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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 11 (February 1, 1936)

Samuel Butler and the Scene of “Erewhon.”

Samuel Butler and the Scene of “Erewhon.”

In a recent number of this Magazine the life of Samuel Butler as a sheep-farmer in South Canterbury was discussed, and his explorations in the wild Alpine region that he afterwards made the scene of “Erewhon” were described. A New Plymouth correspondent writes that, having read that article with pleasure, he looked up some scrap-book clippings he had regarding Butler, and he sends a copy of one. This is a letter which was written by Butler, in London in 1902, a few months before his death, to the editor of the Christchurch “Press.” The most interesting portion is his reference to the Rangitata and Rakaia Rivers and to his travels there with the late Mr. John Baker, the surveyor, at the beginning of the ‘Sixties. He mentioned his “Erewhon Revisited,” and went on to say: “You will see reminiscences of my own first crossing the hills above Lyttelton and riding across the Plains in Chapter xxvii. But I have deliberately altered a good deal, for I had to make the writer get up the Rakaia Gorge, whereas I have really taken him to the Rangitata…. Strange—the way in which Baker and I discovered the pass to the West Coast over the head-waters of the Rakaia is drawn closely from fact. We went up the Rangitata and actually overlooked the pass over the Rakaia ranges which was exactly opposite us, and which we should not otherwise have found. Alas! that our having found it should have cost poor Whitcombe his life.”

This reference is to Mr. Whitcombe, the surveyor, who crossed the Alps there in 1863 and was drowned on the West Coast, at the mouth of the Taramakau—that dangerous torrent in which so many gold-diggers later lost their lives.

In this letter, Butler also remarked on the interest which some of the illustrations in the Christchurch “Press” Jubilee number had for him, in particular that of Dr. Sinclair's grave, on the sheep-run which once belonged to him (Butler):—

“I was away down at Christchurch when poor Dr. Sinclair, who was staying at my station, was drowned, and never heard of what had happened till I actually reached home, and found that the body had already been buried, with a Service, I blush to say, read from my bullock driver's Mass-book by Dr. Haast, as he then was—no Church of England Prayer Book being found on the station.—Possibly I had taken mine with me for use at Christchurch, but at this distance of time—nearly forty years ago—who can say!”

Butler's apology for the absence of a Prayer-book at his station may have been one of his own characteristic bits of irony with which he peppered his books.