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White Wings Vol II. Founding Of The Provinces And Old-Time Shipping. Passenger Ships From 1840 To 1885

Swiss Family Robinson Adventure Of The Forties

Swiss Family Robinson Adventure Of The Forties.

One of the very early families that settled in Auckland was that of Captain Porter, a Liverpool ship-builder and ship-owner, who in 1838 set off with his whole family, and all his belongings, to seek his fortune in South Australia, which was then much in the public eye. The story reads rather like the start of the adventures of the Swiss Family Robinson. Captain Porter was a successful seaman, considerably in advance of his time, and he was the first to introduce several improvements in the rig of vessels, notably the double stay and iron caps for the mast-head. Before his innovation the cap was made of wood, which was necessarily big and clumsy to get the strength, the result being that the masts were quite a distance apart.

To take the family to the Antipodes Captain Porter built a brig called the Porter, 250 tons, which was specially strengthened and fitted out, and she was accompanied by a small brig called the Dorset, which was only of 90 tons burden. They were painted black, with a broad white streak and black ports. Being a most particular skipper, Captain Porter had everything on board of the very best, the vessels being particularly well found and comfortable. Captain Porter, his wife and family, and a few domestics travelled on the Porter, while in the Dorset were a small number of tradesmen, such as blacksmith, carpenter, tailor, gardener, bootmaker, brickmaker, etc., who were under contract to work for the Porters until their fare was paid. There was quite a large collection of livestock, including cattle, two horses, pigs, sheep, and poultry. It is interesting to read of the "ammunition chest" and two eighteen-pounder guns which were mounted on the quarter-deck. In the chest there were muskets, flint-locks, long-handled axes with a spike at the back of the head—called "boarding axes"—cutlasses, and flint-lock pistols. In addition to the livestock there was a large collection of trees and plants, and some of the apple trees had been obtained from the United States, as they were supposed to be superior to the English stock.

A most interesting account of the brig and her multifarious cargo has been left by Mr. W. F. Porter, son of Captain Porter. This Mr. W. F. Porter was a boy when the voyage was made in 1838. He afterwards lived at Mangatangi and Miranda, and died in Huntly.

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Everything about the brig is lovingly recorded in this interesting old memoir or diary, and it is a pity more of the early families did not keep some similar record. Life was more picturesque in those far-away days, and it is only by such records of the past that the pioneers' descendants can realise what a wide gulf separates the present generation from that of the people who founded New Zealand.

It was in August, 1838, that the brig Porter left Liverpool, bound for South Australia. Great interest was taken in the event, and as the little vessel drew out there were "cheers from the pierhead." On board the little brig and her even smaller consort there was "everything necessary to found a settlement, and the brig was commanded by her owner, who had all his family on board, as well as work-people of all trades." Such an undertaking was unique up to that time, and was probably never paralleled afterwards.

The Dorset was in command of Captain Bishop, who also seems to have been a very salt-water sailor. He took a keen delight in the speed of his little hooker in light weather, and used to sail round his big companion just for the fun of the thing. One moonlight night, however, he bumped into the Porter, and though no damage was done, his yachting tactics were suppressed by order of Captain Porter. The vessels put in a week at Madeira, and a month at the Cape of Good Hope, where there was then no breakwater. While at the Cape Captain Porter sold a stallion he had on board for 400 guineas, as he did not think it advisable to attempt to carry such a valuable animal to Australia. He took on a Cape mare, and another addition to the brig was a couple of black girls to act as domestics. The girls proved excellent servants. One left the party at Sydney and one of them—"Black Sall"—came on to Auckland with the family, being very well known there for many years. After leaving the Cape the Porters' governess died, and possibly that, the only casualty, would not have occurred if the brig's doctor had not cleared out at the Cape.

The voyage seems to have been singularly pleasant on the whole, and devoid of excitement. The diary records one amusing incident. One night one of the heifers "fetched away," was sent though the bulkhead into the forecastle, and fell into the berth of one of the sailors, a Welshman, who put his hand out in the dark, and, feeling horns and hide, yelled out, "The devil is in the forecastle!"

To-day, one wonders at the formidable battery of firearms, and the two 18-pounder guns, but on one occasion the latter were actually cleared for action and the lethal weapons were served out. "A low black schooner" kept hovering about the brigs at one stage of the voyage, and as the gentle pastime of piracy was not then extinct, the Porters had quite an anxious time, until the suspicious craft drew away, evidently intimidated by the presence of two vessels in company.

The old diary is very interesting on the question of food. There was no tinned meat in 1839, with the exception of "bouillie," a soup with vegetables in it, "rather nice," says the diarist. Corned beef, and pickled pork were the staple meats in 1839, but the Porters hadpage 121 plenty of poultry, salt tongues, fish in kegs, eggs in salt, carrots in sand, fruit of all kinds in bottles, jam, and even cake in tins. Fresh bread was baked every day. It is interesting to read that "oatmeal was not then eaten by adults." At the Cape the larder was added to by some Dutch cheese and bags of raisins and walnuts.

When the Porter and her consort arrived at Adelaide after a five months' voyage there were no regular streets in that township. Flour was £100 a ton, and other things in proportion. There the Dorset was sold and the family stayed some time. Later they went on to Port Lincoln, Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne, and Sydney, staying in Australia about 18 months in all, but they did not care for the country, and decided to go across to New Zealand. They took over with them a family named Abercrombie, who were building a vessel in Neigle's Bay, Great Barrier. This family of Abercrombies evidently gave the name to Port. Abercrombie, as the Neigles did to Nagle Cove, although the spelling is different in the latter case.

In port at Sydney when the Porter sailed was the Chelydra, Captain Smale, a well-known trader to Auckland in the very early days. Captain Smale was a spic and span sailor like Captain Porter, and the Chelydra's officers and six cadets used to wear very smart uniforms, including a gold band round the cap and a gold snake worked on the lapels of the coat collar, Chelydra being Chinese for snake. On board the Chelydra duties were carried on with man-o'-war precision, everything being done to the signal of the bo'sun's pipe. The captain had a fine gig with a crew in uniform, and no one else dreamed of using that boat.

It was the middle of May, 1841, that the Porters left Sydney. Before the brig was allowed to sail, the police went on board to hunt for runaway convicts, and they even put their swords through some trusses of hay lying on the deck, just to make sure there was nobody concealed.

In about twelve days' time the Porter reached the Great Barrier, at the entrance to the Hauraki Gulf, and put into Neigle's Cove, where the Abercrombies were building their vessel, a craft of about 400 tons burden, named the Sterlingshire. The diary says "this was the first vessel of any size built in New Zealand." There were flocks of goats on the Barrier, and the people used to make butter and cheese from the milk.

Eventually the brig reached Auckland. "We had been told in Sydney," says the diary, "that the harbourmaster at Auckland when he came on board would be wearing white kid gloves, so we were all on the look-out, and sure enough, when the boat came alongside there was a spruce little man, and the white kid gloves. His name was Captain David Rough, and he proved a very good fellow, and a fast friend of ours. He married Miss Short, who was governess to the children of the Governor. Short Street was named after her, and she was very short. Captain Rough died in England. There was no pilot in those days, and father went by the chart and lead-line. Going up the harbour past the North Shore there were only two houses—one the powder magazine, and the other the signalman'spage 122 house (a Captain Snow, who was murdered some years later). He did not live on the top of the signal station hill as the signalman did later, but just walked up once or twice a day."

Anchoring in Commercial Bay, as the bay off the end of Queen Street was then called, the Porter found in port the Chelydra, the old ten-gun brig called H.M.s. Britomart, two or three schooners, and any number of canoes on the beach. The diarist says he was much interested in the Maoris and their canoes, as they were such a novelty. The sails of the canoes were made of raupo. Bringing fish, potatoes, oysters, and kumaras for sale, the natives would not look at copper or even silver; their one cry was "Money—gold!"

The Porters landed at low water at Soldier's Point, below Fort Britomart, now no longer in existence, and when the tide was full in they landed on the beach, just about where L. D. Nathan's big warehouse stands in Fort Street. On the west of Commercial Bay was a point of land called Smale's Point, after the captain of the Chelydra, who had a house built on top of the cliff, and at high water goods were hoisted up to it out of the boats by a windlass.

As they could not get a house, the Porters had to live for three months on their brig, and eventually landed for good on August 11, 1841. The brig was kept in the Sydney trade, being in charge of Captain Stewart, and was ultimately lost when going to Manila for a cargo of sugar.

As there were no schools in those days Captain Porter engaged a teacher for his son, and the diary mentions that "a German named Dressin started a school in what is now Victoria Street East, close to the park at the bottom of Bowen Avenue. The old house stands there yet, and is now a fruit shop."

Mr. Porter soon afterwards went to Nelson with some friends to continue his schooling, and the diary mentions interesting facts about the state of affairs in infant Wellington (then a place of one street along the beach) and Nelson, which was in the throes of the Wairau dispute. Young Porter remained three years at Nelson, and then came back to the family at Auckland.

At the first sale of "country lands" Captain Porter bought 200 acres at the West Tamaki, the place then being called Waiparera, and there the first plough in the Auckland district was used, the ploughman being named Pearce. It was a small wooden plough, the top part of the mould-board being of wood, and it was brought out by the Porter's neighbour, Mr. William Atkin. One of the plough teams consisted of two working bullocks, which cost £40 each imported from Sydney. In 1842 there was no road cleared from Auckland to West Tamaki, only an old Maori track part of the way. Captain Porter went down to his farm in his boat, and on one occasion when going up to Auckland overland he lost his way. In 1843 all the land from what is now Orakei to Newmarket was all black birch bush, with only a Maori track where now the electric cars run.

The late Captain W. Field Porter, who died at Auckland in May, 1927, was a grandson of the original Captain Porter.