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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 2, Issue 3, November 1968

Nelson's First Magistrate

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Nelson's First Magistrate

A request from England by a distant relative of Henry Augustus Thompson for information about the descendants of this man made us realise that very little was actually known here about our first Magistrate and this has led to a most interesting search both here and in England.

Henry Augustus Thompson was born at Penton Lodge, near Bath, on October 23, 1804, being the eighth member of a family of nine children. His father, George Nisbett Thompson (1753–1831), had proceeded to Bengal in 1778 to practice in the Supreme Court of Judicature and three years later became Sub-Secretary to the Governor-General, Warren Hastings. He became a great and lifelong friend of Warren Hastings who appointed him Official Secretary in 1783. Hastings left Bengal in 1785 and Thompson who, by then, had been appointed Junior Judge-Advocate in addition to his other duties remained in Bengal until 1789. Thompson undertook the huge task of gathering the suffrages of the people of Bengal to help in the defence of Warren Hastings who was finally cleared on all sixteen counts of Impeachment.

G. N. Thompson married in 1791. Penton Lodge where the Thompsons were living when Henry Augustus was born, and where he spent the first ten years of his life, was described as "A Capital and Freehold Villa recently erected in a Style of singular Elegance and Convenience." Mention is made of a "spacious lawn. Shrubberies, and Plantations. Stabling built in the form of a Crescent for twenty horses, Eight Coach Houses, etc., Kitchen Garden, Hothouse and Grapery. A beautiful Hermitage, a detached Farm Yard, Barns, Granary and other buildings. One hundred and thirty acres of excellent land, watered and refreshed by a beautiful stream which runs at the bottom of the lawn." These were the particulars of Penton Lodge as described by Mr. Christie of Pall Mall. The villa itself contained drawing room, east and west libraries, study and all the usual domestic and kitchen quarters. There were eleven bedrooms as well as dressing rooms and school room. On the top floor there were sixteen attic rooms. (Is it any wonder that the villa is now a Convent?)

In 1814, when Henry Augustus was only ten years old his parents separated and no doubt this had some adverse effect upon the child reared in such spacious surroundings. In 1817 he went to Rugby School, and in that year his mother died. After leaving school he studied for the Bar as a student of the Inner Temple. He appears page 4to have led a pleasant life and we find that he used to go on shooting expeditions. A dispute with a certain Mr. Villiers nearly came to a duel, and he was bound over to keep the peace. The newspapers got hold of the story and laughed at him, but he assured his father that he could not have acted otherwise, and even Mr. Villiers admitted this.

After the death of his father in 1831 we appear to have no record of Henry Augustus for the next ten years. Then we find Mr. and Mrs. Thompson were passengers on the privately-owned 425 ton ship, Mandarin, which sailed from Gravesend on August 6, 1841, arriving in Wellington, on December 21. Thompson had come out from England with letters from Lord John Russell to Captain Hobson recommending him for a Government appointment at Nelson. He was accordingly gazetted police magistrate on February 2, 1842. To the bustling little settlement of Nelson the Government eventually sent two officials. On March 5, 1842, the Customs officer, Stephen Carkeek, arrived in the Abercrombie while next day the ship Brougham brought Nelson's second civil servant. Magistrate H. A. Thompson. It was the custom for the chief Government officer in any New Zealand town to be the senior magistrate. Thompson, as Postmaster, delegated his postal duties to an assistant but it was only a few months before all post offices in New Zealand were placed under the Customs officials and thereafter Carkeek was officially Postmaster.

Thompson's home was a large two-storey house built on the hillside at what is now Bisley Avenue, Tahunanui. It was a well known landmark for ships entering Nelson Haven. (See cover).

From the various reports concerning Thompson it is apparent that he was a man of ability. He was kind-hearted and courteous to everyone, but he was prone to outbreaks of temper. In all he must have been a superior type of man and the other leaders in the settlement, all settlers or employees of the New Zealand Company, felt obliged to bow to his opinion. (Could they do otherwise?)

As well as Police-Magistrate he was Protector of Aborigines but in his over-confident way he regarded the Maoris as an inferior race and this proved to be a fatal error. The show of force at Tua Marina was an ill-conceived manoeuvre and the loss of life there was a very severe blow for the Nelson settlement. The loss of Captain Arthur Wakefield, Thompson and some of the other prominent men in the community as well as many of those who went to make up the police party must have filled the settlers with a sense of despair. Some of the men killed left wives and children entirely destitute as in those early days there were no homes or orphanages, and the work of looking after the helpless fell to the lot of the inhabitants of the township. Some orphans were adopted into families and thus became eparated from their own people.

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Was it any wonder that the name of Magistrate Thompson was an unpopular one amongst the working class people?

The official verdict on the occurrence was against the wisdom and justice of the issue of the warrant to arrest the Maori chiefs– and its execution. But the Nelson Examiner of January 6, 1844, says of Thompson: "The least we can say is that he was a highspirited English gentleman of birth, talents and accomplishments. Of great activity and energy, nearly all the official duties of the Government were, for the first year of the settlement, left upon him. He Was at once Police Magistrate, Postmaster, Protector of the Aborigines and Government representative. The business of all these, some of it of unpopular character enough, he did as satisfactorily, and made as few enemies in doing it, as most men could have done." After more appreciative remarks the paragraph ends, "in all his intentions upright and honourable, few could be more, or more sincerely, regretted than he was by those who knew him intimately."

The Nelson Examiner, as an organ of the settlers, may be thought to have been partial, but Dr. Selwyn, Bishop of New Zealand, could probably be regarded as an independent observer who, after three weeks friendly intercourse with Captain Wakefield and Mr. Thompson stated that "Mr Thompson's zeal for the welfare of the native people and his judicious exertions on their behalf, make it the more distressing that he should have died at their hands."

One of the supporters of the attempt to arrest the Maori chiefs was the Hon. Constantine Dillon who, writing to his sister on August 7, 1843, gave details of the clash and after paying tribute to Captain Wakefield said, "Mr. Thompson was also a very amiable, kind person, very much liked by all the people of the upper class, very hospitable, and a person I was getting to be on terms of great friendship with. He was also Protector of the Aborigines, in which office he tried all in his power to advance them, as he took a great interest in them … He has left a widow, a young woman, and a child about 13 months old. You may fancy what a deplorable condition to be left in without a friend. We have brought her away from Nelson to live with us here in the country (Waimea West), away from all the trouble consequent upon the event. Fanny (his wife), like a good creature as she is, proposed at once to go down to Nelson and see what could be done for all the poor widows, as out of 22 people killed, 12 had wives and families. …" (Dillon did not support the view that the Massacre was the result of Thompson's hasty temper.)

Early records of the Nelson settlement show that H. A. Thompson was granted sections 1089, 206 and 196. If these were all town sections, as they appear to be, they would be, 1089 Van Dieman Street, 206 corner of Tasman and Bridge Streets, and 196 would be in Brougham Street.

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Meanwhile, what happened to Mrs. Thompson?

It appears that a further child was born to her after the death of her husband.

Earfy in 1845 Mrs. Thompson married Alexander McDonald, manager of the Union Bank in Nelson, and soon after he was transferred to Wellington. While there the McDonalds apparently had protracted negotiations on behalf of their family by Thompson over land in Nelson. It appears probable that the family was adopted by McDonald. In 1849 McDonald was transferred to Sydney and held various important appointments with the Union Sank eventually, from 1854 to 1856, being Inspector in charge of the Bank's whole establishment in Australia and New Zealand.

In January, 1868, 126 acres of land were transferred from Alexander McDonald, City of Sydney, Merchant, to Mathew Richmond, of The Cliffs, City of Nelson. This was part of a Crown grant made to William Fox in 1854, and had only been held by McDonald for a few years. (The land was on the Moana hillside in what is now Tahunanui.)

This story concerning Magistrate H. A. Thompson is based upon information gleaned from many sources and is accurate in so far as we have been able to trace possible leads. In all honesty I must point out that there is another story current in Nelson concerning Mrs. Thompson after the death of her husband. It was said that years later she ran a boarding house in Nile Street. I am not in the position to either confirm or deny the story.