A Women Ahead of Her Time
Constance Barnicoat Grande (1872 – 1922) was a remarkable woman for her time, and one who crammed a range of activities into her short life. The seventh child of Rebecca (Hodgson) and early Nelson settler and Nelson Provincial Councillor, John Barnicoat, she was variously described as a journalist, interpreter, mountaineer, traveller and British imperialist.
Her early life growing up in Richmond was comparatively sheltered, but intellectually and physically robust. Tutored in Latin, French and German at home, Barnicoat attended the newly opened Nelson College for Girls and graduated with a BA from Canterbury University College. 1
Julian Grande, Barnicoat’s husband later described the effect her family life had on her: “Their spirit of adventure became like oxygen in her blood…and…did much to mould her own quiet, persevering, indomitable nature.” 2
Education and learning were highly valued in the Barnicoat family, and the tall, vigorous girl was noticed by the Chancellor of Canterbury University, Professor John MacMillan Brown, who later wrote “I foresaw that whatever career she chose she would pursue with distinction and success.” 3
After working for Francis Dillon Bell in Wellington, Barnicoat sailed for England in May 1897, where her shorthand skills and linguistic ability proved invaluable to her employer, W.T. Stead, founder-editor of the Review of Reviews. She also wrote freelance articles for the Christchurch Press and English publications. 4
An enthusiastic horsewoman and a keen cyclist, Barnicoat became passionate about mountaineering after a nine month trip back to New Zealand. On 3 April, 1903, Barnicoat and three female companions became the first women to cross from the Hermitage (Mt Cook) to Westland via the Copeland Pass. 5
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“….Skirts, even the shortest, are almost impracticable in such places…I promptly sent for proper boys’ boots, the heaviest procurable, with very thick soles which I have well nailed, and generally rigged myself out as much like a boy as possible with a white wool ‘sweater’, knickers and puttees to my knees. Except in some such dress the guide flatly refused the risk of taking ladies; and he was perfectly justified,” she wrote after the Copeland crossing. 6
She went on to climb throughout Europe, with her greatest achievement being a winter ascent of the Great Schreckhorn (13,379 ft/4078 m) in the Swiss Bernese Alps.
In March 1911, Barnicoat married handsome journalist, linguist and mountaineer, Julian Grande, 7 a Romanian Jew. 8 He was to describe the marriage as ‘that kind of marriage which is made in heaven.” 9
The couple moved to Bern, Switzerland in 1913. Barnicoat told her husband: “ Switzerland will be either the battlefield or the plotting ground of Europe; let us go there and we shall be at the centre of things.” 10
From Bern, the Grandes worked as correspondents for British, American and New Zealand newspapers and countered German propaganda through a multi-lingual journal and pamphlets. 11
At this time, Barnicoat knew such international figures as Lenin and Trotsky. A proud Professor MacMillan Brown wrote of her: “ How keenly she saw into the heart of European politics. And her insight seemed to go deeper as the war approached and went on.” 12
After World War 1, the Grandes moved to Geneva, the seat of the League of Nations.13 In 1915, a tumour was treated with new x-ray treatment, but by 1922 it was clear Barnicoat was not getting better. 14 She died in Geneva on 16 September, 1922.
Her grieving husband, Julian, fulfilled her dying wish and travelled to New Zealand to meet her family and friends. He climbed a peak in Westland, naming it Peak Barnicoat in her honour. 15 Grande’s biography of his wife was described by author and scholar, Professor J.Strahan as: “A memorial of a New Zealand woman of genius, who came to England in the end of last century, and became the most influential of British women journalists in the present century.” 16
In spite of all of Barnicoat’s achievements- extraordinary for a woman of her time- in very traditional fashion, the obituary in the Evening Post17 (see left) described her in relation to the men in her life.
See Sinclair, R.L. (1932) A few recollections of my early life in Nelson for an intimate glimpse of the young Constance and her Nelson family [contributed by her great grand daughter, Mary Skipworth]
Updated May 5, 2020
Sources used in this story
- Macdonald, C. (Ed.). (1991). The book of New Zealand women: Ko kui ma te kaupapa. Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books, p 49
- Dawson, B. (2001). Lady Travellers: the tourists of early New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin.p 201
- Dawson, p 203
- McCallum, J. (2008) 'Barnicoat, Constance Alice 1872 - 1922'.Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3b10/barnicoat-constance-alice
- Dawson, p 206
- Dawson, p 197
- Dawson, p 211
- Dawson, p 212.
- A Husband’s Tribute (1925, June 6) Evening Post, p.17. http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=EP19250606.2.133.2
- Dawson, p. 216
- Dawson, p. 220
- Macdonald, p 51
- A Husband’s Tribute
- Obituary. (1922, September 19) Evening Post, p. 8 http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast?a=d&d=EP192209188.8.131.52
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Further sources - Constance Barnicoat
- Barnicoat, C. A. (1904, April). Through the Copland Pass where no woman ever went before. London.
- Dawson, B. (2001). Lady Travellers: the tourists of early New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: Penguin. p. 196-220.
- Grande, J. (1925). Constance Grande: war correspondent, traveller, alpinist and imperialist. London: Chapman and Hall
- McCallum, J. (1996). Barnicoat, Constance Alice, B10. The Dictionary of New Zealand biography, 3:1901-1920. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press and Department of Internal Affairs. pp. 32-33.
- Macdonald, C. (Ed.). (1991). The book of New Zealand women: Ko kui ma te kaupapa. Wellington, New Zealand: Bridget Williams Books. pp. 49-51.
- McMurtry, G. (1992). A versatile community: the history of the settlers of central Moutere. Nelson, New Zealand: Self Published. pp. 36-37.
- Schuler, A. (2019) Nothing but the truth: Constance Grande. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies 8(5), pp. 69-80
- Constance Alice Barnicoat; 1872–1922. Retrieved from NZETC:
- Constance Grande, nee Barnicoat Articles relevant to her life and family. Retrieved 26 October 2010 from:
- McCallum, J. (2008) Barnicoat, Constance Alice 1872 - 1922'. Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3b10/barnicoat-constance-alice
- News and Notes (1911, May 24). Grey River Argus. p.7. Retrieved 23 January 2009 from