To celebrate the 125th anniversary of women's suffrage in New Zealand, every day this week we're exploring the stories behind great Auckland women and the impact they’ve had on our society. You can also check out the buildings around the city honouring them.
For Tuesday we're exploring the story of Marianne Smith Caughey-Preston, the founder of Smith & Caughey’s department store.
“A nimble sixpence rather than a slow shilling”
– Marianne about her business approach.
In a time where most women’s wealth was dependent on inheritance or marriage, the daughter of an Irish grocer built a fortune herself in the halls of Auckland.
Marianne Smith Caughey-Preston (1851-1938) arrived in Auckland from Ireland with her husband William Henry Smith in 1880 and quickly established her own shop, Smith’s Cheap Drapery Warehouse on Upper Queen Street.
Marianne ran the shop on a strategy of high turnover through low retail margins – hence her mottos, ‘Small profits and quick returns’ and ‘A nimble sixpence rather than a slow shilling'. She also specialised in supplying country customers and built relationships with Māori customers through advertising in the Māori-language newspaper Te Korimako.
Initially, the new firm couldn’t support both husband and wife, but Marianne’s business soon became so successful that William left his job at a rival store to join her.
Marianne’s brother Andrew Caughey became a partner when he arrived in Auckland in 1882 and they expanded the firm into Smith & Caughey, Drapers and Clothiers. As a married woman, Marianne was not a partner in the firm but remained vitally involved throughout her life including acting as director of the board and travelling to India and Britain in search of new goods.
Marianne was noted as a generous benefactor to Aucklanders, personally supporting the Door of Hope (an organisation caring for ‘fallen women’), gifting her own home in Herne Bay to the Salvation Army to use as an orphanage and donating the Quinton and Craigavon parks to the people of Auckland.
She received an MBE in 1935 in recognition of her charitable works.
After her death, Marianne left a huge estate of £325,000, the majority of which went to supporting aged and infirm women.
Today, the Smith & Caughey’s building is a landmark on Queen Street, which has been the site of the store since 1884.
The store has gone through multiple incarnations as it’s grown – sprawling from one building to multiple throughout the 1890’s, growing into a four storey building (with 1.2 hectares of floor space!) in 1908, then a seven-storey building in 1928 and a new façade for all the different buildings in 1939.