Felton Mathew. Plan of the City of Wellington, Port Nicholson, New Zealand 1841

Felton Mathew. Plan of the City of Wellington. Felton Mathew. Plan of the City of Wellington, Port Nicholson, New Zealand 1841

There was tension from the start between the Colonial Office of the British Government and the New Zealand Company formed by London-based speculator Edward Gibbon Wakefield in the late 1830s. The Government’s officers believed that Wakefield’s land-purchasing, city-building schemes went too far in usurping the prerogatives of the Crown. Wakefield, for his part, was loath to have his ambitious programme of planned immigration hampered by legislation. He moved fast to ensure that his corporation had substantial holdings in New Zealand before the imminent annexation by the Crown. In May 1839 he dispatched an advance party, led by his brother William, on the company’s barque Tory to Port Nicholson (now better known as Wellington Harbour) to buy land from Māori chiefs. Three further ships followed in September, carrying the first batch of migrants. By the time the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in February 1840 Wellington was already a growing concern.

Not only did New Zealand’s first lieutenant governor, William Hobson, question the legality of the Wakefields’ acquisitions, he further incensed the Wellington settlers by choosing Auckland (yet to be built) as the colonial capital rather than their own quickly expanding township. As historian Philip Temple notes in his acclaimed 2003 biography of the Wakefield family A Sort of Conscience, the atmosphere when Hobson first visited Wellington in August 1841 was one of ‘contest rather than co-operation’.

Edward Jerningham Wakefield (son of Edward Gibbon), who came to New Zealand with his uncle aboard the Tory, is relentlessly scathing about Hobson in his memoir Adventure in New Zealand. He says that when the local Māori people saw the lieutenant-governor’s brig sailing into Wellington harbour, they laughed at ‘the diminutive size and slovenly appearance of the craft, which certainly did look small among the two large emigrant barques, an American whaler, and two or three fine brigs and schooners lying near her’.

Travelling with Hobson aboard the ‘diminutive’ vessel was the acting Surveyor-General of New Zealand, Felton Mathew, who drew a plan of the fledgling city, showing allotments. In spite of the mutual hostility and suspicion, it does not differ much from the contemporaneous plan drawn by the New Zealand Company’s surveyor, William Mein Smith. The version now housed in the Library is thought to be one of the manuscript office copies made by Mathew; he would have sent the master copy back to the Colonial Office in England.

Early as Mathew’s plan is, modern viewers who know Wellington’s central business district will recognise many street names. In 1841, however, Lambton Quay (named after the New Zealand Company’s first chairman of directors, John Lambton, Earl of Durham) was the high-water line on the foreshore. Shopkeepers in the 1840s often had to contend with tidal flood damage. The contours of the shoreline were altered by a major earthquake in 1855. Following further reclamation, Lambton Quay is now about 250 metres from the sea, with other thoroughfares in between.

Related resources: A sort of conscience : the Wakefields by Philip Temple. 

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