Coming here, Tony Simpson

No Simple Passage 
Jenny Robin Jones
Random House, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869795108


We are all increasingly fascinated by our origins. And as recollection turns into memory and then into family anecdote, we go looking for these origins in documentation. This, in its turn, lends itself to publication, thus the developing flood of books on New Zealand’s European immigration pioneers in recent years.

This is not an obsession confined to post-colonial societies. The London Public Record Office has been obliged to add what is effectively a complete wing devoted to the purpose to its facility at Kew to cope with demand from British enthusiasts. But it takes on a particular poignancy in a place in which everyone who lives there, including the tangata whenua, is either an incomer themselves or is descended from someone who came here in less than the last thousand years. We want to know who we are and think, rightly, that knowing where we came from and how we coped with the experience of getting here may tell us a part of the answer at least. Jenny Robin Jones has found a new angle by adding another question: and what happened then?

This is not only a fair question but a highly apposite one. As James Belich has pithily remarked: “No-one ever came to New Zealand to be worse off”, even if some of them ended up that way. Not all the answers are available but Jones has found some of them, and very interesting they turn out to be. Her device is a simple one. Take a single immigrant ship – the London bound for Port Nicholson in 1842 – on which one of your own ancestors came here, use the available narrative material to track the voyage day by day – 29 December 1841 to 2 May 1842 – and then say what happened post-arrival as far as you can.

That sounds easy but has its difficulties. There are large gaps in the record, as I found myself when writing on the subject, especially when dealing with the steerage passengers, ie those down in the hold, most but not all of whom had their passages paid for by the New Zealand Company, and many of whom were doubtless illiterate. Given that constraint, the book does remarkably well.

Essentially two sources are available for the voyage itself. One of these is the record of the ship’s surgeon, William Mackie Turnbull, aged 21, who was required by his contract to keep a careful track of the Company immigrants, which he does assiduously. Interestingly, he had no such obligation towards the crew and simply records the death of three of them (including two Maori) without comment or saying why. The other is a diary kept by Charles Empson, a cuddy, or cabin passenger – first class as we would call it now – a representative of that peculiarly Victorian social category, a younger son going out to the colonies to try his luck, and no doubt, he hopes, to find his fortune.

Dr Turnbull is a sterling example of Voltaire’s dictum (cited by Jones) to the effect that far more patients died through the ministrations of their physician than if he had left them alone.  No doubt he was doing his best, and at least, unlike many of the “surgeons” who took passage on such ships, he had a medical qualification obtained from one of the best schools of his day (Edinburgh) under the tutelage of the great medical innovator and pioneer of anaesthetic techniques James Simpson. No doubt too, the treatments he prescribes, detailed with particular care in his log, reflect the medical orthodoxies of his day. But Jones has, in some circumstances, run the symptoms he similarly carefully describes, past some current medical professionals, who have shuddered at Turnbull’s diagnoses and ministrations, some of which may have actively made the condition worse.

It is a salutary lesson in how far our medical knowledge has advanced in the last century and a half, and in particular what a crucial difference the discovery of antibiotics has made within my own lifetime. Some of the conditions described could have been cleared up at once by their use; death was the outcome instead. It probably also explains why so many steerage passengers died en route. Children were particularly prone not only on this vessel but generally, as I know from my own researches. Possibly this is a reflection not merely of the particular vulnerability of children to epidemic disease in the Victorian era. Taking a stroll through the old Bowen Street cemetery in Wellington and reading the ages of the deceased can be a chilling experience: whole families of children wiped out by diphtheria or typhus within days of one another. But it may also be a reflection of the nutritional inadequacy of the standard diet of the steerage passengers en route to this country. Fresh provisions, for example, although carried on board, were reserved for the cabin passengers.

The extent of Victorian class distinctions which we find particularly shocking today is underlined in this particular instance by the fact that our diarist, Charles Empson, thinks it particularly worthy of note that the church services held on board were attended by all the classes of passengers rather than being separate and segregated as between those in the cabin, the “intermediates” (those in the steerage who were paying their way) and those who were not. In fact, Jones cites the case of a cabin passenger on the Lord Auckland travelling to Nelson in 1841 – and carrying my own great-great-grandfather William Patchett to his untimely death at the Wairau in 1843 – who fraternised with the steerage and who was sent to Coventry by his fellow cabin passengers until he promised not to do it again and apologised personally to the captain for such a social solecism.

A lot of this I knew but what fascinated me was the subsequent history, as far as it could be traced, of the arrivals in the new settlement of Wellington. I’ll leave you to find out for yourself what happens to our diarist Empson and to the good Doctor Turnbull by reading the book, but there are many interesting stories besides. In following them, commercial and business directories, and electoral and rating rolls are invaluable if partial. Regrettably, some of the passengers disappear without a trace. But others go on to much higher things. There is, for example, the Fitchett family. The original settler, John, who arrived as an illiterate painter from Derbyshire, and his wife Louisa start keeping a cow in Bolton Street and selling the milk. Then John goes exploring inland where he discovers what will become the inner city suburb of Brooklyn. By 1847, he has bought 112 acres of land there and soon is farming 60 cows and making a good living selling their products and firewood from the felling of the trees on the property which his sons cart down to the blossoming town in a wheelbarrow. By the time he dies in 1875 and his son Ashton takes over, the family is prospering and has given its name to the sub-district – Fitchettown, now regrettably out of use.

Others were less successful and took ship for other parts. Others again moved inland and prospered in Hawke’s Bay and the Wairarapa. But one thing which struck me overall was the sheer hard slog of pioneering, and the very basic level at which even the most successful were obliged to live often for a decade and more before they began to make any headway. Those who succeeded invariably were possessed of a useful set of skills such as in farming and horticulture, or brickmaking and construction, or cartage, or timber felling and sawyering, although these were not in themselves a recipe for success. That some of them flourished in the new land accordingly should surprise no-one. And it seems to me significant that even among those who, as the contemporary saying went, “drew New Zealand blank”, few if any seem to have contemplated a return to the old country even if the means had offered themselves. They had made their escape from what were often intolerable social conditions and knew there was no going back.


Tony Simpson is a Wellington social historian and author of The Immigrants: The Great Migration to New Zealand 1830 to 1890.


Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category