As Others See Us: Historic Dunedin Through Visitors' Eyes

As Others See Us: Historic Dunedin Through Visitors' Eyes

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A history of Dunedin through annotated extracts from the published writings of visitors to the city since 1826.

From: As Others See Us: Historic Dunedin Through Visitors' Eyes, by Ian Dougherty

Part 1    ‘Ornamental and Commodious’ 1826-1860

‘It is probable this situation will be made a desirable Settlement at some future period…’

Early writing about the site of the future city of Dunedin was penned in the context of the quest for suitable places to settle British colonists. To Thomas Shepherd goes the distinction of scribbling the first written comment. The nurseryman and landscape gardener from Scotland kept a journal of the expedition of the Rosanna (accompanied by the Lambton as supply ship), which brought a party of intending colonists, including his wife and children, to New Zealand and put into Otago Harbour on the way north in 1826. Shepherd was the ‘agricultural superintendent’ of the expedition, which was organised by the first New Zealand Company. The idea was to form a settlement in the Thames District but the colonists abandoned attempts to settle in New Zealand and sailed on to Sydney, where Shepherd set up the Darling Nursery and lectured on horticulture and landscape gardening.

‘Saturday 6th May I have this day in company with C[aptain Richard] Bell examined Port Oxley [Otago Harbour] to its utmost extent which by estimation we found to be about 12 miles bearing by compas[s] South by west from its entrance from the sea and from a quarter to a mile in a width forming a narrow channel all the way up of a serpentine direction from 3 to 7 fathoms deep and sufficiently wide for small vessels, the other parts of the harbour are chiefly sand banks which are dry at low water but of sufficient depth for boat at high water. Similar to Pegasus Harbour Stewarts [Stewart Island] are sloping hills of various heights and shapes and sizes on each side all the way up highly ornamented with trees and shrubs some of which are the same sorts as those at Stewarts Island but a great many are very different. I saw many fine pine trees and these were much inferior to the same kinds at Stewarts Island. In this harbour on each side are many creeks rivulets of small bays and a brook of fine water. Upon a small island about 4 miles up the harbour I found in the space of a quarter of an hour growing upon a piece of land not more than 20 square yards 40 different shrubs most of them were of neat growth. Some very handsome creepers. Some of the trees I had not seen at Stewarts Island are very beautiful but time would not permit to take a description of any of them being ordered not to go far into the woods as it was uncertain where the natives might be concealed. When we reached the utmost extent of the harbour we were agreeably surprised instead of woods on each side as we had all the way up we saw a fine open country chiefly covered with flax plants Fern grass and a few small shrubs which might be easily burnt down and made ready for the plough. This land is of excellent quality being a deep rich brown loam capable of producing grass and corn in the greatest perfection. It is singular the appearance of the country should thus change all at once from woods to open land which very much resembles some parts in England. There is a complete division between the open land and the woods so much so that the Hills and woods are all formed by nature in curved straight and circular lines, part of the open land is level in valleys some on gentle declivities and some hilly. The extreme point of this harbour is near the sea and near the point where Captn Bell came on shore the first of this month so that the Narrow neck of land which divides the Sea from Port Oxley’s Harbour is almost an Island. The hills may be seen at a great distance towering one above another all lost in a cloud. It is probable this situation will be made a desirable Settlement at some future period as there are plenty of Flax Timber for Building firewood &c and plenty of fish and good land. The[re] have been a number of whales in the Harbour. – It was late before we got to the ship the night was wet and I caught a severe cold. – The natives had been trading all day at the ship.’1

Otepoti, the Maori name for the land described by Shepherd at the ‘utmost extent’ of the harbour, was used by local Maori as a canoe landing site, and to catch birds and eels and later to run pigs away from the harbour-side villages and potato crops, but there was no evidence of any recent Maori occupation of the site when the first Europeans arrived.

Edward Shortland, an English academic and doctor who had been appointed ‘Protector of the Aborigines’ by the Colonial Government, came south in 1843 as a Maori language interpreter to a commission of inquiry into early European land claims. He then decided to explore large tracts of land on the east coast of the South Island and wrote in his journal of camping a night at the head of Otago Harbour on his overland journey to Foveaux Strait.

‘We have every reason to augur well for the peacefulness and prosperity of those who may select it for their home; as it possesses many essential elements of a happy and successful colony. It has a healthful climate, and scenery not easily to be surpassed for beauty – good land for tillage, and plains for sheep pasture – plenty of large and valuable timber – and an excellent harbour for vessels of a moderate size – of the greater importance from its position, being the only one between Banks’s Peninsula and Foveaux’s Straits, a distance of nearly 300 miles.’2

Of greater significance than the views of Shepherd and Shortland were those of Frederick Tuckett, the second New Zealand Company’s principal surveyor and civil engineer in Nelson. The strong-willed English Quaker was assigned the task of finding a suitable site for a ‘Scotch Colony’ in the South Island. He was pressured to recommend Port Cooper (Lyttelton) but insisted on examining the coast from Lyttelton to Milford Sound before making a decision. He wrote in his diary in 1844 of leaving the charter ship Deborah at Deborah Bay in Otago Harbour and continuing up the harbour in a whaleboat.

‘Saturday April 27th. Landed at the head of the inner or upper harbour, the length of which must be full 7 miles, that of the lower about 6. On either side the forest continues unbroken, good Timber is abundant, the soil, notwithstanding that the surface is often rocky and stony, appears to be fertile, the rock being probably a species of basalt. There is certainly more available and eligible land on the shores of this vast inland sea than on any portion of Banks Peninsula, and in respect of the facility of constructing a road it possesses a corresponding superiority. … A space of less than quarter of a mile intervenes at the Head of the Harbour between it and the Ocean shore, here for a space of 2 miles, there is water frontage to the Harbour of unwooded land rising gently inland. Landing, I followed the native track for about 2 miles towards Tiaria [Taieri] and then returned to the Boat… It offers an ornamental and commodious site for a Town, one most suitable in every aspect save the distance from the deep water of the Lower Harbour the channel throughout is on the West side, and generally narrow, and a fathom and a half of water would be found to within two miles of the extremity of the Harbour. Two-thirds of the space covered by the flood is left dry at the ebb.’3


Frederick Tuckett about 1850.

While Tuckett’s chosen site continued to impress visitors, the Free Church of Scotland settlement established there initially struggled to make a positive impact on outsiders, particularly those from England. James Stack, a New Zealand-born England-trained teacher (and later Anglican minister), paid a brief visit to Dunedin on his return to New Zealand in 1852, four years after the arrival of the first organised settlers on the John Wickliffe and Philip Laing. His recollections, written for his grandchildren, included his account of arriving by sea at Port Chalmers.

‘Forests covered all the hillsides down to the water’s edge, and the supplejacks were so thick that it was impossible to make way through them. A narrow track had been cleared from the Port to Dunedin, but it was so muddy we never ventured more than a few yards along it. Unlike passengers by the modern ocean-going boats, who are the first to ask for news of the outside world on arrival in port, we, on the contrary, were the first to be asked for news by the residents, everyone wanting to be told the latest English and European news. … The Dunedin gaol was unlike any other I ever heard of, and was conducted on the voluntary principle, that is to say, prisoners could go or stay as they pleased. The building was so insecure the gaoler [Henry Monson] was compelled to adopt very lenient measures to induce prisoners to remain in it. The men were allowed liberty for a few hours every day, giving their word of honour to be back at the right time. Finding they were housed and fed at the public expense, and that they gained nothing by trying to abscond, the prisoners, as a rule, submitted to the gaoler’s regulations, and called the prison their hotel. The fact was, there were no criminals amongst them. They mostly consisted of sailors imprisoned for refusing to obey orders. … At the time of my first visit to Dunedin it was exclusively a Scotch settlement. There was only one English family amongst the residents. … We new arrivals were much amused to see in the local paper an article scolding the Valpy family for setting the bad example of wasting precious time, and the energies of a bullock team and a man to drive them, on a frivolous picnic. The first settlers belonged to the very strict set, we were told, called Cameronians.’4

The Valpys were not the only English family in the town although they were the most prominent. William Valpy was a former East India Company judge who had arrived in Dunedin in 1849 with his extended family, a large staff of household and farm servants and lots of cash. He was said to be the richest man in New Zealand at the time.

A fellow Englishman, Edward Fitton, ‘a landowner and late resident of the colony’, was also struck by the animosity in the town in the mid-1850s. The squabbling between the leaders of the majority Free Church of Scotland settlers and the English ‘Little Enemy’ was notorious, if somewhat overstated.

‘One drawback, however, to the natural advantages by which the country is surrounded, is the want of unanimity among the colonists themselves; who appear to be jealous of the accession of any strangers to their settlement, who may not be disposed to fall in with all existing institutions and prejudices. The frequent discussions and bickering in the local newspapers have of late excited much ridicule in other parts of New Zealand; and from its infrequent communication with the more northern settlements, Otago had of late been less noticed as a field of emigration than other parts of the islands.’5

Alexander Duffield, an English mining engineer and translator (best known for his translation of Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra’s 17th century Spanish novel Don Quixote), spent a week in Dunedin on his way from Melbourne to the Peruvian port of Callao during the 1850s. In recalling his travels three decades later he was even more scathing of the narrow religious community as personified by one of the settlement’s founders, the Free Church of Scotland minister Thomas Burns.

‘On the Sunday morning I went to church, which was a little Scotch Presbyterian building, delightfully situated at the head of Blueskin Bay. The preacher was the Reverend Doctor Burns, an old man with a fine red face and flowing silvery white hair. Very striking. During the sermon the reverend gentleman took the opportunity of telling us that the name he bore was odious to him, and that he bore not only the name of Burns, but the blood of ROBERT BURNS ran in his veins, and he would spend the rest of his days in repudiating the connection, and doing something to vindicate the honour of his God, whom his relative had always insulted by his words and by his deeds. This is a sample of that creed of Presbyterianism with which the colonies are cursed a statement that will seem incredible to many. A religion that allows an exhibition of hatred and ignorance such as this, if not as bitter and hateful as the religion of the Holy Inquisition, is at least liable to become so. I made some inquiries about Dr. Burns, and found that he was from Kincardinshire originally, and a veritable descendent of the poet. I think this Dr. Burns a disgrace to Scotland and scourge to the cause of pure religion. But he is now dead, y basta.’6

Dunedin honoured both men, erecting statues in the Octagon to uncle Robert (in 1887) and nephew Thomas (in 1892). While the bronze poet survived, the stone minister deteriorated and was taken away in 1949.


Part 2 ‘A First-Class Colonial City’ 1861-1869

‘There is a law here forbidding the erection of any buildings save of brick or stone, in consequence of the frequent dreadful fires…’

The discovery of payable gold in Central Otago in May 1861 began to transform the provincial capital into the largest and wealthiest city in New Zealand. The early stages of the process were observed by a ‘Special Correspondent’ (later identified as D.D. Wheeler) in a series of letters for the Melbourne Argus during September and October 1861.

‘The original inhabitants of the town were in number about 6,000, and that can hardly be said to have increased more than one half, as the new arrivals only take the place of those who are at [the] Tuapeka [goldfields]. … A few new places are going up, but the scarcity of carpenters, who get 15s per day, is a great drag to progress, and there is a total lack of those go-a-head notions that characterize Victorians. … The town was founded some fifteen years since, its inhabitants being then, and for some years subsequent, wholly composed of the inhabitants of certain counties in Scotland. Local customs, habits, rules of faith, and modes of religious observance, were rigidly adhered to throughout the settlement, much local jealously being indulged in till within quite a late period. At one time, I am told, the members of the Church of England had to appeal to the Supreme Court to obtain church accommodation, but now there are places of worship for people of all denominations, not excepting Roman Catholics. Hotels are not numerous, owing to a restrictive law, but sly grog-selling exists everywhere, and the Government is either afraid or unable to interfere, for the few attempts to institute prosecutions have been generally unsuccessful. … Town improvements are equally behindhand, and it takes three days to bring goods per lighter from Port Chalmers to Dunedin, which lighters can only approach the pier at high tide. … Since the gold-fields have broken out, the face of things has changed greatly, and a new spirit has been awakened, which may lead to greater things when the Provincial Assembly meets again next month. There is a very respectable-looking court-house here, which is also used for the meetings of the Assembly. It is almost the only substantial building in the place, excepting one or two brick buildings and two fine bluestone stores, whose fronts are composed of a blue freestone, which is quite soft, and has to be painted to preserve its face. This stone is procured from a quarry a mile or two out of town. The original plan of the town is very fine, but it sadly resembles that famous one exhibited by the astute Mr. Scadder, as representing the city of Eden in which Mr. Martin Chuzzlewit set up business as an architect and surveyor. Crescents and circuses, squares, parades, and what not, look well on paper, but the fact that the course of the streets is directed so much up and down among the hills that the lower portions alone are built upon. Thus, High-street runs a few hundred yards, and then subsides into nearly wild bush, overrun with scrub and wild flax; and other streets are in a similar plight. Oddly enough, the hilly portion is the favourite part of the town, and though in the north-eastern quarter, or North East Valley, as it is called, there is a fine level piece of country, the houses there may be counted off upon the fingers, so few are they. … The situation of the town itself is beautiful, almost beyond comparison. I took a walk yesterday in the upper part of one of the streets, which was quite in the bush. Below lay the thickest part of the town, and even that was so irregular that scrubby higher ground, covered with a bright green-leaved thick-growing bramble, called “wait-a-bit,” entirely removed that sameness of colour, which makes a collection of modern houses so poorly ornament a landscape. … The bright green of the larger descriptions of scrub, the irregular pathways intersecting the country, the tall mountains, and the smooth waters of the bay, present a rare tout ensemble, while a light breeze stirred the sweet breath of the sunny New Zealand spring morning, and afforded a sensation most agreeably new to one who had lived many years in a sultrier Australian climate. Those familiar with such scenes say that Dunedin is like a town among the lakes of Westmoreland or the Highlands, and if so, it needs no ghost to show how easily they have stirred poets to descriptions such as those in the “Lade of the Lake” or “The Excursion”.’7

Benjamin Heywood from England passed through Dunedin the following year, during a tour of Australia and New Zealand, after he was recommended to take that popular 19th century prescription for the well-heeled, ‘a long vacation, and to have a thorough change of air, for the benefit of my health.’ He arrived at Port Chalmers on a vessel that also brought several men from Sydney ‘rushing to the Otago gold-diggings’.

‘The great influx of Australians into Otago in 1861 is evident from the Census of December in that year, when the total population amounted to nearly 29,000; whereas in 1858 it was only 7000… This shows the effect of the gold diggings. The vast progress, too, of the town, both as regards the number and quality of its buildings, testifies to the same fact. The whole appearance of Dunedin, its muddy streets, and the works being carried on, gave the idea of a prematurely grown place, into which immense traffic had been suddenly thrown.’8

The gold miners included Robert Booth, who left his home in England in 1859 at the age of 16 with a friend to emigrate to New Zealand. They worked as farm labourers in Canterbury until news arrived of the discovery of gold in the neighbouring province of Otago. They passed through Dunedin in June 1861 on their way to the Lindis gold diggings. Booth recalled 50 years later:

‘The town was quite in its infancy, but already possessed some well-laid-out streets and handsome wooden buildings. As we anticipated, we found the good folks of Dunedin much exercised about the gold diggings.


Part 1 ‘Ornamental and Commodious’ 1826-1860

1 Thomas Shepherd, ‘Transcript of Extract from Journal of Thomas Shepherd on the Rosanna’, MS 440/6, in George Thomson Papers, ARC-55, University of Otago Hocken Collections, Dunedin, pp 17-18. The original journal is in the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

2 Edward Shortland, The Southern Districts of New Zealand: A Journal with Passing Notes of the Customs of Aborigines, Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, London, 1851, p 174.

3 Gerald Franklin (editor), The 1844 Expedition & Otago Survey: The Diary & Letters of Frederick Tuckett et al, Frenchay Tuckett Society, Bristol, 2005, pp 51-2.

4 James Stack, More Maoriland Adventures of J.W. Stack, A.H. & A.W. Reed, Dunedin, 1936, pp 111-12, 118.

5 Edward Fitton, New Zealand, Its Present Condition, Prospects and Resources: Being a Description of the Country and General Mode of Life Among New Zealand Colonists, for the Information of Intended Emigrants, E. Stanford, London, 1856, pp 175-6.

6 Alexander Duffield, Recollections of Travels Abroad, Remington & Co, London, 1889, pp 128-9.

Part 2 ‘A First-Class Colonial City’ 1861-1869

7 [D.D. Wheeler], The New Zealand Goldfields 1861: A Series of Letters Reprinted from the Melbourne Argus, Hocken Library, Dunedin, 1976, pp 10, 20-1.

8 Benjamin Heywood, A Vacation Tour at the Antipodes, Through Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales, Queensland and New Zealand in 1861-1862, Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, London, 1863, p 166.

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