typically enterprising and modern step of purchasing in 1903 a twin-cylinder Darracq car at the age of 62. Deeply involved in the business, Milne also possessed a great devotion to her family, although she never married. Her parents lived with her until they died – Charlotte and Henry Choyce settled on the same Park Road property – and in 1889 she became guardian of the four children of her brother, John Stuart Milne. Her nephew, another John Stuart Milne, joined the business when he was 17; he became its secretary in 1901 and a director in 1909. Her nieces Ethel and Mary worked as saleswomen and sales representatives.
In 1904 Mary Jane Milne moved to Westbourne Road, Remuera, then in 1909 to 9 and 11 Vincent Road (now St Vincent Avenue), Remuera, where two other family homes were built on the section. The site is now occupied by the retirement village 7 St Vincent. The warm family life continued until, and after, her death there on 4 April 1921. She is buried at Purewa Cemetery – Block A Row 30 Plot 7.
Mary Jane Milne was a remarkable woman, reliable and capable, with a good business sense. She had the Irish sense of humour the family shared and was known for her benevolence and devotion to duty. Her energy and ability ensured that the company adapted, and survived lean as well as buoyant times. Mary Jane Milne was nominated into the New Zealand Business Hall of Fame in 2012 for millinery and drapery.
Mary Jane Milne’s early influence and ideals set the company course for more than 100 years for service to the customer and responsibility to staff. The last Milne department store opened in Remuera in 1965 and closed in 1999.