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The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times

Chapter IV. — Early Days in Auckland

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Chapter IV.
Early Days in Auckland.

Hulme Court—Auckland Grammar School—Boyhood adventures—Maori guests—An oratorical triumph—Refugees on a frigate.


We have seen in the last chapter that in 1855 Sir Dillon Bell with his young family left Wellington to take up residence in Auckland, which was then the seat of Government, and owing to the unsettled state of the Maori tribes, was still garrisoned by British regiments, with all the necessary block-houses, barracks, and fortifications.

The family home was in a rather fine building for those early days, and was known as "Hulme Court," a one-storey stone house with wide verandahs on two sides and two small attic bedrooms with dormer windows. This house was situated well up the Parnell-Newmarket Road, and not far from Bishopscourt. It stood practically alone, with a large paddock below it, and a triangular block above it, between the Parnell Road and St. George's Lane. In the centre of the large

Note.—The quotations in this and the next chapter are summarized from a narrative kindly prepared for me by Mr. Arthur Bell—a younger brother of Sir Francis. Mr. Arthur Bell, who had a distinguished career in New Zealand and Australia as a civil engineer, is now living in retirement in Melbourne.

page 28paddock was a rectangular derelict orchard, enclosed on all sides by high untrimmed hawthorn hedges.

The early education of Bell and his brother, Alfred, was received in the Auckland Grammar School of those days, which was situated half a mile up the Parnell-Newmarket Road from Hulme Court. The Headmaster, Rev. Dr. Kinder, is described as having been "an accomplished scholar and a kindly one, who although he was a fairly strict disciplinarian, had always the respect and confidence of the boys." By his methods of teaching, his pupils attained a fair acquaintance with classics and the rudiments of mathematics, and in both these subjects Bell in later years showed himself to be unusually proficient. The younger boys attended a preparatory school which was in an annexe to the Headmaster's house, and was kept by the Rev. Doctor's sister Miss Kinder.

In addition to taking part in the usual school games, the boys were fortunate enough to live on the edge of practically virgin country, which offered inexhaustible scope for schoolboy explorations and adventure.

"In those days of our boyhood the long slopes and ridges and gullies of Remuera, leading down to the foreshore, were practically a wilderness; there was no occupation of them other than by one or two lonely and widely scattered farmlets, where some early settler was endeavouring to work out some kind of difficult enough living.

"In sequestered pools in certain of the sedgebordered creeks running down the gullies there was to be found a species of native grayling, which were quite good eating, and we would bring them home in triumph.

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"On one occasion we got lost in the wilds of these Remuera slopes, and wandered hopelessly for several hours, and only got out of the mess through Harry eventually hitting on the right direction and leading a very tired lot of boys home in the dark to find mother anxiously watching for us at the little green gate into St. George's Lane."

On another occasion while they were fishing from the Wynyard pier, Francis at the age of ten jumped in and rescued his brother, "for although it was only two or three feet deep, he might easily have come to serious grief as he was a very little fellow."

"On long summer days the whole family would go fishing on the nearer reaches of the Hauraki Gulf. Then we would picnic on one of the small pohutu-kawa-clad islands under the crimson blaze and shade of the great branches stretching over the beach at our feet. As a dessert we would make for the rocks smothered with oysters, in which enticing pursuit Harry would lead the way."


Auckland was then the capital, and Parliament met in a large wooden building on Constitution Hill not far from the gates of Government House. Dillon Bell was, as we have seen, a prominent Member and sometimes a Minister. On one occasion he took his eldest son, Francis, to listen to an important debate and to make his first acquaintance with Parliament.

"When they came home we small fry gathered round the big brother with a cataract of questions as to what he had seen and heard—we thought he would at least have made the speech of the day. In this page 30early experience may have lain the seed of Harry's distinguished career in the Wellington Parliament of later years."

Some incidents of the family contact with Maori chiefs help to explain Bell's deep interest in the problems of the Maori, and in later years he was engaged in many important cases affecting Maori lands.

At the time that Dillon Bell held the portfolio of Minister for Native Affairs, it was his custom occasionally to invite to the mid-day Sunday dinner one or two and sometimes even more of the leading friendly Maori chiefs;

"and the arrival at the house of these stalwart Natives, tattooed over every inch of their brown faces, and sometimes wearing their tribal mats, was always an event for us smaller ones who were not allowed to come to the dinner-table, though Harry was, as Te Pere's (the Maori form of Bell) eldest son. The entry through the front door of one or other of the chiefs would cause a general stampede from the subsidiary dinner-table in the nursery parlour, despite stern admonition from the nurse in charge, to get a peep at him from some corner in the passage or up the attic stairway. In meeting their host the chiefs would gravely give their characteristic greeting of 'rubbing noses,' which the Minister would endure and return with equal gravity. In their behaviour at the dinner-table the inborn tact and dignity of the chiefs would enable them to manage the different courses as they came on, and the cutlery and other table equipment, without committing notable solecisms, and, if they happened to do so, nobody of course took the slightest notice.

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"After dinner was over there would be important koreros (meetings) with the Minister on questions of moment affecting Native affairs; and on the departure of the chiefs they would be followed by us at a respectful and wary distance to the front gate.

"Ordinary Maoris would not infrequently call at Hulme Court with flax kits containing a hundred or more luscious peaches from trees that had sprung up from stones thrown out by missionaries at a Native village, which they would sell for 'hick-a-penny' (sixpence): and when one was purchased for us there would be a scrambling and messy feast amongst us children, characterized by anything but the dignity that marked the behaviour of the chiefs at the Sunday dinner-table."


But relations with the Maoris were not always so genial. On one occasion, Dillon Bell and John Gorst (then Editor of a small paper printed in Maori and later a British Cabinet Minister), went to the King-country to persuade a doubtful and discontented tribe to abstain from joining up with tribes that were at war with us.

"When the meeting took place the attempts of the two emissaries to persuade them met with but little success; there were murmurings and unfriendly greetings, and the leading chiefs gathered in a group a little aside with an ominous enough bearing, the semicircle of seated Natives remaining silent, and the two emissaries watching and speculating as to what might be the outcome of the deliberations of the knot of chiefs. From it emerged at length the principal chief, and the emissaries were led to believe from what he announced that the decision had been against page 32them, and that their lives were even in danger, but that before any steps were taken—and the chief brandished his greenstone war-weapon threateningly —they would be allowed to speak for their lives: and the chiefs and their followers ranged themselves in their wonted semicircle in keenly attentive attitude, for there is nothing the Maori loves and appreciates more than oratory and harangue in all their varied forms.

"Mr. Gorst spoke first, but, though he had fair command of the Native language, his temperament was essentially academic (he was a Master of Arts of Cambridge University), and his speech failed to make effective impression, as was indicated by the more or less ominous silence and gestures of the Natives. When he sat down the Minister rose to speak. Now our father had been nigh twenty years in the Colony, for a good part of them in positions connected with Native affairs, and had acquired complete proficiency in the Maori language, and could speak it as fluently as English, and was moreover naturally eloquent, as was more than manifest by his speeches in the New Zealand Parliament, As his words flowed on, marked by many of the quite special features of the Maori tongue, and its poetical forms of expression, there were many signs of approval from his hearers; and when the impassioned peroration had fallen from his lips, the semicircle rose to its feet as one man, chiefs and all, and with shouts and friendly gestures of every kind gathered round the two emissaries, completely won over. They were taken into the tribal council-house, where a feast after true Maori fashion was held, and further amic-page 33able speeches made; and the next morning, as they set out for the return to Auckland, they found themselves accompanied by an armed escort from the tribe which saw them safely back into the Pakeha settlements.


"The Imperial Regiments then quartered in Auckland sometimes came marching up the road from Lower Parnell. That was the time of scarlet tunics and shakos and pipeclay, and the soldiers were in full war panoply, the officers (some of them mounted) in brilliant jackets and sashes and swords, and the march being led by the band Sergeant-major with his rapidly-twirling ornamental staff—a person-age in the general show that absolutely fascinated us youngsters; we considered him infinitely more important than the Commanding Officer on his charger, himself and his staff—they were mere 'also marcheds' to us compared with the gorgeously-clad Sergeant-major.

"On one occasion when the troops had marched out twenty-five miles to a disturbed region, a hostile Maori force set out to attack Auckland, but warning was given by a settler's lad who galloped to the city while his brother galloped in the opposite direction to warn the troops about to bivouac for the night. The citizens took refuge in the block-houses. But all we younger children were roused from our beds in the dead of night, bundled hastily into some clothes and wraps, and taken by the nurse-maids into St. George's Lane. In the murk of night we children stumbled or were carried down the length of the lane (some-where about three-quarters of a mile) to the little page 34sandy bay (Mechanic's Bay now) on the foreshore. The stable-boy had been sent in advance to make sure that one of the fishermen's boats should be in readiness. Into this the little party of escapees were marshalled and rowed out by a couple of hefty fishermen to H.M.S. Curacoa, one of the old-type wooden frigates then on guard in Waitemata Harbour, and brought alongside her chequered black and white sides and gunports, not a little to the astonishment of the officer of the watch and the blue-jackets of it leaning over the rails at the sight of such unusual visitors in the night hours. Finding accommodation in the small frigate for such an unwonted species of visitors arriving in the middle of the night was a bit of a puzzle solved by the never failing ingenuity of British man-of-war's men. In this safe shelter we remained for the better part of next day, and were then taken off in style, to our huge delight, in the Curacoa's gig, manned by half a dozen stalwart blue-jackets and taken home again, for a message had been brought to the Captain of the frigate that all was safe in the city."


In later life Bell's political and legal work often took him to Auckland, and he sometimes expressed a wish to live there in old age. "You are lucky," he wrote to his brother, Arthur, in 1918, "to live in Auckland in these beastly winters—I often think of going north to end my days. Sit meae sedes utinam senectae Sit modus lasso maris et viarum militiaeque (Oh! Would that here might be my resting-place in mine old age—here the end of weary journeyings by sea and land and all this fighting (meaning the War).)