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A great coloniser : the Rev. Dr. Thomas Burns, pioneer minister of Otago and nephew of the poet

Chapter XVII. — The Early Days

page 186

Chapter XVII.
The Early Days.

In each other's faces
   Looked the pioneers,
Drank the wine of courage
   All their battle years.
For their weary sowing,
   Through the world so wide,
Green they saw the harvest
   Ere the clay they died.

The manse was built of weatherboard and lined with rough deal. Canvas and paper were put in the interior to give it warmth. The position of the manse was rather exposed, as it stood on an eminence then clothed in evergreen bushes, at the head of the harbour, with a pretty little bay at the bottom of the steep slope. The site is near the present Princes street, at the intersection of Jetty street, where the Grand Picture Theatre now stands. After a month's occupation of this four-roomed manse Burns contracted with Henry Monson to build a kitchen with clay walls, and to put flooring boards above the rooms, for a sum of £16; he also set Thomas Robertson to work on the fireplace and chimney. Before the manse was lined and ceiled the fine snow used sometimes to sift down on the faces of the occupants as they lay at night in their beds. At first all the cooking had to be done outside in gipsy fashion.

But the hardships of the majority of the immigrants were even greater than those suffered by the elderly minister, his wife, and family, who were privileged to occupy page 187a house from the day of their landing, small and inconvenient as it was. An "Old Colonist"1wrote:—

The accommodation provided for the immigrants proved, unfortunately, much too small, and grass "whares" were hastily put up—long, narrow erections with bunks on each side, like the steerage of a ship; no windows or fireplace; a door at one end. By some mistake these whares were placed on the beach, above ordinary high tide, but the spring tides found them ankle deep in water. An extract from Dr Burns's address, given on the occasion of laying the foundation stone of old Knox Church on November 23, 1859, will show something of the discomforts which many of these uncomplaining women endured. "I went to preach to the bulk of the people in a long barracks made of grass and rushes, situated on the beach. I found my fellow-passengers sitting in almost total darkness, the rain pouring through the roof, the floor in a miserable condition—women with young children on their knees mid-leg deep in mire and puddle. In all my life I never preached with so sad a heart. Preaching it could scarcely be called, but words of cheer and encouragement were offered, and comfort, as far as possible, was spoken to them in their very trying circumstances."

The vigorous young men of the party from the Homeland lost no time in building houses for themselves as soon as the town lots were disposed of. Mr James Adam, to whom reference has already been made, gives a vivid description of his first efforts in providing a remarkable edifice for his family2

Two days after the land purchasers had selected their town sections I applied for the lease of a quarter-acre. I was too poor to purchase, and Captain Cargill gave me a four years' lease of one of the New Zealand Company's sections. As my family were anxious to leave the Philip Laing I engaged two Natives at 3s per day to build me a house, and sent them to the swamp—now Kensington—for a boat load of speargrass to thatch the walls and roof. On my leasehold there was a page 188clump of maple trees, but before cutting them down I stretched a line through them for the ground plan of the house; trees which coincided with this line were left standing, merely cutting off the tops seven feet from the ground, and those which were out of the line of the walls were cut down and put in line by digging holes. By this novel plan the walls were made strong and substantial in one day. The Natives then put small wands or wattles across the uprights, about 12 inches apart, fastening them firmly with strips of Native flax, and over all they laced the long grass to the wattles, did the same over the roof, and at the end of four days my house was ready for its tenants. I have owned good houses since, but I have never been able to evoke the pleasure and happiness felt on the night my cosy hut was finished. I could not refrain from going out frequently to contemplate its proportions, architecture, and site. There was a difference of two feet in the breadth of the gables, but no one could see the four corners of the house at once; it was never known to anyone but myself. Next day I went down to the ship to bring up my family. I fear my wife must have felt some self-gratulation because she was going direct to her own villa instead of the overcrowded barracks. My cottage stood where the Grand Hotel now stands. The entrance was through a leafy archway from Princes street, and at the first sight of the rustic cottage a cry of joy burst from the little one in my arms and the rest of the family. Here was a sweet reward for all my labour and toil. Tea, the never-failing beverage in the bush, was proposed; a fire was kindled outside, and the kettle hung upon a triangle of poles, while the frying pan was doing duty lower down. That was the finest repast I have ever had. The cottage, apparently in the centre of an inpenetrable wood, the shades of evening closing over us, the gipsy encampment round the fire, the happy countenances of loved ones, turned a plain cup of tea into a delightful picnic not easily effaced from the memory. There, also, we had our evening worship, concluding with that noblest psalm of praise "O God of Bethel," and then retired to rest.

Mr James Adam was the first precentor of the pioneer church on board the Philip Laing and after arrival in Otago. He took an active part in the provincial life of the colony as well as in the Church. He was one of the page 189first three representatives elected to the Provincial Council in 1856. He settled at Bon Accord, Tokomairiro, and he rendered great service by his acceptance of appointments to visit the Old Land and the colonies on behalf of immigration to New Zealand.

Mr Burns busied himself in promoting the general interests of the settlement, and he made himself acquainted with the nature of the environs of his new home. On Monday, June 5, he accompanied Mr Garrick and Dr Ramsay to the Halfway Bush in the Kaikorai district. He was greatly pleased with the valley and the river, but he wrote in his diary the following note: "Want of wood and bad access will prevent sections being chosen there just now." On the following day he started out with Mr Garrick for the North-East Valley, but owing, doubtless, to the swamps which then occupied much of the area north of the village and were flooded by the swollen Water of Leith he failed to penetrate the valley. Next. day he took boat with Captain Cargill and Mr Garrick to the opposite side of the harbour, where the Andersons had a selection (hence Anderson's Bay). The party included Thomas Robertson, James Patrick, and George Crawford, and the object of the visit was to find a suitable spot for opening a quarry of stone for building purposes. They also looked at some of the suburban sections in that area, but time did not permit of the completion of their mission. On Thursday after inspecting the town sections in Stafford street Burns went with Mr Blackie to "the flat swamp at the head of the harbour." On the same day Anderson's house was burnt to the ground. Some of George Turnbull's effects, including his clothes and watch, and also some effects of James Buchanan were destroyed. On Friday, June 9, the first sale of some of the suburban sections took place, and Burns purchased page 190for his Scottish friends and Ms brother Gilbert. The Trustees for Religions and Educational Uses purchased No. 10 in Block VII, Town District, and afterwards assigned it as the minister's glebe. A bill for £150 was also drawn as the minister's first half-year's stipend. It was to be sent to Colonel Wakefield at Wellington, and it was expected to cost Burns 5 per cent, to get it cashed. The payment was due on May 20, which would indicate that the appointment of Burns was dated from November 20, 1847, when the church was really constituted on board the Philip Laing at Greenock.

Several purchases of land were made from the area of Sawyers' Bay and Deborah Bay. The whole future of the settlement was shrouded in uncertainty in the early days. The main issue was between Port Chalmers and Dunedin. Burns keenly discerned the two sides of the question. Writing soon after his arrival to his brother Gilbert he said:—

The principal difficulty, I feel, is between selecting at Port Chalmers or Dunedin. The number of town sections at Dunedin is about 2000, and at Port Chalmers about 40, and the expectation is that the latter is never likely to become a large place. Although the entire produce of the millions of acres of fine rural land in the interior can only find an outlet at Port Chalmers—there being no other harbour available from Banks Peninsula to the southern point of the Island—yet various circumstances not unlikely to occur may throw the benefit of such transit into Dunedin to the prejudice of Port Chalmers. The deepening of the bed of the Upper Harbour up to Dunedin so as to carry large vessels thither is a project of no great difficulty—so says Mr Kettle—or for flat-bottomed steamers to take to or from large vessels lying at Port Chalmers. However, even giving force to the preceding suppositions, the place where such a traffic is to be carried must, with certain limits, become a place of great importance, and consequently the cattle land abreast of it must be of corresponding value.

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Such a declaration is evidence—if such be required— of the remarkable practical sagacity which marked Burns as a coloniser. His influence among the settlers became strong from the beginning of the colony, not only on account of his spiritual and moral guidance and the upright character which inspired all his activities, but also because there was no better authority on agricultural and pastoral matters, no more practical and efficient adviser in the pioneering community than the honoured minister. Many families in Otago owe their present prosperity to the counsel given by Mr Burns to the original settlers as to the selection or disposal of lands, and the best use to which their fields might be devoted. While Burns failed to enrich himself and his family in his new sphere, he laid the foundations of valuable investments for the Presbyterian Church—since largely utilised for the benefit of the manses, the churches, and the University of Otago, as the properties held for Religious and Educational Uses, now administered by the Synod of Otago and Southland through the Presbyterian Board of Property. Up to the end of the regime of the New Zealand Company the Church Trustees had purchased 22 of each kind of property— suburban, town, and rural—exclusive of sites for churches and manses.3

The approaching departure of the Philip Laing gave a second opportunity for the despatch of mails to the Homeland. It also promoted a wedding, the first celebrated in Dunedin. Mr Burns's eldest daughter Clementina was united in wedlock with Captain Arthur Jamieson Elles page 192on Wednesday, June 14, 1848, at the manse, after due proclamation of the banns at the church service held on the previous Sunday in Mr Kettle's office. The certificate, signed by the Rev. Thomas Burns, is preserved in the historic Bible of the Philip Laing, which is one of the most sacred relics in the Otago Early Settlers' Library. The courtship had begun on the voyage out, and some people were wont to suggest slyly that if the captain had not been so much interested in the minister's daughter the Philip Laing might have reached Otago before her sister ship from London! Captain and Mrs Elles afterwards settled in Invercargill, and were held in the highest respect by all who knew them. The Philip Laing made many later voyages to various ports, and finally became a coal hulk in the port of Hongkong. Burns purchased the lifeboat of the ship, and Arthur piloted the newly-married couple to their floating home in this boat.

On June 13 Bishop Selwyn arrived. On his former visit to Otakou in 1844 he had not proceeded up the harbour for the simple reason that there was no settlement there. The bishop on his arrival in Dunedin slept at Mr Kettle's house, which gave shelter to numerous visitors in the early days. It stood where the Stock Exchange now stands in the midst of the city's busiest life. The names of Mr and Mrs Kettle should always be held in honour for their gracious hospitality to strangers and visitors. Burns writes in his diary:—

June 14.—Bishop Selwyn arrived to visit the Episcopalians of this settlement—slept at Mr Kettle's last night. I dined at Captain Cargill's with the bishop, Messrs Lee, Garrick, and Cutten. The bishop is a good Christian man—a good deal of discussion as to the New Zealand Company, the Church Missionary Society, and the Wesleyans—gentlemanly, mild, and reasonable.

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June 15.—Arthur brought up the boat, and told us that the Philip Laing was weighing anchor when he left about 12 noon. The bishop called and sat two hours—extremely friendly.

This visit of the bishop was the occasion on which a conversation took place with Mrs Burns, as narrated in the memoirs of the Rev. John Inglis, D.D.4

After the usual salutations and a little general conversation Bishop Selwyn addressed himself to Mrs Burns—a lady of great beauty and as ready in reply as she was beautiful— "I am afraid, Mrs Burns, that in this quiet, strictly Presbyterian settlement of yours you will be startled by such an irruption of bishops and Episcopalian clergy." "Oh, not at all," she said, "I have been accustomed all my life to bishops and all grades of the clergy; my father held two livings in England. No number of bishops or clergy would startle me." "Oh, indeed!" said the bishop, I was not aware of that; but how, then, did you happen to leave us and come here?" "Oh, I just thought better of it, sir," she said."My mother was a Scotch woman, and one of my uncles was a parish minister in Scotland. I knew both churches; I decided for myself, had the courage of my convictions, left the Church of England, and joined the Church of Scotland—hence I am here." The bishop was somewhat taken aback; there was, however, too much principle and too much politeness on both sides for the incident to leave any disagreeable feeling in the minds of either party.

Bishop Selwyn was a great favourite with the Scottish settlers, who admired his heroic self-denial, energy, and enterprise. Having heard that Mr Burns's barometer lacked mercury, the bishop sent some for his use on the following day. With the present of the mercury he also sent from the Heads a copy of the Pentateuch in the Maori and three copies of dialogues in the same language. Burns gratefully acknowledged the gifts, and recorded in his diary:"All extremely obliging in the bishop." Dr Hocken informs us that the bishop reciprocated the feelings of page 194friendship with Mr Burns, and considered that the settlement was fortunate in having a pastor of his character.5

The weather had by this time improved, clear days and hard frosts at night followed upon the wet spell which had proved so trying to the settlers. Burns and Cargill, with a party, supervised draining operations in the Dunedin meadow (Kensington). The minister was anxious to visit the Taieri, and he called on Mr Anderson to borrow his mule for this purpose. Mrs Anderson, who received him, told him that Mr Carnegie had been asking for the mule for the same day, and the same errand. Burns then called on Mrs Kettle to borrow her "Dobbin," but was informed that Mr Strode6 had the first promise. In the afternoon (June 17), accompanied by Cargill and his son, Mr Strode, Dr Ramsay, and Mr Burrell, Burns went in his newly acquired boat to Anderson's Bay, in which he was becoming deeply interested. He was relieved to find that the bull had escaped the menace of the poisonous weed then known as" the toot" (tutu), and was thriving under the care of Turnbull.

Work now became the order of the day. Although it was mid-winter much could be done in clearing the sections, improving the tracks—they could not be termed roads—draining, fencing, and building. The deferred suburban sections came before the settlers for sale on July 6. Burns showed his preference for the land at Anderson's Bay, to which he had been attracted when page 195studying the maps of Otago in Scotland. 7He had the interests of his friends as well as his own to consider, and he gave reasons for his choice in a letter to Gilbert Burns preserved for us by the late J. W. H. Bannerman8

I have chosen nine suburban sections in Anderson's Bay district, which is right across the harbour in the neck of land which separates the harbour from the Pacific. At the end of the ridge where it rounds into Anderson's Bay the sides are composed of a large mass of freestone for many feet above the level of the harbour, with the top densely wooded. This end of the ridge the Company have reserved for a quarry. It is very rich, flat land all along the top of the ridge, and it is a peculiar feature of the country that the Maoris choose these summits uniformly for their potato gardens. I was induced to choose in this locality not altogether from the great beauty of it, but mainly because the water communication (which is one and a-half miles across) makes it the most accessible of all the suburban lands except the meadow. There is a further advantage, that the bank of sand is composed entirely of shells, which will make excellent lime, for there has been no limestone discovered as yet. Moreover, it is sloping the most beautiful way to the sun, so that it will be first rate for tillage, and where it is too steep for the plough it will make beautiful pasture. It is at present the resort of all the wild pigs, wild calves, and cattle because of its sunny exposure and excellent herbage. On walking over it I discovered one chief cause for the partiality of the animals to the Bare Point, as it is called here, is the presence of the aniseed plant, so gratifying to sheep and cattle that they will not look at any other herbage.

page 196

The sections which Burns purchased for his friends involved him in many business dealings, which he handled with the most scrupulous and unselfish care. Leases for a few pounds a year on certain specified conditions were drawn up and signed. He was anxious to start his son Arthur on the land, and had this in view when he selected allotments at Anderson's Bay. By means of the boat access could be gained to this land with the greatest readiness. Almost all communication was by boat in those days. Thick bush covered nearly all the district in every direction, beyond the slight clearings near the harbour's end and a few narrow, rough tracks.

On Tuesday, July 11, an incident occurred which might have terminated the career of Thomas Burns. With William Winton and George Turnbull, his two regular workers, he went in the boat to bring fencing wood to the manse. When out in the harbour the plug suddenly came out of the bottom of the boat, and she quickly filled with water. In the efforts to reach the shore and save the wood which they had secured, Burns fell overboard. Fortunately, he was able to hold on until his companions brought a dinghy and rowed him ashore.

On July 8 a ship from England arrived at Port Chalmers. It was the Victory, under Captain Mullins, from London, with about 40 passengers on board. This was a great event in the infant community. They felt that they were linked up once more with the Homeland, and could look forward to such arrivals at frequent intervals. The newcomers were welcomed, and the mails were eagerly opened. The extraordinary intelligence of the Revolution in France (February, 1848) aroused much page 197interest. Burns received a letter from his brother Gilbert and newspapers from Home. An important piece of information appears in the diary:—

June 17.—Mr Kettle arrived from Wellington, whither he had proceeded from Akaroa, at which latter place he had been on a mission to negotiate the purchase by the New Zealand Company of the Middle Island from Waikouaiti to Kaikoura.

The second marriage in Dunedin took place on the same day as the foregoing entry—John Murray, sawyer, formerly a seaman from the Heads, where he had been living for nine years, was united to Catherine Taylor, who came out to Otago on the John Wickliffe. Dr Ramsay and Mr Blackie were the witnesses to the marriage. Mr Burns sent his first report of births, marriages, and deaths to Mr Strang, the Registrar at Wellington. The Victory, which sailed near the end of July, carried the outgoing mails.

On the last day of July Mr Burns made the acquaintance of Mr John (familiarly called Johnnie) Jones, the remarkable man from Sydney, who had developed the station formerly held by Wright and Long, also of Sydney, at Waikouaiti. From this farm much of the produce and food on sale at Dunedin was derived, and the northern settlement undoubtedly proved to be of considerable benefit to the pioneering community of Otago. Burns also met with a southern "notable" in the person of Toby, chief of Ruapuke (where Mr Woehlers was doing his great work for the Maoris). The island chieftain visited Dunedin at the end of July with the object of selling a seal boat.

So the winter months passed away. Burns zealously attended to the spiritual interests of his flock, while doing everything within his power to assist in the development of the settlement of Otago. He interested himself in making a vegetable garden at the manse and in fencing, page 198draining, building, and all manner of industry in the busy little township. He noted the prices of cattle and sheep imported from Sydney, and the losses on the voyage. He was delighted with the soil and climate of Otago. He speculated upon the possibility of setting up mills on two streams which flowed into Deborah Bay, and cutting the timber which grew abundantly in the vicinity. He thought that a ship-building yard might be placed there some day. He discussed wages, the relative cost of living in the Homeland and Otago. He rejoiced in the discovery of coal on the Taieri, and estimated its effect on the problem of supplying sufficient fuel for the winter. He was always on the look-out for good freestone and lime deposits. He determined to start a farm at Anderson's Bay, and began clearing the land in the beginning of August for the site of a stone house there. Here is a characteristic entry:—

September 5.—Arthur, Mr Blackie, and Tom Martin, after leaving Ludlow and William Wedderburn to cut fencing wood, and going down to Port Chalmers for £3 worth of fruit trees (apples, 3; pears, 4; cherries, 4; apricots, 2; gooseberries, 12; currants—black, 6; red, 6; white, 6; and two laurustinas) brought up a load of paling. John M'Lean supplying W. Winton's place, the two Maoris finished planting No. 17 Block and began in large garden. Married John Alston to Widow Livingston. Finished district two of visitation.

The rural allotments were sold on August 31, and Burns selected several blocks at East and West Taieri, including some for the Church Trustees, the numbers of which are recorded in his diary. On the 18th the Blundell arrived with a large quota of passengers on board. The community was steadily growing. The news of the founding of the Colony had strengthened the hands of the Lay Association in Scotland, and recruits were being constantly enrolled for Otago. Burns made a census of page 199the people during his first pastoral visitation, and estimated that there were in the settlement 444 persons and 88 houses. In addition the total Maori population of the Otago Block was given as 166, of whom 111 were at Otakou Native settlement, 27 at the Taieri village, and 28 at the Clutha. The time has now arrived when we should review the steps leading up to the opening of the first church and school building.

1 Article on "The Pioneer Women of the Otago Settlement," Otago Jubilee number of The Evening Star, March 23, 1898, p. 49.

2 "Twenty-five Years of Emigrant Life," etc.

3 For fuller information see" The Presbyterian Church Trust," by Rev. W. Gillies. On page 13 he says:, "The landed estate of which the Church is now possessed was thus bought and paid for at the same price and just as truly as the land estate of any private settler was, the money enabling the Church Trustees to make this purchase accruing to them under a mutual agreement between the New Zealand Company, the Otago Association, and the first settlers and land purchasers.

4 "In the New Hebrides," pages 316-317.

5 Hocken's Early History, p. 106.

6 Mr A. C. Strode, the resident magistrate, appointed by Governor Grey, had arrived in Dunedin on April 20. It should be mentioned that Governor and Mrs Grey had visited Otago Harbour on February 14, and had been favourably impressed with the site, and on the recommendation of the Governor, Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies, agreed to the formation of a separate province. Mr Strode and Mr John M'Carthy were sent as Government officials to Otago, the latter person establishing himself in "splendid isolation" at the Heads.

7 See Chapter XII, supra.

8 "Early Otago and Genesis of Dunedin: Letters of Rev. T. Burns, D.D., 1848-1865" (R. J. Stark & Co., Ltd., publishers, Dunedin). The selection of extracts has been sadly limited by a misfortune which overtook the bulk of the letters addressed originally by Burns to his brother. We owe our thanks to the late Mr J. W. H. Bannerman, the compiler, for this brochure; without it we should have been denied this source of information, for the location of the letters which escaped the calamity to be referred to is at present unknown, Mr Bannerman having lost his life in the war. In the preface dated from the Bluff, September 16, 1916, Mr Bannerman describes the fate which overtook some of the letters addressed by Dr Burns to his brother: "The letters were discovered in England only a few months ago, and they contain valuable first-hand references to the early days of the province. Unfortunately, one section (1852-57) was lost on board the ill-fated Arabic, which was torpedoed and sunk off the Irish coast."