Edward Jerningham Wakefield

Died 140 years ago today

Jerningham Wakefiled

Dear fellow Wellingtonians

Here is a celebration of Jerningham Wakefield, a founding colonist of Wellington. He died 140 years ago today, aged 58, penniless and alone, in an alms-house in Ashburton.  But before the drink got him, in his early twenties, he had been an extraordinary young man, a journalist, a rip roaring adventurer, the Wellington wild boy of his time.

He was the son of colonial mastermind Edward Gibbon Wakefield. His mother died shortly after his birth and his father turned away in his sorrow, always favouring Jerningham’s sister. “I shall love him bye and bye, I suppose” writes EGW, “as much as I do his sister.” But the sister later died and EGW never treasured Jerningham.

Jerningham’s defining childhood moments with his father must have been his visits to London’s Newgate prison, where EGW was serving time for the abduction of a 15-year-old heiress for political gain, stealing her from school and marrying her (after much trickery) at Gretna Green. The marriage was declared void and EGW spent his prison time working on his colonial plans. He sprung back with relentless political ambition, with schemes in Australia and Canada, before deciding to exploit New Zealand’s potential as a colonial utopia. When Jerningham was just nineteen EGW sent him away, off to New Zealand. The bright and observant boy must have had a skewed and extreme view of what constitutes manliness.

Jerningham arrived in Port Nicholson on the Tory, on 20 September 1839 with the advance party of New Zealand Company’s colonists.  On board were his uncle William Wakefield as agent, Charles Heaphy the draftsman, Ernst Dieffenbach the scientist, Dr Dorset and Captain Chaffers. They were the start of the organised colonisation that forced Queen Victoria to throw a blanket over the country hastily, before the NZ Company entrepreneurs built an empire of their own. Hard behind the Tory were the immigrant ships, with over 1,000 settlers waving certificates of sale for, as yet, non-existent colonial acres they had purchased from the Company before leaving England. Victoria tossed poor old Captain Hobson into the wilds to bring the Wakefields to heel and prevent them purchasing the entire country from the Māori.

Jerningham was instrumental in the Port Nicholson settlement, and other fast and dodgy major land purchases up the coast in Wanganui and Taranaki. He was phenomenally bright, eagerly engaging with local Māori to learn their language and customs, recording and remembering the names of places and people and their whakapapa to an extraordinary extent. He wrote everything down in a journal and wrapped the facts up in an exhilarating story of his exploits that later became a best-selling book. Adventure in New Zealand, published in London in 1845, was superb propaganda for Wellington’s prospective immigrants and created much land speculation in the colony. The journals are still quoted extensively, and much of what we know of early Wellington comes through Jerningham’s pen.

It is at this point that I should reiterate: the kid was nineteen, trying to prove himself to his fiercely ambitious father and New Zealand was a fascinating and novel playground to him. He was a reckless party boy, a hedonist, a known debaucher of Māori women (as the missionaries put it) and he fast became a drunk.  No one reigned him in and his uncle, William Wakefield, gave him responsibility way beyond his maturity.

Jerningham was fierce in promoting the Company’s anti-missionary and anti-government strategy as both bodies were a barrier to easy land purchase. He harassed the missionaries and actively fought them for influence with Māori, who were being aggressively wooed on all sides. He was a sharp thorn in the sides of New Zealand’s first governors, Hobson and FitzRoy, vindictive with his words and caustic in print, and was finally publicly stripped down so vehemently by FitzRoy he was sent home in disgrace. (As a side note, Hobson died in office of a stress induced stroke and FitzRoy later committed suicide.)

Jerningham returned to New Zealand with the Canterbury colonists in 1850, and had a poor career in politics. He was joined by his father and various uncles, and he ranted and raved and drank until he lost all his support and his family and came to a sorry and lonely end, his talent squandered by wild living.

But today, let’s celebrate Jerningham’s wonderful descriptions of Wellington’s beginnings through his journal.

On 1841 Wellington’s development: A road long in progress round the west side of the harbour had been completed by the Company’s labourers ; and Sam Phelps had been the first to drive his bullock-dray over it to Pitone. A bridle-road from Kai Wara Wara to Porirua was also in progress, as well as one from the town into an elevated valley of some extent, called Karori, situated a mile to the south-west. A wooden building of some pretensions in point of architecture had been erected as a Public Exchange at Te Aro, and a wharf had been run out into the harbour near the same spot by Captain Rhodes. New stores, houses, and fences, had sprung up in every direction ; and the clinking of the hammer and sudden apparition of new habitations still went on, day after day, with unceasing activity.

Contrasting with his view of 1841 Auckland:a doleful account of the stagnation and despondency produced there by the various experiments in founding and governing cities. The people of Auckland, consisting of a few mere land-sharks or hangers-on, attracted from Sydney and the Bay of Islands by the expenditure of the Governor and his suite, and the approaching land-sale, vented their ill-temper at the disappointment of their hopes, by the expression of undisguised hostility and vulgar jealousy towards the thriving settlers of Wellington. 

On the joy of sailing: We had been hove-to for half-an-hour when a fresh breeze from the south east sprang up and Arthur, who knew the sailing qualities of the Tory, told Captain Chaffers that he might ‘put her at it’, and we rattled in against a four-knot tide. We flew past the southern head, on to which you might have flung a biscuit, with the rip tide fizzing and smoking on either side of us.

On Te Rauparaha: His features are aquiline and striking; but an over-hanging upper lip, and a retreating forehead, on which his eyebrows wrinkled back when he lifted his deep-sunken eyelids and penetrating eyes, produced a fatal effect on the good prestige arising from his first appearance.

On a canoe adventure through the surf. This extract alone must have inspired many second sons of the English gentry to emigrate, the forebears of many of Wellington’s citizens: All hands now took to the paddles; two at the bow and two at the stern assisting the manager of the steer-oar to keep her square before the sea. A ” smooth” or favourable moment was seized, and we dashed along on the top of a foaming roller, with our liveliest stroke and a cheering song. Tena! tena! or ” hurrah ! hurrah ! ” shouted the steersman. Kia tika ! or “keep her straight ! ” yelled the others ; and the roller broke on either side of us, and roared along towards the shore. As the surf extended nearly half-a-mile from the beach, this was repeated several times ; and the operation of landing was very well performed, excepting the conflicting advice which was given by all hands at once in the shrillest tones every time a roller passed. The moment we touched the sand, my two supporters lifted me up with a jerk, and pitched me high and dry on to the beach. Before I had time to recover myself, they had all jumped out into the water, and hauled the canoe out of reach of the next wave.

Early Wellington, when the whalers are in town: During six weeks or two months, Wellington becomes a Portsmouth in miniature. Every public- house has its fiddle and hornpipe going ; a little theatre fills once a-week ; and the weak constabulary force of Wellington suffers from various practical jokes. Boat-races, on which heavy bets sometimes depend, come off, and an occasional fight, arising from the profound contempt which the whaler expresses for the “lubber of a jimmy-grant” as he calls the emigrant, completes the programme of the amusements during the period. 

Jerningham left Wellington in 1844, despising FitzRoy’s government and hoping that  some really great man might be despatched in time to remedy the evils which were accumulating for both white people and natives. A firm and unwavering course of foreseeing philanthropy could alone lay sound foundations for a gentle and permanent union. Retrospectively we read this as a racist and naive hope but at the time Jerningham was one of the few who had engaged with the Māori on their terms and didn’t see Christianity as a pre-requisite to civilisation.

As it turned out, colonialism went its inevitable way and there was no great visionary,  man or woman, Māori or Pakeha, missionary or lay, to create a gentle and permanent union, either in New Zealand or any other colony. Colonialism just doesn’t work like that.

RIP Jerningham, the original wild child of Wellington.


Wakefield, E. J. (1845). Adventure in New Zealand, in 2 vols. London: John Murray.
Temple, P. (2002). A sort of conscience, The Wakefields. Auckland: Auckland University Press.

Author: Cristina Sanders Blog

Novelist, trail runner, book reviewer and blogger.

One thought on “Edward Jerningham Wakefield”

  1. Loving your book Christina and as always with historical tales, enjoying cross referencing the facts with the fiction. I love it that you can still go to the Thistle Inn and imagine what it was like way back then when Jerningham and his cohorts would carouse and converse. You made him such a fully rounded but flawed character, one who loved life and threw himself whole heartedly at all which was on offer. Congratulations, Diane Logan, Katikati.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: