Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

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

Chapter XVIII. — Church and School

page 200

Chapter XVIII.
Church and School.

If it shall be God's will that we shall succeed in establishing this Colony, I persuade myself that with His blessing attending us we may be instrumental in planting down in these favoured islands a well-ordered, God-fearing community, that may stand in these remote regions a sample of the Kingdom of Christ, which, like a light burning in a dark place, shall bear no indistinct testimony to the Truth.

(Letter of Thomas Burns to William Cargill, written from New Prestwick, Scotland, on December 28, 1844.)

We may picture to ourselves the early settlement at the head of Otago Harbour, with its patchy clearings of native bush and small huts standing thereon. All the evidences of man's struggle with the wilderness were present. We easily imagine the haphazard appearance of the rough dwellings, the gipsy camping places, the long thatched shed which served as the barracks, the flimsy jetty at the landing place, the few boggy tracks, the boats riding at their moorings or drawn up on the beach, and in the background high, densely wooded hills which seemed to threaten man's very foothold on the shores of the loch. The shortage of sawn timber was the greatest hindrance to the erection of houses. Everything was rough and ready. Grasses, rushes, and flax, cut from the neighbouring flat, served as temporary roof and walls, supported by bush poles, and often covered over with mud which dried hard and firm. Heavy labour was involved in clearing the bush and preparing the soil for the plough and the town site. Little by little, however, man subdued the thick bush. Becoming inured to toil by the driving force of necessity, the pioneers made themselves the real occupants of their sections, suburban allotments began to take shape under the ringing blows of the axe, and the plan of Dunedin, page break
The Initial First Church and School.

The Initial First Church and School.

page 201hitherto sketched on paper by the surveyor and marked in the earth only by pegs, began to show itself in reality on the lower slopes around the tiny stream which flowed out near the jetty. Without a building for worship or schooling, however, the village, or "the primitive townie" as T. J. Barr called it 2, scarcely realised the ideals of the minister, who had stressed the importance of the Church and school when advocating the Colony. And Burns lost no time in seeking to fulfil this essential part of the project. As we have seen, services were held with the utmost regularity on board ship from the commencement of the voyage, and in the barracks and in Mr Kettle's survey office after arrival on shore. As soon as the sections were purchased, including some allotments for the Church Trustees, and the people were settled at Dunedin, Burns pressed the scheme of building a church and schoolhouse to the forefront. It so happens that the original document which led to the choice of the first site for this dual object has come to light. At a sale of Mr Webb's furniture at Hillside many years ago Mr J. Henry purchased among other things some books, and in one of them he found the following historical document(2), which had evidently been in the possession of Captain Cargill at an early date.
Dunedin, July 4, 1848.


—I beg to enclose a copy of a resolution of the Church and School Trustees of this date, and to request your favourable consideration of it.

Thomas Burns, Convener.

William Cargill, Esq., Resident Agent, Dunedin.
page 202


At a meeting of Church and School Trustees held at Dunedin on July 4, 1848. Inter alia: It was resolved that application be made to the resident Agent of the New Zealand Company for permission to erect a schoolhouse on the unappropriated reserve immediately adjoining Mr Garrick's town allotment, as being the most accessible to the community from its central position and communication with the sea beach.— Extracted from the minutes by Thomas Burns.

This "unappropriated reserve" was one of three reserves laid aside by Cargill with the authority of the New Zealand Company as the "Special Trust Property," donated by the Company to the Otago settlement "as a sort of birthday gift to the Church."(3) The site chosen at the meeting held by the Trustees in Dunedin on July 4, 1848, referred to in the foregoing minute, was known as Reserve Block No. 5; the other two being No. 10, where the original manse was located; and No. 4, or Church Hill (better known during the succeeding decade as Bell Hill), on which the magnificent edifice of First Church and the existing manse now stand, the hill having been reduced and levelled in the late 'sixties, prior to their erection. Colonel Wakefield, acting on instructions from the Company, had, in 1847, authorised the surveyors to lay aside reserves for these purposes, viz.," a site for one church with school and playground for the children, and also, in the case of Dunedin, a site for a college." Effect had been given by Mr Kettle to these orders prior to the arrival of the settlers, and Captain Cargill as resident Agent had power of attorney conferred upon him to "appropriate, dispose of, and deal with such last-mentioned lands," etc., in the interests 3 page 203of the community.4 The primacy and intimate connection of religion and education which the Free Church had endorsed under the steadfast advocacy and leadership of Mr Burns were thus recognised in the identity of the Trust and of its properties. Accordingly, the manse of Mr Burns was immediately set up on No. 10, as already narrated, and the first building for joint church and school purposes was at the earliest convenient moment allotted to the area which lay under the shadow of Church Hill, that being reserved for the ultimate erection of the church.

The request was acceded to, and plans were made for the construction of a schoolhouse. A contract was let to J. Courtis and John Ferguson to erect the building for the purpose named5. The price fixed was £82, and the time allowed was 33 days. On July 11 Burns fixed with Captain Cargill the exact spot on which the school was to be placed. It stood where the Standard Insurance Company's office is now located in Lower High street, Dunedin, just opposite to the statue of the late Dr Stuart.

In the meantime, while the building was going on, the manse was being constantly improved, the chimney was finished, books were unpacked in the study, which had been added, and the manse grounds were planted with grass seed, vegetables, and fruit trees for the coming season. Burns walked to the top of High street, then covered with bush, and expatiated on the view.

On Sunday, September 3, the new church was opened for service, and Burns took his text from Jeremiah viii, 20: "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." The congregation showed a fortitude which few, if any, of our modern congregations could emulate. page 204For although the shell of the building was finished there were no seats provided for them! The first wedding in the new building was celebrated between Francis M'Diarmid and Janet Milne on September 23. On Sunday, the 24th, Mr Burns intimated that the school would open on the following day. Thus began the first school, familiarly known as the "Beach School," from which all the fine educational institutions of Otago have in one way or another descended to the present time. Mr Blackie, the young schoolmaster, whose health was already giving way, entered upon his work with enthusiasm. Writing to the Rev. John Sym on September 28 Burns reviewed the progress of his parish in an interesting fashion.6.

We have got up a very neat schoolhouse, constructed of wood, in a very convenient situation, and it is used both for public worship on Sabbath and school through the week. It was opened for public worship on September 3, and last Sabbath it was nearly full. It is not yet seated, but will be, I hope, in the course of a week or 10 days, when our newly-arrived countrymen, who have come in the Blundell, will find themselves well accommodated. Before this we worshipped in the surveyor's office, which, although the largest place that was to be had, and comfortable enough, yet did not hold one-third of the congregation. A Sabbath school has been opened, and is well attended. I have just completed my first ministerial visitation of my new parish.

Wooden houses built of weatherboard were soon set up by the majority of the settlers in place of the first temporary huts, and Mr William Fox, the acting principal Agent at Wellington, favourably commented upon this fact in his report to the New Zealand Company in the beginning of 1849.7 The town also became more neat and orderly in its layout. He took this as proof that the immigrants were of a good class, intent upon the best page 205interests of their new home. The spirit of the pioneers at this period was one of cheerful endurance of trifling discomforts, with the prospect of better things to come. The free life in the open air was exhilarating, and the health of the community was remarkably good.

Among the many obligations which we owe to Mr Burns his services to meteorology should be remembered with gratitude. From the time of his arrival he carefully observed the weather, and kept records of temperature and wind. Troubles with his barometer, which Bishop Selwyn helped him to overcome by sending him a supply of mercury, but which recurred at a later stage, interfered somewhat with his records for a brief period. On October 4 he mentions in his diary that he paid an Italian on board the Blundell £1 for repairing his barometer. Notwithstanding such difficulties, Burns set himself to keep an accurate record of the weather at Dunedin, and he did so with a faithfulness and meticulous assiduity such as a professional observer alone could be expected to observe. His scientific training under Sir John Leslie proved to be of great benefit to him in Otago.

The climate of Otago was largely an unknown factor when the Colony was planted. Burns recognised that he was living in the southernmost portion of the British Empire, and that records of the changes in the weather at this latitude would be of great value not only to the settlers, who were so largely dependent upon the prevailing conditions for their crops and harvests, but also to the meteorologists of the future, who would desire observations over a considerable range of years. Accordingly, Burns, assisted by his daughter Frances, or Fanny, afterwards Mrs Henry Livingston, took the records of the thermometer, barometer, prevailing winds, and rainfall every day. In October, 1848, he gave up incorporating such page 206weather notes in the entries of his diary, and made a special place for the register of the weather at the back of the book. In November, 1852, a new book was used for the purpose, and the records contained in this large volume continued until July, 1864.8

At first Burns took the temperature and reading of the barometer between 7 and 8 a.m., then adding notes on the prevailing winds, weather, etc., in the forenoon from 6 to 12, the afternoon from 12 to 6 p.m., and the night from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. From September, 1849, he entered the readings at 8.30 a.m., with the same threefold division of the day of 24 hours as before. In May, 1850, he set up a rain gauge, and reported the rainfall (if any) each morning. On Friday, February 7, 1851, Burns recorded the atmosphere as "very singular, yellow and green, like the smoke from an extended fire," and in a footnote writes under the previous date:—

This Thursday is still known in Victoria as "Black Thursday." The effects of the extensive fires were strikingly visible in the sky at Dunedin on the following day, the 7th. This note was written on October 17, 1861, in consequence of reading in Garratt's "Six Years' Life and Experience in Australia, From 1849 to 1856." Garratt says on page 9 of this pamphlet that "the effects of the violent wind on Black Thursday were very remarkable—immense fires, excessive heat, and alarming darkness. Ships at sea were covered with burnt wood and dust." Some of the burnt leaves were carried as far as Otago.

In March, 1852, Burns began giving the figures of the maximum and minimum thermometer, and the mean for the preceding 24 hours, in addition to the other particulars, as before. At the close of each month from the beginning the statistical tables of average readings and the total amount of rainfall were worked out with meticulous care. He also gave a summary of the daily weather. For page 207instance, the number of days without rain, of slight rain, and of heavier rain, also the direction of the wind over various periods. From 1855 until the records cease in 1864 a summary of the weather for the preceding year was also worked out and appended to the monthly records.

And so for at least 16 years, three times a day, Burns checked the details of the weather with an accuracy and precision which could scarcely be surpassed at an observatory. Mr D. C. Bates, the Director of the Dominion Meteorological Office, Wellington, in 1921 borrowed the book of records kept by Dr Burns, and had a copy made for reference purposes, and he expressed his high appreciation of the work done by the pioneer minister in this department, and the value of the data thus preserved to future generations.

Another very interesting relic of Mr Burns's ministry is his visiting book9, dated September 4, 1848, and continuing to November 18, 1858. As he visited every house in the whole of his district as minister of the Colony his notes are equivalent to a good census of the population. The first name is that of Edward Lee, one of the Trustees of church and school, regarding whom the information is given: "An Episcopalian who wishes to communicate, but not as a member of the Free Church." Mr Lee settled afterwards at West Taieri, the Lee Stream being named after him. Probably he did not act as Trustee because he was not a member of the Presbyterian Church. The denomination of each settler is given, the name of his wife (if married); and children (if any), and name and age of the children. Prom a study of the list of persons recorded in this book it is evident that the population of Otago at the period was more mixed than might have been imagined. page 208The foundation of Dunedin undoubtedly attracted many people from Waikouaiti and the Heads to the new centre of population. Some interesting stories from life could be collected from these entries. For instance, "Matthew Hamilton, from Greenock in 1821, whaling out from London went on board a Spanish man-o'-war; left at the Manillas, came to Hobart Town 1829, to New Zealand 1830, Cloudy Bay and Akaroa, married to young Maori woman." The great majority of the residents were Scotch and Presbyterian, as was to be expected. Port Chalmers and the intervening dwellings were included in the first visitation, but none of the country districts had been visited by Mr Burns up to the beginning of October.

While faithfully pursuing his pastoral duties Burns did not allow the general work of cultivation to fail. He pushed on with preparations for establishing a farm at "The Glen," Anderson's Bay, and set about building a stone house there. He afterwards named this homestead Grants Braes, and it was possibly the first stone house erected in Otago.10 It was situated where "Waverley" now is, in the bend of the lower road on the eastern side page break
A photographic extract from the meteorological record kept by the Rev. Thomas Burns from the founding of the province in 1848 to 1864.

A photographic extract from the meteorological record kept by the Rev. Thomas Burns from the founding of the province in 1848 to 1864.

page 209of the harbour, near Anderson's Bay. The house has disappeared through the failure of the stone to stand the weather. The old homestead and farm were occupied for some years by Mr Arthur Burns, for whom they were intended by the generous father, who did all within his means to provide for the future of his only son, and of the settlement as a whole. The bush at "The Glen," or Grants Braes, was felled by Alexander Duthie, Edward Martin, and Thomas Brooks under contract. A heavy crop of wheat was grown on the land, and afterwards ground into flour by Peter M'Gill, miller for W. H. Valpy, whose mills were at the Water of Leith. The stone for the house was quarried at Anderson's Bay Point by John Matthews and James Robertson, and transported on punts by Arthur Burns and his father's boat's crew. Matthews and Robertson, stonemasons, also built the house, which was commenced in December, 1848. The timber was cut and sawn by Duthie and Brooks from the adjoining bush, and the carpentering work was done by Henry Clark, later of Tokomairiro, and Alexander Garvie, some of the window sashes being made by John Sidey, afterwards of "Corstorphine," Caversham. The lime for the building was burned at Portobello by James Seaton, who arrived on the Philip Laing, and was afterwards representative of the Peninsula in Parliament11. Two crops of oats raised from seed brought by the Rev. T. Burns from Scotland were shipped to Sydney in the early 'fifties, and started the export trade of grain from Dunedin. The father's farming ability and the son's maritime experience fitted in very well with the needs of Grants Braes and the transport to and from the water front. With the raising of a fine flock of sheep and the slopes all cleared and providing good pasture, Arthur Burns left the farm under Brebner's care, and moved page 210to East Taieri, where his father had selected a rural section, and here Arthur Burns established himself until the mining boom deprived the farm of labourers. The name of this old farm (Mosgiel) has become historical, inasmuch as, after leasing sections of the property for some years, the woollen mills were started by Arthur Burns at Mosgiel in 1871. The old homestead at Grants Braes fell into disrepair after the death of Dr Burns, the stone proving pervious to the strong salt air, and the former importance of Grants Braes disappeared, leaving only the name to preserve a shadowy bond with the past in Dunedin and Haddington in the Homeland, where the factor of the Blantyre estates had taught his son Thomas the great lessons of life. The following entries in the diary (1848) touch on points of interest:—

October 14.—Quarry in the Glen turns out a failure. Accompanied with Mr Blackie, went to Sawyers' Bay. Advised the Somervilles to choose in Anderson's Bay, which they have done.

Sunday, October 15.—Preached (Dunedin) Isaiah lv, 8-9. In the afternoon preached at Port Chalmers in Mackay's house; room full; left this 2.30 p.m., reached Sawyers' Bay 4.30; left 6.30, reached home 7.45 p.m.

This first service ashore at Port Chalmers marked an epoch in the development of Mr Burns's ministry. He revisited the Port on the following Sunday, by boat, of course, taking Captain Cargill with him. The Dolphin, a schooner of 35 tons, had arrived from Wellington, bringing news of a terrible earthquake there and at Nelson. The returning boat of Mr Burns carried the mail to Dunedin, also a Miss Aitken and Messrs Allan and Mercer.

The seating of the new church in Dunedin was not finished until the end of the year, and the delay caused much disappointment to minister and congregation. Burns mentioned that many people had to stand in church, and page 211that he had been unable to arrange for the long-expected dispensation of the sacrament in consequence of the lack of pews.

On Monday, December 4, the Bernicia arrived at Port Chalmers with a quota of immigrants on board. On the following day the first vessel of any size to reach Dunedin found her way up the harbour. She was the Governor Grey, with a cargo of timber, 12,000 feet, all bought by Mr Macdonald. The schooner came within a cable's length of the jetty. As one looks at the port of Dunedin to-day, often berthing large ocean-going steamers, one's mind goes back to that December 5, 1848, and thinks of the excitement caused by the arrival of a schooner off the landing place. The ultimate ascendancy of Dunedin over Port Chalmers as a place of shipping was thus foreshadowed.

On Sunday, December 10, Burns intimated that the first sacrament would be held in the church on January 14, also that two diets of worship would ordinarily be held in the new church at Dunedin. The seats and pulpit were completed before the end of December, 1848. So the settlers had a fitting place of worship erected and furnished before the first year had passed away. Reviewing the occasion of the opening of the first church at a later date12 Dr Burns said:—

They had come to close quarters with their great undertaking, and were grappling with its toils and battling with its difficulties. And then it was that the blessedness of the Sabbath refreshed the spirit of the toil-worn settler, and the house of prayer with its open door stood ready to receive him. And when the worshippers had all entered in and the house was filled, and the song of praise arose, and the prayers of the congregation went up, and the word in season fell on the listening ear and edified the understanding heart—oh! then it was that page 212we thought of our Scottish fatherland as the land we would never cease to love; and we felt that we could never be thankful enough that whilst we had left behind us so much that was very dear to us, a gracious God had taken sufficient care that in coming so far we should bring along with us the Christian Sabbath, a house of prayer, and a Gospel ministry. Yes! Those peaceful Sabbaths of our infant Colony, our still and noiseless streets—nobody to be seen, for all were in church —everything betokened such perfect, unbroken repose that a Dunedin Sabbath might have stood a favourable comparison with the most attractive rural village Sabbath in all broad Scotland.

Following upon the old Scottish custom, Mr Burns had special services prior to the Sacrament. Sunday, January 7, 1849, was "preparation Sabbath"; Thursday was a "Fast Day"; Saturday was similarly observed; and Sunday, January 14, was "the great day of the feast," when, with awed and hushed hearts, the worshippers took their places at the three tables in the church. About 80 communicants took part in the sacramental service, and Mr Burns expressed in his diary his sense of the solemnity and propriety of the occasion. Mr Henry Clark, a carpenter, formerly an elder of the Dean Free Church, Edinburgh, had arrived in the Blundell, and was able to assist the minister in the dispensation of the ordinance.

Steps were now taken by Mr Burns to afford the congregation an opportunity of electing elders. The Session records of First Church, which fortunately have survived the perils of time, contain official accounts of the procedure which was adopted. On March 25, 1849, intimation was given of a resolution passed at a meeting of the congregation that a Kirk Session should be formed, and, by means of sealed lists, the members were invited to elect four elders. On April 26 the congregation met to receive the result of the ballot, and the minister announced the following as having received the greatest number of votes:— page 213Mr Henry Clark, Mr James Blackie, Captain William Cargill, and Mr Alexander Chalmers, of Halfway Bush13.

The induction of Mr Clark and the ordination of the other three elected members to the eldership took place on Sunday, May 13, in the presence of a large congregation. Thus the First Church received the essential organisation of a charge according to the polity of the Presbyterian Church, and found itself in a better position to serve the spiritual and moral interests of the scattered handful of settlers from Otago Heads to the southern plains.

2 Mr Henry pencilled a few lines telling how the paper came into his hands, and sent it to Dr Hocken. It now lies in the bound volume of Otago MSS., marked Vol. 7 in the Hocken Library. It is in the clear hand writing of Mr Burns.

3 "The Presbyterian Church Trust," by Gillies, p. 22. Probably the "full price" of these reserves was included in the "advance of £3500 for a church, manse, schoolhouse, and other purposes connected with the Trust" which was announced to the emigrants at the first ballot, held in London on November 10, 1847 (see Chap. XIV, supra). The frames of the manse and schoolhouse carried on the John Wickliffe were also reckoned in the amount named as a gift to the class settlement.

4 Ibid, p. 23.

5 Burns's diary, entry july 4, 1848. The tender must have been cub-mitted to the meting on the same date.

6 Otago Journal, No. IV, p. 57.

7 Ibid, No. V, p. 69.

8 Early Settlers' Library, Dunedl.

9 Also in the Early Settlers' Library.

10 I have had considerable difficulty in locating the site of Grants Braes. From Mr James Scott, of Drumoak, Wyndham, the most reliable information has reached me. He writes: "Yes; the stone house which Dr Burns built soon after coming to Otago was on the present site of Waverley House. He cleared his own section of 130 acres and did a great deal of cultivation growing wheat. He had a threshing mill, and no doubt the circles made by the bullocks tramping round threshing the wheat may still be found on the hills. His son Arthur, a very young man at the time, had a flock of sheep on the place. I had five different landlords all interested in Grants Braes, as the doctor had bought sections for people who gave him money to invest for them, Dr Burns's section being in the middle of the farm. The two-gabled stone house on the hill which you visited was built for me when the old one on the beach, the old Grants Braes, was past living in." Mr Scott says in another letter to me on the subject of Grants Braes: "This stone house was close to the beach, built against the bank, and was never finished upstairs, this part being used as a workroom. When I went to the house on top of the hill the place at the beach was practically a ruin, and I took the flooring out of it to build a loft in my cowshed. The walls were still standing when I came south over 50 years ago, but were pulled down and Waverley Hotel built on the site. Smith and Larnach bought the property from Mr Arthur Burns a few years before my lease was up. Most of my business transactions were with Mr A. Burns. When I first came to Grants Braes Dr and Mrs Burns usually visited us once or twice a year, and I remember him as a very jolly gentleman and keen business man."

11 Mrs W. Allan, of Hunter's terrace, Dunedin, is the daughter of Mr Seaton, and is the oldest survivor of the passengers by the Philip Laing.

12 Farewell address delivered by the Rev. Dr Burns at the original First Church on December 25, 1864 (Te Pono Press, Waimate)

13 Burns gives the figures for the election of elders in his diary as follows: —H. Clark 29, J. Blackie 28, William Cargill 26, A. Chalmers 13, J. Brown 8, C. I. Williamson 5, C. H. Kettle 4, J. Adam 3, W. Duff 2, A. Begg 2, W. White 2, John Somerville 1, Francis M'Diarmid 1, A. Garvie 1, M. Allan 1, W. H. Valpy 1.