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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 7 (October 2, 1939)

A Quaint Character of Early Otago — Captain William Jackson Barry

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A Quaint Character of Early Otago
Captain William Jackson Barry

Among the extensive gallery of gentlemen adventurers, eccentric settlers and beloved vagabonds that illuminate the story of Otago's early development, Captain William Jackson Barry, runaway, drover, dealer, soldier, butcher, fish-merchant, mariner, politician, lecturer and author, presents perhaps the most picturesque portrait of a versatile pioneer of our province.

Born in England in 1819, Barry, at the age of ten, emigrated to Australia in the service of an English gentleman from whom he absconded in Sydney, to commence thirty years of hectic adventure with whales, sails, gales and trails. During three decades—roughly 1830 to 1860—he oscillated between California and Australia, experiencing always the inconstancy of Dame Fortune; tasting from time to time the magnificence and power of quickly accumulated riches which enabled him to indulge his wildest fancy. But wealth, so readily accumulated, was quickly dissipated with a prodigality symbolic of the colonial adventurer whose optimism always anticipated a future rosy with easy opportunities of fame and opulence.

During this period Barry was twice married. In the first instance, after displacing a suitor of some years’ standing, he was successful in “being courted and asked to name the day,” by the lady of his choice. Fortune could scarcely have been kinder; a capable wife with a substantial dowry of £1,000, 20,000 sheep, and a permanent job for Barry as manager of father's station at £400 per annum. For a few short weeks Barry lived in this Avalon until father's untimely death brought in its wake a most unpopular visitor—the mortgagee, who claimed the entire property in liquidation of a debt of £12,000. The blow was sufficient to precipitate the death of Mrs. Barry, and in 1849 our friend was a widower with shrivelled means and a young family for which to make provision.

Having found a kindly nurse to adopt his infant, with characteristic fortitude Barry set his face for the Golden Gate, fully confident of his ability to recoup his losses by some means to be determined upon in San Francisco. Upon arrival there he obtained work (as a slaughterman) with some Spaniards, but on receiving a month's pay he followed with feverish footsteps in the wake of the gold-seekers of Sacramento. A few months’ work brought fabulous wealth; then, Heigh Ho! for ‘Frisco again, to build an up-to-date hotel. This done, a health trip to Australia gave him an opportunity of providing, adequately, for his child, and on his return to the roaring life of California, he felt once more the desire for home comforts and decided to marry again.

“At this time,” says Barry, “I was courting a young woman who came from the States and was serving in the Eagle Hotel, a house I frequently visited. After a few preliminary visits I popped the question, was accepted, and we were married at once. My wife was a famous business woman and objected to any fuss; but I insisted on doing the thing in style, and invited about three hundred guests, and gave them a spread; which is doubtless remembered in Shasta to this day. It cost me about £500.”

(Rly. Publicity photo.) The town of Cromwell, Central Otago, to which interesting reference is made in the accompanying article.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
The town of Cromwell, Central Otago, to which interesting reference is made in the accompanying article.

Prosperity seemed to attend the “Captain” at every new venture; initiative and pluck were receiving just reward in no mean manner. And who would grudge such a redoubtable person the appropriation of a title—he certainly was a “Captain of Industry.” For a time successful cattle-dealing was interspersed with sudden sorties on hostile Indian tribes until the startling announcement of the failure of Adams Bank brought our hero the considerable loss of some £12,500. A return to Sydney was decided upon and a realisation of assets brought in about £10,000. The duration of the voyage was a sufficient period of inactivity for the Captain, so that on reaching Australia he quickly plunged into horse-dealing and quartzmining (both at a loss) and followed on with the purchase and fitting-out of a whaling vessel to restore his financial status. The next seven years produced a series of set-backs, including the total loss of his whaling vessel and its rich cargo of oil.

So, in 1862, with the remains of his capital invested in horses, carts, harness and suitable accessories, we find the doughty warrior, accompanied by his wife and family, turning his back on Australia, where his fortunes had flutuated so wildly. After a pleasant passage of eight days the little party landed page 30 at Port Chalmers, where they remained at Galbraith's Hotel until his shipment of horses was disposed of, Now began a new chapter in this absorbing lifestory so full of galvanic action. In rapid succession this “Jack of all Trades” performed the duties of fishmonger, hawker, fellmonger, butcher and quack doctor, in and around Gabriel's Gully, Waitahuna and Wetherstones, whither thousands of optimistic prospectors had been lured, consumed by the gold-fever engendered by the Otago rush. In these hectic days small fortunes were easily made—and easily lost. The meanest necessities retailed at exorbitant prices. Indeed, “Dr.” Barry obtained ten shillings a bottle for his “Perfect Chilblain Cure,” of which the main ingredient was fat from his fellmongery. Indicative of money values at that time is the freight charge of £80 per ton for goods “bullock-waggoned” from Dunedin to Waitahuna, a fortnight's journey in those days when formed roads were yet to be.

Communities of gold-diggers are essentially nomadic in character, and regardless of immediate good fortune will surrender a bird in the hand for the thrills of anticipation that electrify every new rush. Thus Barry was soon following hundreds of miners from Waitahuna to the Dunstan. Strangely enough our versatile friend showed no enthusiasm for actual mining in this country; he depended rather on his business acumen to feather his nest, and by shrewd dealing in stock, and by butchering, he was able to maintain a comfortable income. Of course his every-day work-a-day existence was relieved not infrequently by incidents both humorous and hazardous, that could hardly have befallen anyone but the doughty “Captain.” Swimming the treacherous Clutha River with his clothes on his head, recrossing it, holding, the tail of a horse, were typical exploits which probably inspired the following lines by a contemporary author:

“What thrilling incidents illustrious Barry
That stamp thee as a marvel in our age,
Thy tale records, that made me spell-bound, tarry
For a whole day o'er the eventful page,
Whose chequered scenes with luck for each occasion
Reminds one of the marvels of Munchausen.”

In 1864, William Jackson Barry, butcher, of the rapidly growing town of Cromwell, having outlived all opposition to gain a monopoly which he respected with reasonable charges, seemed at last really settled. At the end of the year the Cromwell bridge was finished and as part of the celebrations to mark the historic occasion, the local butcher roasted a bullock, whole, and dispensed it to the multitude. Champagne and other more potent liquors assisted in producing a veritable Bacchanalian uproar. “This bullock-roasting,” says Barry, “extended my connection and I found myself almost famous.”

(Thelma R. Kent, photo.). The cairn built near the Mossburn-Kingston Road (shown on left) to commemorate the old goldminers of this Southland district.

(Thelma R. Kent, photo.).
The cairn built near the Mossburn-Kingston Road (shown on left) to commemorate the old goldminers of this Southland district.

In 1865 Cromwell's population was nearly five thousand and the want of local government became urgent. Three nominations for the office of Mayor were received, and the “Captain” was returned by an overwhelming majority. His supporters allowed their feelings to outweigh their judgment to such an extent that their victorious demonstration became an orgy of drunkenness. Cromwell's first mayor was certainly a man of adaptability to circumstances, and his term of office added quite a few highlights to his already brightly illumined career. He had occasion to visit Dunedin on private business and during his absence his council passed a vote of censure on him. Being apprised of this fact he made all haste upcountry to set his house in order. How he accomplished this is now history. Expelling any public from the council chamber he locked the door, put the key in his pocket, carried a vigorous offensive to those who failed to escape through the windows and restored a proper attitude among those who remained. The sequel to this upset was the appearance in court next day of the Mayor on a charge of assault. He was convicted and fined.

About this time Sir George Grey, who was making an inspection of the Otago goldfields, arrived at Cromwell. The “Old Colonial” rose to the occasion and made the visit of the Governor and his retinue an experience they would long remember. Indeed, as Sir George Grey himself averred, he had never been entertained by anyone as page 31 the Mayor of Cromwell entertained him.

In those spacious days of gold, with a chief magistrate of such versatility, Cromwell could not lag behind in the matter of public amenities. Hence the formation of a racing club, and in 1865 there was £800 to be run for at a meeting which lasted three days. Mayor Barry showed up in the triple capacity of owner, trainer and jockey, and managed to annex two stakes. In one race, a hurry-scurry, his tactics would hardly satisfy the stipendiary stewards of to-day. Having been thrown from one horse he leaped on another, cut out a certain amount of the course, and ran home second.

From this time onward the tide of fortune proved more often than not to be against our hero. Severe injuries to his son, followed in close succession by personal injury and the sudden death of Mrs. Barry, combined to make his life decidedly cheerless. Then information regarding a huge fortune left in his name took him to New South Wales; but proof of identity after fifty years seemed hemmed in with difficulties and the claimant returned to Otago in disgust.

With old age creeping on, the tough old colonist decided that his living must be earned in a less vigorous manner than of yore, and so, what better than to tell and sell such a romantic story! This brings us to the publication of his first book, “Up and Down, or Fifty Years’ Colonial Experience.” With the Mss. in hand the author set out for London under some sort of agreement with the Grey Government to lecture at Home with a view to encouraging immigration. Barry was always, “news.” His book was published by the help of influential people, over one hundred lectures were delivered and the lecturer was given particular prominence with regard to his visit to Portsea Prison to identify a claimant to the Tichborne estate. The London “Times,” referring to a conference to be held in Nottingham, stated, “Captain Barry, thrice Mayor of Cromwell, New Zealand … will give an outline of his interview with the Tichborne claimant in Portsea Prison.”

These lectures drained the “Captain's” resources and as the Government which had allowed his passage money had gone out of office, he would have some difficulty in securing reimbursement. Having arranged for his return, through Sir Julius Vogel, he ordered several hundred copies of his book and landed back in Otago—a bookseller. It was no trouble to market his books at 10/6 each, and he says: “I began to think writing books and selling them a good line.” He certainly did think so, for he apparently was of the opinion that miners held no monopoly over get-rich-quick schemes. Plunging into the book business he published two more volumes—three in all from his facile pen. These three books were:

“Up and Down” (1878) Sampson, Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, London; “Past, Present, and Men of the Times” (1897), McKee and Co., Wellington, New Zealand; and “Glimpses of the Australian Colonies and New Zealand” (1903), Bretts, Auckland.

Now, if any reader cares for an evening's diversion, he might find an absorbing interest in trying to decide for the writer whether the last two publications contain ninety per cent., or just a little less, of the original Mss. The artful “Captain” must indeed have found writing a profitable enterprise if the later volumes were as well received as the first one. The first book is dedicated to Sir George Grey; the succeeding efforts to Sir Robert Stout. In all three the preface is identical, and chapter after chapter is repeated word for word with sometimes a slight alteration in the sequence of events to make some pretence at variation. In the last publication the appendix contains short biographical sketches of a few additional celebrities met in his later days. His literary ventures, therefore, viewed as a whole, savour somewhat of a new form of plagiarism.

(M. D. Mace, photo.) An early morning scene in the beautiful Buller Gorge, South Island.

(M. D. Mace, photo.)
An early morning scene in the beautiful Buller Gorge, South Island.

And so in his declining years this colourful colonist eked out a vagrant existence peddling his wares the length and breadth of the country or petitioning the Government for further sums of money in recognition of his services to the colony, until, in 1907, the Grim Reaper took his toll and another of those who “blazed the trail” crossed the Great Divide.

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