Project Canterbury

Bishop Harper and the Canterbury Settlement

By H. T. Purchas

Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1909.

Chapter VI. First Missionary Tour

"Wherein I spake of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents by flood and field."

According to Her Majesty's Letters Patent, Bishop Harper's diocese was to consist of "all that portion of the Middle Island of New Zealand which lies to the southward of ... the northern boundary of the Canterbury settlement .... and also the Southward Island of New Zealand, and the Auckland Islands, and all the adjacent islands lying to the south of latitude 43° 5' S."

The mention of so many islands might at first suggest that the bishop would be constantly on the sea, and would need, like his friend Selwyn, a mission yacht. This impression, however, would be an erroneous one. The settlement upon the Auckland Islands had already been abandoned owing to the severity of the Antarctic climate, and the "Southward Island of New Zealand" (i.e., Stewart Island) attracted little or no permanent population during the years in which it formed part of Bishop Harper's field of labour.

Putting aside its transmarine dependencies, however, the diocese was yet an extensive one. It included the whole of the provinces of Canterbury and Otago, and the population was scattered along a stretch of country which extended from the Hurunui to Jacob's River. Outside the comparatively small area about Christchurch which (as described in the last chapter) had been mapped out into parishes and provided with clergy, the whole of the inhabited portions of the two provinces went to form the bishop's mission-field. Of course Otago was by no means destitute of religious ordinances. It was as strongly Presbyterian as Canterbury was Anglican, perhaps even more so. But outside Dunedin and one or two smaller centres the country was cut up into large runs, similar to those in South Canterbury; and many of the run-holders, as well as a certain proportion of the townspeople, belonged to the Church of England. These were the scattered sheep of the bishop's flock, and he endeavoured to visit them all. There was one Anglican clergyman (the Rev. J. A. Fenton) already in Otago, but his ministrations were of course confined almost entirely to Dunedin.

It was on July 29th, 1857, that the bishop set off on his first southern visitation. He was mounted on a strawberry-roan horse, "Dick," which had been given him by Bishop Selwyn, who had bought the animal from an Otago settler, Mr. John Jones, and had left him in charge of the Maoris at Moeraki. Earlier in the year the bishop's eldest son had travelled down to Moeraki for the horse, and had thus gained some knowledge of South Canterbury and North Otago. He now accompanied his father and led a packhorse for the conveyance of clothes, books, vestments and communion-plate. The pack-horse was not very good, and was destined to give them some trouble later on. The other horses were of good quality, "Dick" especially being a powerful weight-carrier. But he had two faults. One was that whenever he got loose anywhere he made off at once for the farm in Otago where he had been reared; the other was that he proved to be no swimmer, and objected to the crossing of rivers.

The travellers were furnished with a telescope and pocket compass. These were prime necessaries when the road came to an end a few miles out of town. The scene is thus described by Canon Stack, who traversed it with the bishop two years later.

"Looking southwards an apparently boundless plain stretched away from our feet as level as the sea--of one uniform colour and with one uniform covering of yellow tussock grass. There was nothing between us and the distant horizon to mark the direction in which we had to go, nothing to prevent our straying miles and miles out of our way to the right or to the left of the station we were bound for, or to prevent our missing it altogether. The relative position of the Port Hills to the eastward and of the snowy ranges to the westward for a time afforded a vague clue to our position, but without a compass and a knowledge of the bearings from the starting point, it would have been hopeless to attempt, without a guide, to find any house on the plains that was not in sight from the start, and it was no uncommon thing for travellers to find, after walking or riding all day long, that they were back at night to the very spot from which they set out in the morning. Several lives had been lost in this way. After days of aimless wandering the bewildered wayfarer, overcome by thirst and fatigue, had sunk down in the grass and died."

No such mischances, however, befell the bishop's little party in this region. He followed approximately the line of the present main Southern Railway, visiting the few settlers on the way. The rivers were not high, and were forded without much difficulty. After leaving Mr. Rhodes' Levels Station they made for the seabeach, and struck it at a spot where there was one solitary hut. That hut marked the site of what is now the flourishing town of Timaru, with its capacious artificial harbour, and its towers and spires looking down from the hills above. Strange to think that the younger of the two horsemen who then pursued their solitary way down the coast should have lived to be the chief instrument in building the noble St. Mary's church and bringing it to completion half a century later.

After crossing the broad stream of the Wai-taki,the undulating country of North Otago was reached. The town of Oamaru was not then in existence, but Papakaio, some ten miles off, was a notable meeting-place of Churchmen. From miles around they would gather each Saturday at Mr. Filleul's homestead and discuss the many subjects connected with sheep-farming. On Sunday morning the Church service was read and, after a good dinner, the visitors would disperse to their distant stations. One can imagine the welcome which the bishop would receive from these loyal-hearted men, and especially from Mr. Filleul himself. A Sunday was spent here, and the Holy Communion administered.

At Moeraki the Maori pah was visited, and from this point onwards the country was quite new to both the travellers. All went well, however, till they left behind them the little settlement of Waikouaiti, with the hospitable Cherry Farm where Mr. Jones' flourishing flocks and herds showed the well-established prosperity of the old whaler. From this point onwards to Dunedin the country was exceedingly rough and difficult. There was no road and nothing but a very faint track marked the way up the long sharp ridge to the summit of what was then called the Snowy Mountain, but now Flagstaff Hill. The height is 2,200 feet, and the descent on the Dunedin side was a rocky slope, with patches of bush and occasional drifts of snow. Scrambling down the steep rocks the pack-horse fell and lamed himself. This accident made further progress slow, and the short winter daylight came to an end long before any house was reached. There was nothing for it but to scramble on in the dark as well as might be, but at last the travellers found themselves entangled in a piece of bush, out of which they could find no way at all. Leaving his father and the horses in the bush, Mr. Henry Harper forced his way through the trees on foot, and at last reached a garden fence. This was hopeful, and when, presently, in answer to his knock, a friendly voice addressed him on the verandah, it turned out that he could not have come to a better place. The owner of the voice and of the house was Mr. Cheetham Strode, Resident Magistrate of Dunedin and leading member of the English Church. In a few minutes a rescue party set out with lanterns, the bishop and the horses were found, and the adventures of the way were soon being recounted before a blazing fire. In such fashion did Bishop Harper make his first episcopal entry into the second city of his diocese.

The journey from Christchurch had occupied eighteen days, and they had been days of almost continuous fatigue. But the day of the arrival was a Saturday (August 15th),and there was no time for rest. On the Sunday the bishop preached morning and evening in Mr. Strode's Court-house, which served as a church for the English congregation. On the following Thursday a meeting of Church members was held, at which an address of welcome was read, and on the next day a special meeting of Church officers to organize the finances and to arrange other matters of detail. The bishop was well satisfied with the state of the Church under Mr. Fenton's care. The Presbyterian authorities were not very cordial, but the bishop was well received by the principal laity, and his visits laid the foundation for that feeling of affection with which he was ever afterwards received in Otago.

Ten days were thus occupied in busy pastoral labours, and in the meantime the bishop's son was preparing for the further journey southward. The pack-horse was much too lame to be taken further, and it seemed impossible to procure another. At last one was bought from a farmer in the neighbourhood for the sum of £58. The price was high, but the horse was a far better one than the animal left behind, and there was reason afterwards to be thankful for the change. On the 26th the bishop preached at Tokomairiro (Now Milton), where a faithful lay-reader, Mr. Dewe, held regular services. The Molyneux or Clutha River, whose swift current brings down to the sea the waters of Wanaka and Hawea Lakes, was not too high for fording, and the travellers now found themselves in a country different from any they had seen as yet. The track wound in and out among hills all much like each other and separated by numberless creeks hidden beneath high grass. The bottoms of these were soft and treacherous, so that horses were in danger of being bogged. No mishaps, however, occurred, and the travellers found themselves in due course at a stockman's hut near the bank of the Mataura River. This hut occurs more than once in the narrative of the bishop's journeys, and it may be well to mention that it was situated near where the town of Gore now stands, the place being then known as Tuturau.

The river Mataura is not an easy one to cross, as the bishop was afterwards to find out, and the stockmen at Tuturau warned him not to try to cross it nor attempt the direct route across the Southland Plain. By their advice he turned down the left bank of the river and reached the station of Mr. Menzies, who gave the travellers a night's lodging. At this house they were joined by Mr. Pinkerton, a stock inspector, who was on his way to the Bluff to examine some sheep just landed there. Being an Australian of long experience, he naturally took the lead, and proved a most valuable ally.

Early next morning the travellers set out. Their course still lay down the river till near its mouth they reached the small Maori village of Toe-toe. The Maoris ferried the three men over in their canoes--the horses swimming behind--and then left them to make their way along the beach to the Bluff. The distance was about 22 miles, and they might reasonably expect to reach their destination before dark. On their left was the sea, and on their right the forest extended for some distance. After a few miles, however, the bush disappeared, and the waters of the Waituna Lagoon opened out in the landward direction.

Those who are acquainted with the lagoons on the New Zealand coast are well aware that although they have no regular outlet, their pent-up waters sometimes burst through the barrier which the ocean waves have raised, and rush to the sea with a swift and powerful current. This is what the Waituna Lagoon had just done, and about noon the travellers found themselves in a cul-de-sac,--on the left hand was the sea, on the right the lagoon, and in front the raging torrent. What was to be done? This was the question which they asked themselves anxiously, as they lunched on the provisions which they had brought with them from their last night's stopping-place.

The resourcefulness of Mr. Pinkerton here stood them in good stead. During the afternoon he and Mr. H. Harper undressed and explored the lagoon. They found the water nowhere more than breast-high, but the bottom was too soft for horses. He therefore counselled that they should turn their horses loose, "plant" the baggage as best they could, and make their way on foot through the lagoon towards the Bluff. This seemed the only feasible plan, and they resolved to carry it out next day. After a scanty supper on the remainder of their provisions, the travellers lay down on the beach, and spent the night under the frosty stars.

Next morning they embarked on their adventurous journey. After prayers, but with no breakfast, they stood on the edge of the lagoon in line behind one another, and disrobed. Their clothes were tied round their necks--the bishop's apron and gaiters being thus brought into the close neighbourhood of his tall episcopal hat. Then they began their watery march, the Australian leading the way, the bishop following, and his son last. Keeping well out in the lagoon so as to be clear of the current, they circled round for more than half a mile, and at last stood safely on the beach again. Still keeping their exact order, they waited for the sun to dry their bodies, then dressed themselves and prepared for the walk of eleven miles which lay before them.

Their worst trouble was thirst. They had had nothing to drink the day before except the contents of one flask of weak brandy and water, nor was there any water to be found anywhere along their line of march. They spoke not a word to one another, but plodded on under the hot sun over the sand and stones of the unsheltered coast. Every hour they lay down for a few minutes, but their strength grew less and less. Their tongues swelled and protruded from their mouths. At one point they found a deserted hut. It contained firewood and dry manuka tea, but no water. Evening had set in when at last they descried the ferryman's cottage at Tewaewae Point. The ferryman saw their plight and shouted to his Maori wife to make tea for them, but in the meantime pointed to a pool which he said was fresh. In an instant the three men were on their knees, cooling their tongues in the water, and swallowing it with their parched throats. But the strain was too much for the bishop even with his iron constitution. For some time he lay sick and dizzy on the ground. Did his memory travel then to the green playing-fields of Eton, or to the beautiful home at Mortimer? Did he ask himself whether he had done wisely to leave England's comforts after all? If such a thought presented itself, it was quickly put away, and he never spoke of this incident even to his own family.

The travellers were soon seated at the ferryman's table, though even their famished appetites could not adapt themselves to the oily stew of mutton-birds which formed the principal dish. After crossing the harbour mouth they were hospitably entertained by Captain Ellis at the Bluff. Here they parted with regret from their good friend Pinkerton, who undertook to return by the same way so as to recover the horses and the baggage. This he did, and sent them round by the Maoris to be ready for their owners at a given point on the return journey.

Next day the Bishop and his son arrived at Invercargill. Of course they had no horses, nor any clothes except those they stood up in. The people of Invercargill provided fresh horses and did their best to supply their other wants, but the town was a very small one then--about twenty tiny houses--and the accommodation was somewhat limited. The one hotel was a building with four walls and a thatched roof.

The middle portion served as a general room, and on each side were two small bedrooms. The space above these was left open to the thatch and was filled with sacks of potatoes and other goods. The bishop and his son were both put into one of these bedrooms, as the hostelry was full in every part. During the evening two late-comers arrived. One of them was given a shakedown among the potatoes above the bishop's room, the other--an Irishman--slept on a settee beneath. In the middle of the night a frightful commotion was heard. The sleeper above rolled off his perch and fell plump on the Irishman below, who loudly declared he had done it on purpose, and was only pacified with great difficulty by the landlord.

In this district the bishop stayed for upwards of a fortnight, going as far as Jacob's River, where was a large settlement of Maoris and whalers. A church had been built here under the direction of Bishop Selwyn in 1843. This village was the end of the bishop's long journey, and was about four hundred miles from Christchurch.

From Invercargill the return journey lay across the Southland Plain. Unlike the plains of Canterbury, it presented a series of swamps, diversified with pools of water and with patches of bush. The ground was largely covered with sharp-spiked "Spaniards," and the track was not easy to follow. But the travellers had the help of a mailman's guidance, and reached the half-way settler's house in safety. Here they were snowed in for a day and a half. When the weather cleared their host conducted them to within a short distance of the Mataura, but had to leave them there in order to search for his sheep, buried in the snow-drifts. A hut was being built at this point, and the long-lost horses and baggage were awaiting them. Mounted once more on their own beasts, and primed with careful instructions from their parting guide, they picked their way .successfully through the flax-covered swamp, and soon emerged on the bank of the broad and swift-flowing river. The instructions given to Mr. H. Harper were to proceed up stream for some distance in the shallow water before attempting to cross, but the bishop had not heard the exact description of the crossing-place, and thinking he recognised the landmarks on the opposite bank, turned into the stream too soon. No sooner did his horse lose his foothold of the rocky ledge, which had been his support thus far, than he plunged forward and carried his rider under water. The son who was behind, seeing his father's hat floating down the stream, left his horse, struck out to his father's assistance, and together they faced the foaming flood. The Eton swimming exercises now stood them in good stead. Though carried down some distance by the current they at last succeeded in reaching the opposite bank. But this was "i steep and rocky, and it took all their strength to raise themselves by hands and arms on to a rock, weighed down as they were by the water in their clothes and boots. However, they had crossed the stream, and fortunately the horses had crossed it too, although they had landed on a little island further down and were not recovered without much difficulty. Dripping and exhausted, the Bishop and his son found refuge in the hut at Tuturau, and sat for a day and a half wrapped in red blankets while their clothes were gradually dried before the stockmen's fire.

Even now their difficulties were not over, for the Clutha was hard to cross, and they would have been benighted in a swamp on the other side if the barking of a dog had not guided them to a friendly house. But they reached Dunedin in due course, and found the pack-horse able to travel. After a few days' rest they prepared for the long ride home. The bishop's friend, "Johnny Jones," insisted on escorting them over the Snowy Mountain, which he said was more difficult to cross from the Dunedin side. It was well that they had his assistance, for the passage was no easy matter. The morning was fine when they started, but on the summit a heavy snowstorm enveloped them, and quickly obliterated all the landmarks. Glad, indeed, were they then of the old whaler's knowledge of the country and of the abundant stock of provisions which he produced from his baskets, as they sheltered beneath a rock waiting for the snow to cease. It ceased in time, but rain came on instead, and in the swirling clouds it was hard to identify the ridge which led to their destination. No mistake was made, however, and after some hours the travellers found themselves, soaking and fatigued, at the hospitable Cherry Farm. From this point onwards their journey was unmarked by special incident. They followed their old route northward, driving the two pack-horses before them.

On a fine spring evening in the October of that year, a group of clergy and laity were standing on the bank of the Avon, outside the old St. Michael's parsonage. They included the Revs. Jacobs, Wilson, and Willock, and they lingered to interchange a few last words on some matter of diocesan business which they had met to discuss. As their gaze travelled westward they became aware of the approach of two horsemen, driving two other horses before them. As the strangers drew nearer, the hat of one of them marked him out as the bishop. His clothes were in a lamentable state of dilapidation, and were secured to his person by strips of flax. As to the younger man, all that need be said is that his clothes were not those which he had brought with him from Oxford. But both were well and hearty after their two months and a half of travel, and warm was the welcome they received from the group at St. Michael's gate.

The newspaper interviewer was not an enterprising person in those days, and all he could elicit from the bishop and his son was that the weather had not been very favourable, but that the journey had been accomplished without encountering any extraordinary difficulties! We may be sure, however, that the Bishop's real feelings were those which he generally expressed thus in his diary after his arrival at home:-- "Deo Optimo Maximo sint gratiae per Jesum Dominum nostrum."

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