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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 1, Issue 5, October 1985

The Strange Case of Dr J. J. Imrie

The Strange Case of Dr J. J. Imrie

page 39

The Nelson Provincial Museum Library receives enquiries for information on a variety of subjects. The resources used to satisfy these enquiries are many and varied. Personal diaries and letters, newspapers, passenger lists, records of business and social organisations, published provincial and central government records, books, cemetery records, plus illustrated material – drawings, paintings, maps and the marvellous photographic collection. Bringing these resources to bear on an enquiry can build up a composite picture which delights the researcher.

This can be demonstrated by the story of one particular enquiry which came from a woman who was to have visitors from Australia. Their ancestor had lived in Nelson and they wanted to see any evidence of his life here. They had sent a copy of an obituary from an Australian paper dated 21 May 1901 and this was the starting point. It concerned Dr John Jennings Imrie who had been born in Ayr, Scotland, in 1810. He had served in the army in India and Spain, gaining the Victoria Cross for bravery, and had then gone to Adelaide. The obituary continues: "Seeing nothing suitable in Adelaide to his fancy returned to England and went over to France where he had left his wife and two children for the time and as New Zealand was just at that time proclaimed a British Colony he went over with his family and settled in Nelson, New Zealand, they being with a few other families the first and only white settlers there at that time. He bought a quantity of land from the natives and also got a free grant from the British Government. He built the first house in Nelson, having taken the material out with him.

"He shortly afterwards chartered a vessel in England and spent a fortune having her fitted out with merchandise for New Zealand and sad to relate when the vessel arrived safely off the coast of New Zealand and was in sight of Nelson a fearful storm came on and she struck a rock and went to pieces before the eyes of the owner and all was lost not a soul saved. This was his first loss, $40,000 went to the bottom. Shortly after that time the Maoris became very aggressive to the white settlers. Dr Imrie was one of the few settlers who escaped being murdered. The natives then tried to drive the whites out of Nelson. The doctor and the remaining whites built a fort and repulsed the attack of the natives on several occasions and the day before they were about to make the final attack a schooner put into Nelson on her way to Tasmania and he and his family with the rest of the settlers took refuge on board, escaping with their lives and leaving all they possessed to the mercy of the natives. He than landed with his family at Hobart and abandoned all idea of returning to New Zealand where he had been practically ruined."

This was impressive stuff to the novice researcher who now began investigations, convinced that evidence concerning Dr J. J. Imrie would lie thick on the ground!

First check the passenger lists – no Dr Imrie.

Then check the 1845 census – no Dr Imrie.

Ruth Allan hadn't heard of him either!

page 40

As a last resort check the list of early settlers in Brett's Early History of New Zealand and there he is. Two listings!

  • 1841 J. Imrie Clydeside, Wellington.
  • 1842 J. J. Imrie, Nelson.

The Clydeside arrived at Port Nicholson 11 October 1841 and Early Wellington by Ward lists Imrie among its passengers. This at least gets him to Wellington.

What about J. W. Saxton's Diary? Mr Saxton knew everyone who was worth knowing. Check the index and there he is, several references.

"Thursday, 12 July 1842: Called on Mr Imrie who gave me a cheque on the bank for Mr Nicholl's goods and then walked with me to Captain Wilson's to see the sketch, assisting me to carry the board from the Depot for the second sketch.

"Wednesday, 15 February, 1843: After breakfast started to see Mr Imrie respecting the omission of half the currants in his account. Passed over the new bridge by Mr Tuckett's garden, Spanton's house, Mr Valle's and reached Mr Imrie who was at home. He recollected the transaction and amount and advised me to deliver my account to Mr Perry, from whom, he said, I must expect objections and blackguardism and that I might refer to him. After taking a glass of wine for which he drew the cork, he showed me his back premises where I saw two rabbits. He promised to give me a pair. I enjoyed from his terrace a beautiful view both of the righthand towards the sea and to the left towards Brook Street valley. He showed me a rock spring near his door. More pleased with New Zealand than I had yet been.

"Wednesday, 28 June 1843: Heard from Mr Richardson's man then going up to secure his effects that the dreadful news was substantially correct. After dinner went to town where in the morning Mr Tuckett had safely arrived. Returned with Newport who was commissioned to tell Mr Fell he was on watch for the night. I had evaded a request by Messrs Valle, Elliott and Imrie to sign a requisition for the formation of a militia. Monday, 28 August 1843: Went to Mr Imrie's and partly agreed to take one of his rabbits. He has determined to leave for Moreton Bay."

Now we're getting somewhere! From the description of the view Imrie must have lived in the Wood area and he probably left for Australia towards the end of 1843. A jury list in the Nelson Examiner of 8 April 1843 includes John Jennings Imrie, Grove Street, Gentleman. Intriguing to know what a Gentleman would do for a living! Advertisements appear in the Examiner for J. J. Imrie & Co., Bridge Street: "Arrived ex Elizabeth and on sale at the stores of the undersigned, black and green teas of fresh quality, loaf and raw sugars, coffee, flour, fine Irish butter and English cheese, lard, beef, pork, hams, oat and pease meal, rice, mustard, pepper, vinegar in bottle and cask, pickles, sauces, bottled fruits, currants, raisins, nutmegs, cloves, etc., mould and dipped candles, lamp oil and lamps, lampwick, gunpowder, iron pots in great variety, frying pans, girdles, etc., starch and blue, soap, cigars, tobacco, pipes, stationery, etc., superior pale brandy, Highland whisky and old rum in bottles, garden seeds in assorted packages, in excellent preservation. A few well-assorted medicine chests, with directions for using, very suitable for families going into the country. A choice assortment of native mats". He was a shopkeeper!

page 41

In July 1842 he advertised: "For sale, a splendid new oak boat, English built with masts, sails, etc. complete; will carry about 8 tons, very suitable for landing cargo". Then a shipping notice: Sailed 30 September 1843 brigantine Sisters for Hobart Town. Passengers Mr and Mrs Imrie and child. Proof that he had left Nelson. Perhaps there had been a property sale.

Fell & Harley advertise an auction: "To be sold by public auction by Alfred Fell & Co. on Saturday, September 2nd at the store of Mr Walkinshaw, Trafalgar Street North, town section 270, situated in Cambria Street north of the Wood, together with the dwellinghouse erected thereon, now in the occupation of Mr Imrie, containing 3 rooms and passage, brick chimney, oven, fowl and pigeon houses, etc. etc. A considerable portion of the acre is in cultivation, planted and sown, with a ditch and mound fence; it has also the great recommendation of possessing within its bounds a never failing spring of the purest bright water. The premises may be viewed any morning before the sale.

"Also the remaining unsold portion of Section No. 8 Suburban South, closely adjoining the town acres, and within two miles of Trafalgar Square. This very valuable section was selected amongst the earliest choices and presents the most eligible spots for the purposes of the small cultivator, being well supplied with timber for building, fencing and fuel, and with constant streams of pure water. Part of this section has already been sold and occupied, and proves of unquestionable fertility. A map of the district and a plan of the section may be seen at the auctioneers of whom any further particulars may be obtained.

"After which a quantity of household furniture and other effects; amongst which are comprised sofa, chairs, tables, earthenware, iron pots, saucepans, kettles, copper tea kettles and other kitchen utensils; a few books on miscellaneous subjects, spades, potato forks, hoes and other garden implements; a quantity of English-grown onion and turnip seeds, etc., etc. Terms will be furnished at the time of sale, which will commence at 12 o'clock punctually."

Not everything sold at the auction as an account of Fell & Co. lists items sold later on Mr Imrie's behalf: "Seeds, 112lb white clover £5.12.0, 181b lawn 18.0d, 18lb ryegrass 18.0d, 80lb perennial £3.0.0; 1 large crowbar 12.8d, 1 pickaxe 2.0d".

And so John Jennings Imrie exits left, leaving behind a perfect illustration of the perils of family legend. He would have reminsced about his time in Nelson. They were exciting days. The hard times of getting his business established, the drama of the confrontation and deaths in the Wairau, leading to his decision to leave for Australia. The story got embroidered with the passing of time and we see the result.

From the information gathered I could write a much more accurate account of Mr Imrie's sojourn in Nelson than that which appeared in his obituary, but it wouldn't be nearly as much fun.


Fell & Co. Account Book, 1842–1845, Nelson Provincial Museum.

Nelson Examiner, 1842–1843.

Saxton, J. W. Diary 1841–1851, Nelson Provincial Museum.

Sherrin, R. A. Early History of N.Z. Brett, 1890.

Ward, L E. Early Wellington. Whitcombe & Tombs, 1929.