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Tuatara: Volume 19, Issue 2, May 1972

James Adams, an Early New Zealand Botanist

James Adams, an Early New Zealand Botanist

James Adams was born near Killarney, Co. Kerry, on May 12, 1839, and was the eldest son of Alexander and Edith Adams. In common with the whole of the Irish countryside the family was deeply affected by the potato famine that resulted in great hardship for the people on their land and an almost total loss of income for the landowner. James was educated in Ireland and as a young man went to London where he took a B.A. degree at London University. In 1865 he obtained the post of headmaster at a privately endowed grammar school at Douglas on the Isle of Man. Although well versed in Latin and Greek from an early age he was against boys spending so much time on the classics when chemistry, physics, mathematics and, of course, natural history were, to his mind, very important. His forward-thinking ideas on education, particularly that it should be free, secular and for girls as well as boys, led him to give up a pleasant and comfortable life to emigrate to New Zealand. With his wife, Ann, and four small children he left Liverpool in September, 1870, on the steamer ‘Great Britain’ for Melbourne. They intended to settle in Dunedin where the educational system of the Scottish settlement seemed to be very close to his ideals. The steamer ‘Gothenburg’ brought them to Port Chalmers but to his disappointment he was unable to secure a teaching post and was forced to use his letters of introduction to the Bishop of Auckland. Within a short time he and the family were living in Parnell following his appointment as assistant master at the Church of England Grammar School at St. Mary's Cathedral. In 1872 he succeeded the Rev. Dr. Kinder as headmaster and remained so for the next eight years. It was at this time that he formed a long and close friendship with T. F. Cheeseman and during the next thirty years they made many botanical excursions together. In 1879 Mr. Cheeseman was visiting master at the grammar school, teaching botany and zoology, and taking the boys to Hobson Bay or the domain ponds became part of the school curriculum. James Adams became a member of the page 54
Fig. 1: James Adams

Fig. 1: James Adams

Auckland Institute and entered into various controversies, some involving the theories of Darwin and Huxley. He considered taking holy orders, probably for financial reasons, but was persuaded to give up the idea and in 1880 moved to the Thames goldfields where he established the Thames High School, a school that at once became co-educational with the introduction of his own daughters to the sixth form!

Immediately the rugged bush-clad hills of the Coromandel Peninsula claimed his interest and he followed Thomas Kirk's account of the botany of the Thames goldfields with his own observations published in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute in 1883. During the years 1881, 1882 and 1883, often with his eldest son, Ernest, then a surveying cadet under Percy Smith in Auckland, he climbed many of the high peaks on the peninsula — Table Mountain (Whakairi), Kaitarakihi and Maumaupuki amongst them — and crossed the peninsula to Mercury Bay and Tairua. Two notable plant finds were Celmisia adamsii from the crags of Table Mountain and Castle Rock and Elytranthe adamsii from the Hape Creek above the township of Thames (then consisting of two settlements, Shortland and Grahamstown, collectively called ‘the Thames’).

It seems that Cheeseman and Adams had a plan to visit all the isolated high hills in the Auckland district and together or separately they carried this out over a number of years. Pirongia in 1879, the peaks south of Coromandel between 1880 and 1883, Te Aroha, 1884, were those that Adams visited. The most significant discovery came in January, 1888, when with his son, Ernest, then surveying near Cabbage Bay, he climbed to the high peak of Te Moehau, the most page 55 northern and highest point of the Colville range. Here they found an area of mountain vegetation including such unexpected species as Celmisia incana, Podocarpus nivalis, Pentachondra pumila, Carpha alpina and Ourisia.

Other botanical trips were made to various parts of New Zealand — the Mt. Arthur Plateau with Cheeseman and Meyrick the entomologist in January, 1886; Mt. Hikurangi and the east coast with Petrie in January, 1897 (on this trip they were accompanied by J. Lee, a teacher from the Native School near Hicks Bay and two Maoris, Winiata and Morgan); North Cape with Cheeseman in 1895; and the Mt. Cook district and Lake Tekapo with Cheeseman in January, 1898. Herbarium specimens show that he also visited the Volcanic Plateau, Mt. Egmont and Castle Hill, Canterbury, but no field notes for these trips remain.

James Adams remained in Thames where his family of nine children enjoyed the freedom of the sometimes rough and ready mining town and the pleasures of swimming and boating on the coast and bush excursions with their father. It gave him great pleasure when his eldest son, E. F. Adams, married the daughter of his friend, J. W. Hall, an early resident of the Thames after whom Podocarpus halli Kirk is named. Hall exchanged seeds of native trees with friends in Britain over many years including the Dorrien-Smith family of Tresco in Cornwall where many New Zealand plants flourish. His own arboretum of native and exotic trees remains in part amongst a new housing estate on the hillside above the south end of Thames (see Trans. N.Z. Inst. 34, p. 388).

Fig. 2: Castle Rock, Coromandel Peninsula

Fig. 2: Castle Rock, Coromandel Peninsula

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In 1906 James Adams died suddenly whilst still the headmaster of the high school and is buried in the Tararu Cemetery, Thames. He lived to see many of his ideas on the practical teaching of science generally adopted but not to enjoy Cheeseman's Manual of the New Zealand Flora for which all of his own botanical observations and collections had been made in the hope of assisting his friend. His small herbarium was presented to the Auckland Institute and Museum but because, it is said, a well-meaning daughter tidied away many scribbled notes and labels, the specimens have been left with fewer details than he would have provided. With the herbarium are some field notebooks covering some of his Thames collecting trips, and the Mt. Arthur, Mt. Hikurangi and Mt. Cook expeditions; regrettably the remainder have been lost.


On Early Instruction Trans. N.Z. Inst. 7, 145
Elements of Mathematics Trans. N.Z. Inst. 9, 304
Polynesia Trans. N.Z. Inst. 9, 44
Botany of the Thames Goldfields Trans. N.Z. Inst. 16, 385
Botany of Te Aroha Mountain Trans. N.Z. Inst. 17, 275
Land Mollusca of the Thames Goldfields Trans. N.Z. Inst. 19, 177
Botany of Te Moehau Mountain Trans. N.Z. Inst. 21, 32
School-teaching Trans. N.Z. Inst. 26, 452
Botany of Hikurangi Mountain Trans. N.Z. Inst. 30, 414