Feb 16, 2008

Fleshin' Out Dem Dry Bones

Republished here for the first time since 1856 The Progress of Canterbury : A Letter Addressed to Joseph Thomas, Esq., Late Principal Surveyor and Acting Agent of the Canterbury Association is a 7,422 word pamphlet in the form of an open letter from one of the more unusual Shagroons to his long term friend; an even more unusual sort of chap.

Bob Waitt and his chum Joe Thomas arrived at Wellington in 1840. Robert Waitt (1816-1866), a 24 year old canny Scot settled at what was then known as Te Aro Beach, establishing himself as a General Merchant, Agent, Auctioneer, Importer, Exporter and Coastal Trader. Joseph Thomas (1803-1881), a former Army Captain, joined the survey staff of the New Zealand Company.

Described as an engaging character the eccentric Waitt, a Wellington Municipal Councilor by 1842, sealed his letters with a neat Dinna Forget in place of the usual crest or monogram. In 1850 he opened a branch of his business at Lyttelton and by 1854 had also leased the Motunau station from Edward Greenwood. To the North of the Waipara River, and then known as Double Corner, he renamed it Teviotdale Station (in his text Waitt refers to Motunau as Motinua).

Fellow run holder Charles Cox described him as a red-faced man with tow-like white hair, large prominent tusks of teeth, and abundant evidence of being addicted to tobacco for chewing purposes. A picturesque story-teller, his friends are said to have known him as "white-headed Bob, the liar."

At some time between 1854 and 1857 Waitt purchased the 50 acre Casterton estate in the Heathcote Valley from the Reverend Robert Paul, where he is described as a Gentleman by 1860 - a presumption that would probably have invited ridicule in his native Jedburgh. He died, aged 50, in 1866 and is buried in Christchurch's Barbadoes Street Cemetery. Survived by only one of his three children, he was thereby the grandfather of Leo Acland, author of the renowned The Early Canterbury Runs.

The ostensible recipient of Waitt's loquacious paean led the Canterbury Association's 1848 preliminary expedition. Acting as the first resident Agent and Principal Surveyor he appears to have offended many of the 110 Europeans employed in the early development of the Theocratic Utopia. Said to be overbearing, unreliable and impulsive, the large, burly and bespectacled Thomas was unable to brook advice or opposition.

The opinion of his assistant Edward Jollie was that Thomas was not altogether in his right mind, "...he had had so many losses from putting trust in other people's honesty that he had become suspicious of everyone. He was however a very honest and hard working administrator of affairs for the Association..."

Joseph Thomas' boss arrived at Lyttelton in April 1850, expressing dissatisfaction at what he considered the excessive expenditure on some of the works which Thomas had thought necessary. The eventual consequence being that Thomas left the Province in January 1851, departing the colony permanently in the following year.

Perhaps one of the least fortunate aspects of his legacy was a refusal to allow his assistant to include broad avenues and crescents in the city plan, describing them as mere "Gingerbread."

However, Waitt's contemporary perspective on the early development of the Province makes for an interesting read.

The Progress of Canterbury : A Letter Addressed to Joseph Thomas, Esq., Late Principal Surveyor and Acting Agent of the Canterbury Association

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