A veritable Pooh-Bah, Edmund Bohan

Dear Tyrant; An Extraordinary Colonial Life
Barrie Allom
Wairarapa Archive/Fraser Books, $39.50,
ISBN 9780992247522

Albert James Allom (1825-1909) always described himself in his numerous and usually self-justifying writings as “Gentleman”, a title that frequently in his latter years brought down on his unbowed head some derision. Not that derision ever seems to have bothered this most resolute self-publicist and controversialist. He was certainly a colourful character, and Barrie Allom, his great-great grandson, strives hard to bring his story to life through copious quotations from Albert’s numerous autobiographical writings. Yet the author cannot quite avoid the conclusion that, although one must admire Albert for his sheer determination, industry and courage in battling adversity, he was not the most likeable of our 19th-century colonial personalities. Nevertheless, his story is worth telling.

Albert was the son of rather remarkable parents. His father, Thomas, grew from apparently humble London origins to become a very sought after and successful architectural draughtsman, water-colourist of distinction and, especially, an engraver whose lithographs of Nelson and Wellington harbour became integral and effective elements in the New Zealand Company’s propaganda offensive to attract settlers. Albert’s mother, Mary Ann, was an even more important protagonist for Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s schemes. A tiny, clever, ambitious dynamo of a woman, she was described by Henry Chapman, another Company propagandist and later a judge in the colony’s Supreme Court, as having a “monstrous” thirst for news and a “prurient” ability for political intrigue. She is perhaps this book’s most interesting character. She not only provided Wakefield with a second London home, but she acted as his indispensable acolyte, intimate friend, publicist, hostess on New Zealand Company social occasions, and nurse throughout his various health crises. Indeed, her devotion and Wakefield’s continual presence eventually led to her husband’s accusations of “a compromising nature that caused her great distress”. These did not, however, alter the relationship, and Wakefield repaid her devotion by virtually adopting her sons, Albert and Charles, and setting them out on their careers: Charles (of whom Wakefield was especially fond) to the East India Company as a cadet, and Albert (aged 16) as one of the Company’s 17-strong surveying team, bound for newly founded Wellington in 1841. By then, too, Albert had fallen in love with Wakefield’s adored niece Emily, daughter of Colonel William Wakefield, Wellington’s leader.

Young Albert worked on the Wellington, Manawatu and Otago surveys and road constructions between 1842 and 1845; difficult years of power struggles between the Company, Governor FitzRoy’s autocratic government in Auckland, and Otaki’s CMS missioners led by Octavius Hadfield. He also took full part in the colony’s social life and welcomed his beloved Emily Wakefield on her arrival with the first consignment of bees to New Zealand. This, unsurprisingly, had been organised by his mother and earned Mary Ann the Silver Isis Medal of the Royal Society of Arts, presented by Prince Albert. Luck, however, seldom accompanied Albert. Emily was soon engaged to young Francis Molesworth, and after his death, and to Albert’s regret, it seems, she married Nelson’s rising leader, Edward Stafford. And when the Company’s affairs deteriorated, its surveys were halted and Albert was made redundant.

He now ventured into the Wairarapa, where such wealthy young men as the aristocratic Frederick Weld, Charles Clifford and others were leasing land from Māori and establishing large sheep runs. Albert, without their capital, also became a squatter in partnership with another ex-survey cadet, John Tully. Their run, Tauanui, was more modest, but they battled on until 1848, when their dwelling burnt down, and visiting Judge Chapman, scandalised by their cohabitating with young Māori women, wrote to Mary Ann and Thomas Allom who summoned Albert home to London. John Tully stayed and prospered.

Back in England, where Edward Gibbon Wakefield was suffering strokes and being nursed devotedly by Mary Ann, Albert became the great man’s secretary and amanuensis as Wakefield struggled not only to complete his monumental, but controversial, View of the Art of Colonisation, but also to oversee the preparations for the Canterbury Association’s settlement at Lyttelton and Christchurch – his last colonial project. And with those tasks completed, Wakefield secured another job for Albert as private secretary to his friend, Sir Dominick Daly, newly appointed Lieutenant Governor of Tobago.

Albert served in Tobago from 1851 until ill-health forced his resignation in 1859, rising to be not only the Colonial Secretary, but a veritable Pooh-Bah of that colony’s small civil service – secretary of just about everything. The climate, however, took a serious toll and the malaria he contracted affected him sporadically for the rest of his life. Also during this time, and while in England on sick leave, he was married to Eliza Horne by no less a celebrity than that famous author and muscular Christian, the Reverend Charles Kingsley. Strangely, according to her assiduous great-grandson, Eliza rates few mentions in Albert’s voluminous autobiographical notes and intermittent diaries, yet she was clearly a woman of impressive character, who endured a lifetime of struggles, setbacks and, of course, Albert himself, whom she memorably but affectionately referred to as “dear tyrant”.

By the time Albert and Eliza left Tobago, Mary Ann Allom was dead and Gibbon Wakefield was a slowly dying and discredited recluse in New Zealand. Albert had lost the two driving forces of his career, and although he, Eliza and their eldest children (there were nine eventually) set out for New Zealand with high hopes, the great days were over. Mining and timber ventures on Great Barrier Island and Tasmania failed and, in spite of holding official positions at Thames and Auckland, he did not prosper in public service. Though always active in civic affairs and seldom absent from the newspapers, Albert, egotistical and self-justifying, fought on until the bitter end in 1909, head bloody but unbowed.


Edmund Bohan is a Christchurch historian and novelist.

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