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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Chapter XXII — “Uncrowned King of Poverty Bay”

page 186

Chapter XXII
“Uncrowned King of Poverty Bay

Captain G. E. Read's Colourful Career—From Seafarer to Financial Magnate—Mainspring of Many Enterprises—Sidelights on His Business Methods.

Born at Mendlesham, Suffolk, in 1815, Captain George Edward Read became Poverty Bay's most colourful, most enterprising and most prosperous pioneer. He was an extraordinary character, both physically and mentally. Stockily built, he had very short legs, and his figure, with the advancing years, betrayed excessive corpulency. What he lacked in educational attainments was much more than counterbalanced by rare gifts of shrewdness, foresight and industry. No other early resident played so prominent a part in laying the foundations of Gisborne.

But little is known concerning Read's career up till 1835, when he came out to southern waters in one of the Enderbys' whaling ships. In 1838 he was with Captain White on the Medway, trading out of Sydney to Tasmania. Gaining his first mate's certificate, he joined the Fair Barbadian (Captain Bennett), which called at East Cape in 1839. His next appointment was to the brig Transfer. As mate of the Luna (Captain Ellis), which traded on the East Coast in 1842, he was afforded an opportunity to become more intimately acquainted with its native inhabitants. Later in that year he became skipper of the schooner Kate. He then transferred to the Gannet, but he was not in charge of her when she was driven ashore at Anaura in August, 1843.

Read told the Poverty Bay Crown Grants Commission in 1869 that he was ashore at Poverty Bay for some time in 1844 looking after Captain W. B. Rhodes's interests. His stay must have been brief, seeing that, later in that year, he was in command of the Gauntlet. In 1845 the Elizabeth was in his charge. Both were in the East Coast trade. He then opened a store at Mawhai, where he supervised the construction of a 24-ton schooner, which he named Mendlesham in honour of his birthplace. She was in the East Coast trade, with Read as master, until the early part of 1852. When he returned to the sea he placed a native in charge of his store. He also opened a nativemanaged store at Purehua (Waipiro Bay).

In 1852 (Kaiti block case: 1873) Hirini te Kani, Rutene te Eke and Pahora Pahoe invited Read to establish a trading store and build a jetty on the eastern bank of the Turanganui River in front of the site now occupied by the Kaiti freezing works. page 187 Kahutia, a chief on what became the town side of the river, gave his consent. Read obtained suitable timber with a minimum of trouble, and, doubtless, at a very small outlay. Earlier in 1852 the brig Sisters had been driven on to Kaiti Beach [at the spot where the Star of Canada was wrecked in 1912]. He bought her hull from the natives, who, according to custom, had claimed it. When he began to build, Manahi (a brother of Kahutia) crossed the river to dispute his right of occupation, or, in the alternative, to collect some rent for himself. Taking up a stick, Read chased him away. The site was held by Read for twenty-one years rent free. In 1876 he sweetened the owners by making a payment of £60 as rent for the previous three years.

Shortly after settling on Kaiti, Read came to the conclusion that it would be much to his advantage if he also had a store on the western side of the river, and he began to build there. Kahutia ordered some natives to remove the foundation blocks, and, meeting Read, gave him a stern warning that he was to keep on the Kaiti side. In due course, however, Read did build much more pretentious business premises (which became known as “The Store”), as well as a goods shed and a jetty, on the township side of the river (near the junction of the Waimata and Taruheru Rivers) on a property which, since 1838, had passed through the hands of several Europeans and had become his own.

Upon entering into business in Poverty Bay, Read displayed his acumen by buying out “Yankee Smith,” who had established his main store at Makaraka in the late 1840's, and who also had a branch store near the mouth of the Turanganui River. Smith was a shipowner as well as a trader, and his was the largest business in the district. Read did not persevere with either of Smith's premises, preferring to concentrate his activities, first of all, at the store which he had built on Kaiti. He was now the principal trader.

Even late in life the call of the sea continued to ring in Read's ears. Not infrequently he would make a trip to Auckland in command of one of his own vessels. Doubtless, on such occasions, he combined business in the north with the pleasure which it must have given him to be at the helm once again. Between 1859 and 1862 his name often figured in the shipping intelligence as master of the cutter Planet. Indeed, as late as 1873 he took the Tawera to Auckland and back.

Within a few years Read added cattle-raising and then sheep-farming to his other lucrative enterprises. It seems that he did not pay rent for some of the properties which he utilized. Writing page 188 to Mr. McLean, Captain Harris (6/5/1868) said: “It is unfortunate that Captain Read and some other owners of stock can't be made to pay something for the use of land for grazing, as this state of affairs tends much to make the natives dissatisfied. A fair remuneration is nothing more than is due to them.” Some of the early settlers believed that Read made most of his fortune after the Massacre, but even before that very tragic happening his interests and his power were so extensive that he was looked upon as “The Uncrowned King of Poverty Bay.”

An elderly witness told the Native Land Court that Read's method of getting a footing in a property was to offer the principal owner a small sum of money, or some clothes for his wife and children, for the right of occupation. If the gift was accepted, he would proceed to erect a fence or put some other improvement upon the land. Then he would set about to acquire the interests of the other owners. When his freeholds and leaseholds were put up for auction after his death a solicitor, representing native objectors, solemnly warned bidders that, if their bids were accepted, they would find that they had merely bought a costly lawsuit!

One bad “spec.” was held up against Read by the other early settlers. When Paratene Turangi was slain by Te Kooti's orders in 1868 money was required by his relatives to entertain Ngati-Porou friends who came to attend the tangi. Read advanced £150 on a promise that, in return, he should receive portion of Awapuni block. After the tangi, when Riparata Kahutia heard of the matter, she made it very clear to him that the natives with whom he had dealt were not the owners of the land. Read did not persevere with that particular “purchase.”

As a rule, however, things would go very hard with a malcontent if Read had a signed agreement at his back. On one occasion Wi Pere and some others challenged one of his transactions on the grounds (1) that the consideration had included powder and spirits, and (2) that some natives had signed the agreement on behalf of others. Read became very angry. “I have a signed agreement,” he retorted. Threateningly, he then ordered the complainants off his premises. They did not linger.

“Snip” and “Nelson”

It was, at first, Read's rule not to buy produce from a native on a sample. Perhaps he had been “taken down” elsewhere! Before a bargain would be struck the whole of the line would be carefully examined. As there were no roads, as the sledge was, then, the only vehicle that had come into use, and as the spot cash market was very limited, there was little risk that a dissatisfied native would take his produce back home. When other page 189 traders entered the arena Read became more reasonable. He then began to pay personal calls upon good native clients.

On one of his many visits to Auckland, Read bought “Snip,” a sturdy white horse, which had belonged to a circus and had been taught to stoop. “Snip” was the only horse which he could mount and dismount from without aid. He was also very fond of his Newfoundland dog “Nelson,” and, when it became old and lame and could no longer accompany him to and from business, he greatly missed its companionship. When some road formation had been carried out, he imported a light, but very strong, vehicle of the type known as “an American buckboard.” In good weather he often put “Snip” in the shafts and took an outing with his faithful wife Noko, who had to make the best of a precarious position at the back of the vehicle.

Never in the course of his long business career did Read hold a cheap sale. New seasons came and went, but, in the case of his stocks, fashions showed but little tendency to change. When a fresh consignment of drapery came to hand Mrs. James Dunlop, who had eight daughters, invariably was allowed first choice. In those days jewellery was not in much demand and the most eagerly desired wedding gift was either a side-saddle or a hand sewing machine. Unsaleable goods were put in a wool bale and given to Captain Kennedy to dump overboard on one of his coastal trips.

Few traders had as good a day-by-day idea of their stocks as Read, who was credited with possessing a wonderful “photographic” memory. If some valuable article was not in its accustomed place he would inquire the name of the buyer. On one occasion (so it was stated) he missed an expensive saddle. His storeman (Robert Colebrook) was alarmed to find that he had not only omitted to enter up this particular sale, but that the name of the buyer had also escaped his memory. Angrily, Read demanded a list of all the customers (mostly natives) who had come in during his absence. He then gave instructions that a saddle should be charged up to each of them. According to the story only George Scott challenged the item!

It was Read's custom to have a settling up with one particular client only once a year.

“And what a day it was!” Frank Harris was fond of recalling. He would continue: “On the road outside you could hear the pair heatedly arguing over disputed items. Eventually, the irate client would emerge from the premises, closely followed by the equally well-aroused merchant. Invariably, the client's parting words would be: ‘You will never get another penny of my money!’ and Read's stock rejoinder would be: ‘And you will never get any more credit from me!’ This way of settling up had gone on for many years in the same stormy fashion. High words were always used on both sides, but blows were never struck.”
page 190

Either as plaintiff or defendant—in most cases in the former role—Read figured prominently in the Magistrate's Court. For many years the sittings were held in one of his buildings, which was known as “The Courthouse.” A story went the rounds among the old hands—and, of course, it might not have been true—that, on one occasion, when it appeared likely that he would lose his case, he ordered Mr. Locke, R.M., and his staff off the premises! When Mr. Locke heard of Read's death he remarked: “He was very touchy, and was liable to burst into a temper and go off in a huff.”

Read sometimes fell so far from grace that he had to appear before the court to answer a complaint that he had used abusive and threatening language. On one occasion he was charged with having threatened to shoot a fellow-resident. When the charge was read out he became very excited, and, banging his fist down on the table, he shouted: “Yes, I did, and, by jingo, I will!” Upon calming down he told Mr. Locke that he now thought better on the matter. This admission pacified the complainant and pleased the magistrate. When Captain Tucker left his employ to look after Riparata Kahutia's affairs Read treated him as a personal enemy, and, whenever they chanced to meet, he would abuse him. Tucker had him fined on several occasions.

It came as a great shock to Read when he learned, early in 1871, that Samuel Taylor Horsfall was about to open a big store on the main street. Bitter enmity soon sprang up between them, and, on several occasions, their wordy warfare ended in blows. During a quarrel in October, 1872, Horsfall knocked some of Read's teeth out and kicked him. Read took the matter into court. Horsfall pleaded that, when he had sent a messenger with an account to Read, the document had been thrown back to the accompaniment of insulting language. He was merely bound over to keep the peace. Dissatisfied with the decision, Read sued Horsfall for £500 for violent assault. A special jury at Napier assessed the damages at £50.

One of the highlights of Read's career was his temporary entry into national politics. In 1873 he declined a requisition that he should allow himself to be nominated for the Turanganui seat on the Auckland Provincial Council. However, three years later, he agreed to become a candidate for the East Coast seat in the General Assembly. The electorate included the Bay of Plenty, the East Coast, Poverty Bay and Northern Hawke's Bay. On the northern side there were 342 electors, and on the southern side 691. There were only six polling places: Tauranga, Matata, Maketu, Opotiki, Gisborne and Wairoa. Further references to the sensational contest which followed appear under the heading “Election Echoes.”

page 191

Read's “Shin-Plasters”

The year in which Read first issued his own paper currency is not known. Some specimens of his so-called “shin-plasters” bear evidence that they were printed in the 1860's. Private paper money was used in some other districts at a much earlier date. The initial issue might have been that which was made by Captain G. T. Clayton in connection with his whaling-station at Queen Charlotte Sound. His notes were of £1 denomination, and they were printed in Sydney in September, 1837. Clayton might also have used his own notes at his Waikokopu station in 1839. Some years later Johnny Jones—sometimes referred to as “The King of Waikouaiti”—also acted as his own banker. Above the text on Read's £1 notes was a representation of the Royal Arms, with the word “ONE” on either side. Below, the number of the note appeared twice. Then came the wording:

I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of £1 sterling.
Poverty Bay……………day of……………186…
£1. ……………………………………………………

Until they became enlightened, natives who quarrelled with Read were apt to show their contempt for him—and their own painful ignorance—by entering his store, producing some of his notes, tearing them up under his very nose, and scattering the fragments on the floor. On such occasions he would pretend to get into a violent rage, pick up anything that might serve as a weapon, and chase his “enemy” off the premises. The simplicity of one of Read's native friends was the subject of an amusing story which the early settlers used to tell; it might, of course, have been apocryphal. Some of Read's notes were, it was stated, lost in a fire which destroyed the native's whare. With misgivings, he set off to interview Read in the hope that, if he offered to recompense him, all might be well. Read assured him that, as they were old friends, he need not worry any more over the unfortunate mishap. The native, it was added, remained one of his staunchest supporters!

No other early settler did as much as Read to promote settlement in Poverty Bay. If he had so desired, he might have mopped up much more of the countryside during the very lean years that followed the Massacre, for, at that time, many good blocks were being hawked round New Zealand at ridiculously low prices. However, he realised that, unless there was a considerable influx of population, the district would remain insecure. According to Captain A. F. Hardy (who, for some years, acted as his accountant), Read was obsessed with two very deeply-rooted ideas: he could not tolerate a credit balance in his bank account, and he regarded it as a crime that good land should be allowed to lie page 192 idle. Much of the land that he bought for £3 per acre he sold (after meeting the costs of survey, etc.) at as low as £5 per acre, giving purchasers up to ten years to complete their payments. [In the boom years of the early 1920's, an offer of £100 per acre would not have been accepted for some of this land.] Read cherished the idea of establishing a large settlement at Pouawa, but the plan failed to reach fruition on account of the delay which took place in having the interests of the numerous native owners defined.

First Strike in Gisborne

The district was indebted to Read, on a number of occasions, for timely additions to its labour supply. When the immigrant ship Berar reached Auckland in September, 1873, he went down to her and his offer of assisted passages to Gisborne was accepted by a number of her passengers. They included carpenters, bricklayers and stockmen, and all of them were quickly placed in situations. In May, 1874, he secured a party numbering 46—26 single men and three single women, and four married couples with an aggregate of nine children. Some of the single men complained that, on the six-day journey down to Gisborne, they had “to shift for themselves as best they could among the coals!” When the carpenters found that the Gisborne rate of pay was only 10/- per day, they downed tools on the ground that they had been promised 12/- per day. This was probably the first strike by Europeans in Poverty Bay.

Read was ever ready to listen to a business proposition. If it did not appeal to him he would turn it down flatly, no matter how credit-worthy the suppliant might be. On the other hand, if he was satisfied with the merits of the proposition, impecuniosity on the part of its author would not be a bar to help being given. In a eulogy of Read which it published long after his death, the Telephone said: “He was remarkable for his willingness to assist those who were possessed of moral worth—indeed, any honest, straightforward and industrious man—but, in his day, there was not anyone else who felt greater abhorrence towards the shuffler and the profligate.”

Although the development of the district's resources was regarded by Read as of paramount importance, he was not unmindful of the growing social needs of the community. When his courthouse could no longer be used for dances, entertainments and public meetings, on account of the further inroads which the setting up of additional State departments made upon the accommodation, he advanced the money required to enable Gisborne's first hall to be built. The loss of the use of the courthouse—for dances in particular—had been keenly felt. That page break
Gisborne, 1873 (view from Kaiti Hill), Captain Read's first store is on the right.By courtesy F. W. Williams.

Gisborne, 1873 (view from Kaiti Hill), Captain Read's first store is on the right.
By courtesy F. W. Williams.

page break
Hon. William Gisborne, m.l.c. After whom Gisborne was named.

Hon. William Gisborne, m.l.c.
After whom Gisborne was named.

William Fitzgerald Crawford, First Mayor of Gisborne, 1877.

William Fitzgerald Crawford,
First Mayor of Gisborne, 1877.

page 193 form of amusement had been open to all classes. Even nondancers had proved welcome, for it fell to their lot, when instrumentalists were not available, to provide music ground out of a hurdy-gurdy.

It was firmly held by Read that a payable oilfield would be discovered in Poverty Bay. What might have assisted him to reach this belief was that he held considerable interests in the Mangatu district. In any case, twelve months before the first oil company was formed in the district, he agitated strongly in favour of steps being taken to test the area. The only stipulation that he made in connection with his offer of substantial financial aid was that the services of an expert should be obtained. He lived to witness the failure of only the first of many attempts to strike oil in the district.

When Read sold out to William Adair in 1875 the lower end of Gladstone Road was well lined with business premises. In 1873 businesses had been established by: Graham and Co. (successors to S. T. Horsfall), stock and station agents, general and wine and spirit merchants, etc.; A. Parnell, hardware merchant; Robjohns, Teat and Co., drapers and grocers; James Buchanan, draper, grocer and hardware merchant; Boylan Bros., grocers and hardware merchants; Townley and Large, furniture makers and furnishers, and also by some smaller firms. During 1874 Blythe and Co. opened as drapers, etc., and T. Adams as a stationer. Large additions to the business community followed in 1875.

As competition in the township had become more intense, and threatened to become even fiercer, Read made a wise decision in giving up his main business. In the country, most of the hotel-keepers had opened stores alongside their licensed premises. City firms had also begun the practice of shipping large consignments of drapery, etc., to Gisborne for the purpose of holding cheap sales. J. McDowell and Co., of Wellington, advertised in April, 1873, a three weeks sale of £3,000 worth of goods at “40% below current rates in Poverty Bay.” The establishment of branches of the Union Bank of Australia and the Bank of New Zealand in Gisborne on 11 March, 1873, deprived Read of much of his financial business. On 8 April, 1878, the Bank of New South Wales also opened a branch.

Death Causes Shock to the Community

It came as a great shock to all classes to learn, on 23 February, 1878, that Read had passed away. He had been in the township in the morning, and, after engaging in a very heated argument with a resident, had returned home. His attentive wife, Noko, found him bathing his head with water which he had drawn from page 194 a well. Shortly afterwards he expired. Dr. H. Pollen gave a certificate that death had been due to fatty degeneration of the heart. The verdict at the inquest was: “Died by the visitation of God, and not by any violent means whatsoever to the knowledge of the said jurors.” Read was buried in the family plot at “Riverslea” (Opou). The cortege was the largest that had been seen in the district. “Snip” was taken to the funeral.

To-day the burial ground is sadly in need of attention. Some of the iron railings have become displaced, and the top section of the tombstone is broken off. Only the inscription relating to Read's own death is legible. It is in simple form and reads:

In Memory of
Capt. George Edward Read
One of the Earliest and Most Useful
Settlers of the District
Who died suddenly at his residence
near Gisborne
February 23, 1878.


A story has been handed down that Read found it advisable, before he settled in Poverty Bay, to make a change in his surname. His birthname was supposed by some people to have been “George Edward Read Bloomfield.” They appear to have overlooked the fact that, if that had been the case, his brother Robert would also have required to drop the surname “Bloomfield.” Captain Bloomfield, who was a relative, was sometimes erroneously referred to as “Captain Thomas Bloomfield Read.”

There was much speculation as to what would be found to be the value of Read's estate. The Poverty Bay Standard, in its obituary notice, stated that three-fourths of the business property in Gisborne had been created with his financial help. His estate was valued for death duties at £130,000. Properties in his estate auctioned in January, 1879, included a number of valuable sections facing Read's Quay and Gladstone Road and others in other important streets, besides allotments on Kaiti and in Mendlesham Township; shares in Ahipakura block; the freeholds of Te Rahui, Ngawaierua, Matawhero B and No. 1, Makauri, Taruheru, “The Willows,” Ahimanawa No. 1, Pohika-ngawaka (with the Ferry Hotel), Taro-o-Paea and Kaipara; and leaseholds in connection with Karaua, Puketapu, Rua-o-Hinatu, Rapanui, Makauri, Taruheru and Matawhero No. 1 blocks. Important clearing sales were held at Makauri, Puketapu and “The Willows.”

Read liberally provided for Noko, who had proved a very suitable wife for him. She was bequeathed a fine dwelling, with ten acres, at “The Willows” (Matawhero), besides a handsome amount in cash. In October, 1879, she remarried, her second husband being Hone White. The ceremony took place at Holy Trinity Church, Gisborne, and, in its report, the Standard, in the free and easy press style of those days, was unkind enough to remark that it wondered what Captain Read would have said if he could have seen his widow “dressed so elegantly in silks and satins.” The main beneficiary was T. E. R. Bloomfield. He at once became a generous patron of the Turf, and, on that account, and as a result of bad investments, he found himself poorer to the extent of £26,000 within only four years. His death occurred in May, 1910. Several page 195 of Read's old hands received a pension of £1 per week for life—the first old-age pensions to be awarded in Poverty Bay.

Read's Quay, one of the principal thoroughfares in Gisborne, alone perpetuates the name of the district's most enterprising pioneer.


Riparata Kahutia (born in 1839) was a daughter of Kahutia, a chief of T'Aitanga-a-Mahaki, and of Uwara, of T'Aitanga-a-Hauiti. She became a notable advocate in the Native Land Court. When she died on 10 June, 1887, it was computed that she owned twice as much land as had been awarded to her by birthright. She was regarded as a liberal landlady. Lady Carroll was a daughter.

Captain George Thomas Clayton was on the Dublin Packet when she landed Hempleman, the whaler, at Peraki (Banks Peninsula) early in 1837. He went on to Queen Charlotte Sound, where he established a whaling station. In 1839 he whaled for a while at Waikokopu; had charge of the Jess, which was in the Sydney-New Zealand run, for some months; and then took up land near Muriwai (P.B.). He assisted the Rev. H. Williams to obtain the signatures of thirty-four Port Nicholson (Wellington) chiefs to the Treaty of Waitangi in April, 1841.

William Adair (born in County Down in 1838) migrated to Victoria in 1860; was on the Otago goldfields in 1863; and then went into business at Addison's Flat, on the West Coast (S.I.). In 1866 he became a traveller for McArthur, Shera and Co., of Auckland, and in 1875 bought Captain Read's merchandising business, with stock-in-trade advertised as being worth £12,000. He had the Rosina built to trade along the East Coast. When J. Townley bought and removed the old courthouse, he erected on the vacant site two-storey brick premises for the Farmers' Co-operative Association and moved into them when that concern failed. In 1897 he sold out to T. J. and C. Adair. The business was taken over by Adair Bros. Ltd. (a public company) in 1908. Mr. Adair died at Auckland on 26 August, 1909.

Thomas Adams (born in County Antrim in 1833) migrated to Victoria in 1863. Two years later he went into business as an ironmonger at Westport. In 1870 he took charge of Captain Read's grocery and hardware departments. He opened the first stationer's shop in Gisborne in 1874. His death occurred on 20 February, 1905.

Capt. Thomas Bloomfield (born in Suffolk) was, for some years, engaged in whaling off the coasts of New Zealand. In 1859, whilst in London, he married Miss Sarah Steggall, who came out with him to Tasmania, where the ship was sold. Settling at Matawhero, he built the finest home in the district. He died early in 1868.