Brickbat for Jerningham

For his 199th birthday

Today is Jerningham Wakefield’s 199th birthday. Happy Birthday, you old thing.

Jerningham came to Wellington with the New Zealand Company in 1839, the thin edge of the colonial wedge.  For that we can throw many brickbats. And hey, it’s his birthday! So here is my favourite Jerningham brickbat: a letter to the editor from a missionary, in reaction to Jerningham’s recently published Adventure in New Zealand.

It’s a hell of a book review. Jerningham and the missionaries never did see eye to eye Continue reading “Brickbat for Jerningham”

Edward Jerningham Wakefield

Died 140 years ago today

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. Continue reading “Edward Jerningham Wakefield”

The Wakefields on Waitangi Day

Colonial characters in New Zealand

I’ve became obsessed with the Wakefields while writing a novel about a fictional family of early settlers. I spent months inventing complex characters and dramas for my story.  But marching into my research and sprawling themselves along every  plot-line came the Wakefields and I can’t keep them out: generations of reckless, debauched, manipulative, egotistical, philandering creative geniuses with the complexities of an entire ecosystem. I’ve had to dump my imaginary characters and write about the Wakefields.  They’re too good to ignore.

You can’t make this shit up.

A quick dip into Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s past, (he who invented the system of colonisation that formed the original settlements of Wellington, Wanganui, New Plymouth, Nelson and Christchurch) will tell anyone that much of his formula for colonialsation originated from Newgate Prison, where he was incarcerated for the family pastime of abducting and wedding a young girl in the hope her dad would give him a leg up in politics. He didn’t, but it was touch and go.

Edward Gibbon’ son Jerningham sailed around the world in a 382 ton barque to New Zealand in 1839, back and forward across Cook Straight and up and down the West Coast, wrangling with Te Rauparaha and drinking with Te Rangihaeata, negotiating land deals with local chiefs, staying a step ahead of Hobson and the Crown,  adventuring up rivers in waka to meet war parties, whaling and trading, all the while writing brilliant and evocative journals he turned into bestselling propaganda for the colony. Pretty swashbuckling stuff for a nineteen-year-old lad. 

William Wakefield did a lot of the early colonial leg work diligently and intelligently. He put “Wellington” on the map (owed him a political favour) and kept the missionaries from inheriting the earth, which is a plus point in my books. He was probably quite a decent man when not in thrall to brother Edward Gibbon or reining in wild young Jerningham. He seriously lost his judgement when he accepted wayward bankrupt brother Daniel into New Zealand under a false name (leaving his gambling debts and the wife he had infected with an unpleasant disease) and helped establish him as Crown Solicitor.

 

What have the Wakefields ever done for us?  It’s a complex question. They are mostly forgotten as we focus on the dominant role of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, but at the time the Wakefields were potentially far more influential than Hobson. Which is why I was astonished and delighted to open the Dominion Post today to see Wakefield’s face highlighting an opinion piece on the Treaty, with his very noble quote:

“The establishment of the same rights and same obligations can only be fair between parties who have the same power in the same field.”

It’s well said and certainly resonates on Waitangi Day, though imbalance of power obviously wasn’t top of Wakefield’s mind when he abducted 15-year-old heiress Ellen Turner.

The Wakefields were an extraordinary family, men with huge personal ambition and a genuine desire to improve the system for those without power, although their methods were often dubious and ambiguous. They all seemed to verge on insanity – and I haven’t even mentioned Felix or the father.    I both applaud them and strongly disapprove of them and never quite know what to think of them on any given day.

Love them or hate them, they make a hell of a story.

 

 

Biking the Rimutaka Rail Trail

Where historical research takes you

We put our trail bikes on the 11.01 from Featherston. It’s an old fashioned station, where they hand write the tickets and the guard helps lifts the bikes aboard (and he’s as cheerful as they come).  We get off through the tunnel at Maymorn Station and are back 5 hours later after a glorious day cycling the historic Rimutaka Rail Trail. This is the track the railway took before they cut the tunnel through the hill in 1955. It’s a fairly easy ride with lots of stops, packed with bush and mountain scenery and haunted with history.

There was once a steam railway here, linking the Wairarapa and Wellington.

Completed in 1878, the Rimutaka Incline on the Wairarapa side is famous for the Fell Engines that chugged up the hill for 55 years, negotiating the steep 1:15 gradient, clenched to a third, middle rail. The line was built and maintained by a remarkable group of engineers, navvies and gangers.  It’s the ghosts of the gangers I’ve come to find.

I’m writing a novel set in 1878 and one of my characters, Lars, works on the Incline.  He walks in from Kaitoke one day with a companion and doesn’t come back. It is blowing a gale on the tops and the mud slides down over the track, leaving ugly scars of exposed greywacke on the unstable slopes.

I rode alongside Lars’s ghost up through the lush Pakaratahi Valley over his 1870s bridges and culverts to the Summit, where we stopped, as he did, for water and a sandwich. When Lars sheltered from my imaginary wild storm of ’78 there was the beginnings of a settlement bursting with pioneering potential. Not for us – we walked among the rusty remains of long abandoned steam engines, discarded over the years and left to decompose in splendid ruin on the peaceful plateau.

In the icy Summit tunnel the third rail begins and the track descends steeply towards Cross Creek. Here I checked the logistics of my story, imagining the danger of exposure on the stretch they call Siberia where the winds (later, in 1880) were so strong they blew a passenger carriage and goods vans off the rails and down into the valley below.

For us on our bikes, it was an unusually still day. Half of my head was tripping along the raised rail with the gangers battling an historic gale, the other half enjoying a calm bike ride, almost 140 years later, stopping in the sunshine to read the old stories on the plaques posted along the route.

Ladle Bend creek bridge
Ladle Bend creek bridge on the Rimutaka Trail, c1891

“My father occasionally took my sister and me for a ride on a three-wheel railway jigger. As we all sat on one side of the jigger, it had a tendancy to upturn when passing around the many curves … I was always frightened going over Ladle Bend Creek Bridge as it was rather high and had no sides.” Ron Mitchell, child at Summit 1933-40