I went to the Nelson archives to find Captain Arthur Wakefield, agent of the New Zealand Company and uncle to Jerningham (about whom I’m writing a book). There are folders of transcribed letters, mostly from Arthur to his brother William Wakefield. I passed over the stiff official missives, but there are lots of gossipy, friendly letters, all signed yours affy, as if the word “affectionately” was too formal for such brotherly love. They are intimate letters and even a hundred and seventy-seven years later feel immediate, the sentiment easy to read. Arthur has a mixed retrospective reputation but I like him and he has a seat at my table any time he wants to show up.
But I got side-tracked by another story in the archives. Filed between Arthur’s letters were those of William Curling Young, writing home to England from colonial Nelson. William was 28.
His father was a director of the New Zealand Company and young William went out to the colony arriving in Nelson in 1842 on the Mary Anne. I don’t know why he went, perhaps he was the second son and had to find his way in the world. It was the very early days of the settlement, the land courts and the Wairau massacre were still ahead of them, and the considerable challenges of building a town were approached with hard work and optimism. He wrote home to his family and his collected letters are irresistible reading (see the transcript above).
4 April 1842, he wrote to reassure his mother:
We are going ahead so fast, I sometimes laugh to think, how you think of us all at home and how little of the Savages we have. I am in such a hurry, or I would describe our Tent House here, you would think it the most elegant thing in the world – a library of about 3 or 400 books. Boards crossed as to form pegs for caps, and belts, guns &c. in front of the book shelves. Drawers, Tables, Sofas, Couches, ottoman like, and our dinner parties, fancy our dinner parties.
27 April 1842, to his brother:
My dear Fred, My house was burned down yesterday. and my papers were either burned or destroyed. … My books are gone, Bacon 10 vols.
Your little pencil case – half of it at least – was picked up this morning, quite spoiled. I have saved my mothers miniature – my father’s is gone. …But these things sit lightly on the heart of a colonist.
You would clap your hands if you could see what great things we are doing here. … It is something to be here, and to be doing what we are, and to be what we are. I love you all as much as ever I loved you and should like to see you all again; but my hope is in Nelson and my place is here.
By 5 May 1842 he had absorbed the NZ Company distrust of the government and he wrote to Governor Hobson declining an appointment as a Magistrate, not because he was insensible to the honour, but because it implied a forfeiture of the right to publicly express opinions which may happen to be opposed to those of the government. Perhaps a bit of Wakefield brainwashing going on.
I flicked through the papers to find his next letter, but there was none. Instead, this, from Arthur to William Wakefield:
17th August 19842: We have had a most melancholy occurrence here which has thrown a gloom over us all, in the death of poor Young by drowning, in an attempt to ford the Wairoa a river so named which runs into the Waimea just above the surveyors station. He was examining the sections & after a fatiguing days walk attempted a bad ford when the strength of the stream took his companion & himself off their legs the former managed to scramble back to the bank but Young never recovered himself and sunk in a hole where there was 12 feet water, neither of them could swim.
He was buried in Nelson. I am glad to learn about him and remember him. I hope he’s resting in peace.
IMAGE REF: Letters from Nelson, 1842. [Vol. 1]. 1842. Nelson Provincial Museum, Bett Loan Collection: Bett2012.4.423.