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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 5, 1993

Bernard Gapper: The Life & Times of an Early Settler

page 27

Bernard Gapper: The Life & Times of an Early Settler

This story was instigated primarily by an enquiry from visitors from the United States of America. On 12 July 1990 Gordon and Evelyn Gapper called at the Richmond Information Centre, explaining that they were from Flint in Michigan. They were here in Nelson to walk the Abel Tasman Park track. Gordon Gapper believed that his ancestors had lived in this area in the early years of colonisation, and that one of them had been named Richmond after the borough. Subsequent research uncovered a very interesting story about his ancestors' advent in Nelson's early history.

The Gapper family was amongst the passengers on board the Clifford on its arrival in Nelson on 11 May 1842. Its members were Bernard Gapper aged 35, a farm labourer, his wife Mary, 39, and their children Francis, 13, Edward, 11, Mary, 7, Anna Eunice, 1 and baby Amelia who was 6 weeks old. The family was from Stoke under Ham, near Yeovil in Somerset. Although Gapper's occupation was given as farm labourer, he had been running a grocery and drapery store, and a poster advertising his sale of stock before departure is held at the Nelson Provincial Museum.

The Clifford's voyage out to New Zealand was not altogether a happy one, being beset with an assortment of troubles, sickness, personal grievances and jealousy. These were of such magnitude that when Captain Arthur Wakefield was informed, he accused some passengers of having been small minded and inconsiderate grumblers of the highest order. Bernard Gapper had been appointed assistant to the surgeon for the voyage and Dr Hughes stated that, although he had had a most difficult office to administer, Gapper had behaved with good temper and shown great commonsense.

Gapper undertook the job of a police constable in the town and took part in the illfated expedition to the Wairau in June 1843. He was shot in his right hand during the affray, ultimately losing the use of it for the rest of his life. He managed to get down to the sea coast to rejoin the brig Victoria, and spent some time in Wellington Hospital getting treatment for his smashed hand.

On his return from the Wairau, Gapper was dismissed from the Police and became a storekeeper in Bridge Street. John Saxton commented in October 1843 that the store was in Old Sam's house, which had been the first to be built in Nelson. This was probably Samuel Newport, who Saxton usually referred to as Old Newport.

Gapper sought various government posts and was postmaster and signalman for a time. In April 1848 he applied for a position in the Post Office or Customs Department, and was offered one as a messenger to the Colonial Secretary's Office. After initially accepting, he turned it down and in 1849 became Landing waiter in the Customs Department.

The Gapper family had grown with the birth of two more sons, Carrington in 1844 and Theophilus in 1849. By this time he owned land at Appleby, which his two eldest sons were developing. The area had been named after the home of Jacob Batey, a friend from the voyage of the Clifford, who came from Appleby, in Westmoreland. The land was of a very swampy nature and extended from Landsdowne Road to Swamp Road and down to the tidal flats. At the 1849 census, thirtyfour acres had been cleared and sown in wheat, oats, and barley, and there were 18 cattle and 34 sheep on the property.

By 1855 Bernard Gapper had retired from the Customs Department and the family were living on Axe Farm. An insight into life on the farm is provided by a journal, which page 28
Bernard Gapper Tyree Studio Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum

Bernard Gapper Tyree Studio Collection, Nelson Provincial Museum

Gapper kept between 1858 and 1867, and which is also in the archives of the Nelson Provincial Museum. It is an old type accounts book, ruled off from top to bottom, with the columns showing the name or initials of the individuals concerned, the day of the week and then a wide column headed observations.

The entries show a meticulous attention to detail, recording work done on the farm, or for neighbours, such as cutting rushes, thrashing at Giffords, fetching the reaper and ploughing and thatching. The workers named include Gapper and his sons, and also Henry Withy, John Griffin, Sydney Hains and Oscar Palmer. The effects of heart disease brought Bernard Gapper's active work on the farm to an end in 1863. Subsequent entries for his activities are blank or have the word sick.

Sheep were grazed on Rabbit Island and there are references to work on the Island. Carrington Gapper occasionally went to the Amuri to work for William McRae. In 1860 the youngest son, Theophilus, went to board at Mr Packer's school run by the Nelson School Society at Hope. There is a list of the boy's clothing outfit, from cape and boots to belts, comforters, slippers and toothbrush. In 1866 he refers to the February flooding, the water higher by 8 inches than at any other time, being 3 inches deep in the bedroom and 4 inches in the dining room.

page 29

The journal also includes recipes for curing a cough or cold, for curing a cow with sore teats, for softening putty and for blueing or browning gun barrels. A black oil for sprains includes compound tincture of myrrh, linseed and turps. Life on the farm wasn't all work, and there are references to cricket and rifle shooting, and even the words to a song – Mrs Savoir's volunteer song The Two Barrels. The song describes the barrel in the corner, full of ale, and that hanging in readiness by the chimney, and ends:

And whether the spigot or trigger we draw
Our barrels won't fail us, I mean
So tankards or rifles let's charge, hip hurrah
For freedom, our country and Queen

The entries also itemize money paid for labour or goods, and received for the sale of stock. The receipts include payments for board and lodging from the Government for Jane Hope between 1861 and 1863. Her story was told in the 1989 Journal.

Bernard Gapper had apparently received a reasonable education in his youth as, throughout his life in Nelson, his allround knowledge and organising ability were in constant demand. He was a staunch follower of the Methodist Church and was a circuit steward. Gapper is recorded as giving unstinted time and aid to members of this faith, as well as to many others in the Nelson settlement. He helped members of the church in Motueka with the building of their place of worship.

Bernard Gapper died in his 64th year on 31 August 1869 and lies in the Appleby churchyard. Mary Gapper lived to the age of 91, dying on 13 December 1892, and is buried with her husband. Their youngest daughter, Amelia, married Thomas Rogers and the Axe Farm property then passed down through the Rogers family.

Gordon Gapper, whose enquiry sparked this research, was found to be descended from the Gapper's eldest son, Francis Henry, who married Julia Slatter. It is unfortunate that Evelyn and Gordon Gapper did not make contact again to learn the fascinating story of their Nelson ancestors.